I’m in awe of the depth and breadth of Edmund de Waal’s knowledge of porcelain. His expertise is such that he can not only speak at length about obscure porcelain legends, but he can also use that knowledge view history through an entirely new lens.
Above image: A bivouac bowl and its original box. Photograph from Alamy.
Case in point: the Nazis were apparently fond of porcelain figurines. Yes, in addition to Wagner, the occult and Himmler’s ridiculous obsession with King Arthur, the Nazis were porcelain fanatics. In that medium (gleaming white, as you might have guessed) they found a way to praise German nationalism through art. They made their own factory to produce the works and to hear de Waal describe it, the Allach factory was almost like a propaganda arm of the Nazi party. Himmler wove the works into his other esoteric interests, perhaps in an attempt to nurture his brand of culture.
“Having your own porcelain factory allowed you to give gifts. In Himmler’s SS there were interminable rites of gift giving. Alfred Rosenberg, the theoretician of the party, was hard at work creating new rituals, new arcana to embed the people in their culture. Christmas became Julfest, an ersatz Nordic winter celebration, with sacred fire and candles and music. So Allach made Julleuchter – yule lanterns – to sit on the festive tables and glow as the family celebrated the new year, the new start for their country.
“Birthdays and weddings and the birth of a child to SS members all warranted presents of Allach porcelain. And there were porcelain bowls for presentation at the party rallies at Nuremberg, sporting medals, plaques to celebrate the Anschluss, a presentation vase to Hitler for his 50th birthday in 1939, huge white vases for the niches of the Chancellery. Who could have foreseen such demand for porcelain?”
They loved porcelain so much that when production at Allach was suspended due to the war, the Nazis moved the factory to Dachau concentration camp, where artisans were plucked from the prisoners and forced to craft the stuff. De Waal quotes the testimony of one prisoner who may owe his life to the fact that he could make horse figurines.
“Chilling” comes to mind. It’s a word that gets thrown around almost to the point of being trite when you start to describe the Nazis, but what other descriptor could one use? We profile works that look exactly like these by the hundreds on CFile and it would take a trained eye to separate those innocent ceramics from ones made at a death camp. At one point in the video de Waal opens an accounting ledger from Allach and starts to read the names of officers who were requesting bespoke pieces. Some of the most recognizable, most despicable ogres mankind has ever produced just had to have an adorable porcelain tea set. One of the stag figurines that graced the mantelpieces of SS soldiers was actually titled Bambi. Banality of evil, indeed.
Thanks to de Waal’s scholarship I’m left wondering, “Who the hell were these people?” And that’s an extremely valuable form of confusion. I’ve proudly killed thousands of Nazis in videogames and not a one of them would own things like this. We always run the risk of mythologizing evil, to Otherize it to the point that we assume it can’t be present and share the same space with us. That’s not the case. Monsters eat, sleep, breathe, love music, and appreciate art just like real people do.
The uncomfortable reality is that monsters are lurking within our cultural sphere. They may be searching for ways to pervert art to justify their own grotesque ideologies. That’s a favorite a tactic for Nazis, who in recent memory have glommed on to counterculture movements such as punk. It behooves us to be on the lookout for similar threads that could arise in contemporary art.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of cfile.daily.
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