The seventh of September 1934, Nuremberg, Zeppelin field; Adolf Hitler steps up to a podium surrounded by microphones and swastika flags, singularly orating the Nazi ideology to an estimated 200,000 supporters (Wilson, 2012;42)- an iconic symbol of the Nazi state. The Nuremburg Rallies were large scale state rituals performed from 1933 to 1938 (Nuremberg Municipal Museums, A, n.d), where the Nazi Party presented their ideology through a series of military parades, government speeches, and firework displays (Historyplace.com, n.d). As a result of Chancellor Hindenburg’s death, ‘Der Parteitag der Einheit Und Starke (The Rally of Unity and Strength)’ was the first party rally led by Hitler, running from the 4th to the 10th of September 1934 (Wilson, 2012;40). It can be argued that the Nuremburg Rallies were ritualised performances, riddled with prophetic language (Lahman, 2010;39) and vibrant spectacles of theatricality (Reed, 2012;74). Whilst looking at the structure, functions and first-hand experiences of the 1934 Rally, this essay investigates how, ‘the banner of the Third Reich’ sought to indoctrinate and unify Germany (ibid;76), considering its intensity, audience interaction, and performance sequences.
Before investigating the Nuremburg Rallies’ stance as a semi-religious ritualised performance, it is important to understand the entire sequence of the annual event. An ethnographic field work study is not possible within this paper, due to its historical context. However, the Rallies’ intensity, relationship between Hitler and Germany, and ritualised elements within the performances, can be analysed and evaluated using a plethora of first person accounts. Furthermore, Hitler commissioned Leni Riefenstahl to produce the propaganda film, Triumph des Willens- Triumph of the Will, (Riefenstahl, 1935) to document the 1934 Rally, meaning original footage can be accessed. Despite these being subjective resources, they give a comprehensive understanding of the atmosphere and structure of the Nuremburg Rallies and can be supported with sufficient historical detail and factual consideration.
The Nuremburg Rallies were ‘meticulously planned’ (Piper, 2008). Information on personalised travel arrangements, locations and times of departure, meal coupons, and accommodation were mailed two weeks in advance (Burden, 1967;23). This regimented planning ensured efficiency. The 1934 Rally consisted of awe inspiring displays (Herlihy, 2015;7) featuring Hitler, Nazi Party officials, members of the ‘SA and SS, the Reich Labour Service, the Hitler Youth, the League of German Girls, and the Wehrmacht’ (Nuremberg Municipal Museums, B, n.d.), as well as ‘hundreds of thousands’ (ibid) of visitors and supporters. Each annual rally followed a similar structure. A guide to the 1934 Annual Party Congress is shown below, depicting the detailed and regimented events across the week:
Tuesday, September 4:
Day of Greeting
Reception for the international press in the Germanic Museum. Speaker: Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl.
Press reception in the Kulturvereinshaus.
Speaker: Dr. Otto Dietrich.
Reception for Hitler’s arrival at the City Hall. Speakers: Oberbürgermeister Liebel; Adolf Hitler.
Wednesday, September 5: Day of the Opening of the Congress
Congress meeting in the Luitpold Hall. Speakers: Rudolf Hess; Julius Streicher.
Reading of Hitler’s Proclamation for the Party Congress.
Meeting on cultural problem in the Apollo Theatre. Speakers: Alfred Rosenberg; Adolf Hitler.
Thursday, September 6: Day of the Reich Labour Service
Review of the Labour Service on the Zeppelinwiese. Speakers: Konstantin Hierl; Adolf Hitler.
Congress meeting in the Luitpold Hall. Speakers: Robert Ley; Joseph Goebbels; Adolf Wagner.
Friday, September 7: Day of the Political Organizations
Review of the political organizations on the Zeppelinwiese. Speakers: Robert Ley; Adolf Hitler.
Congress meeting in the Luitpold Hall. Speaker: Walter Darré.
Meeting of the National Socialist Association for Aid to War Victims (NSKOV) at the Kulturvereinshaus. Speaker: Oberlindober.
Saturday, September 8: Day of the Hitler Youth
Review of the Hitler Youth in the Youth Stadium. Speakers: Baldur von Schirach; Adolf Hitler.
Meeting of the Women’s Association, in the Luitpold Hall. Speaker: Adolf Hitler.
Meeting of the Labour Service leaders in the Kulturvereinshaus. Speaker: Konstantin Hierl.
Sunday, September 9: Day of SA and SS
Review of the SA and SS in the Luitpold Arena. Speakers: Adolf Hitler; Viktor Lutze.
Monday, September 10: Day of the Army
Congress meeting in the Luitpold Hall. Speaker: Adolf Hitler.
Figure I. – Annual Party Congress 1934 Schedule. (Worldfuturefund.org, n.d.)
Rituals are stylised, repetitive, and stereotyped, occurring at special places and at specific times or under specific circumstances (Rappaport, 1979;175). The Rallies occurred every September in the historical city of Nuremburg. Although central topics differed, they conformed to a general structure, featuring repetitive ritualised elements with important cultural significance and meaning. Nazi ideology was projected through powerful oratory and performance, to rouse and unite Nazi supporters as a community, provoking strong nationalistic feelings in the hope of overcoming Germany’s post World War One depression. Wilson (2012;42) describes the week’s events as dynamic and mesmerising, with the Nazi party an, ‘irresistible force,’ (ibid) revered by a nation looking for the revival of Germany’s economic pride. Although the Rally was carefully structured, as seen in the program (Figure I), spontaneous events ignited the nationalist and patriotic atmosphere. Shirer reported that whilst in Nuremburg, he got caught in around 10,000 people outside Hitler’s hotel, calling, ‘We want our Fuhrer!’ (Shirer, 1942;17). Shirer wrote, ‘I was a little shocked at the faces,’ looking to Hitler as if he was the Messiah; ‘their faces transformed into something positively inhuman’ (ibid;18). This first-person account shows the social power that Hitler and the Nazi’s held, suggesting an intense follower-leader relationship. Schechner’s Efficacy-Entertainment Braid (2013;80), suggests that strong audience participation, observation and belief, together connotes aspects of performative ritual, suggesting Hitler’s appearance was audience-performer orientated. Furthermore, the idea of ‘inhuman’ suggests the participants were in a state of possession and trance, a result of ritual in action (ibid). Kershaw (2001-B), discusses the Nuremburg Rallies as a definite cultural performance, displaying Germany’s social situation at the time. While using Schechner’s Dyad theory, this focus on the “here and now” of Germany, seemingly contrasts with the incorporation of the timeless feel of a political party shaping a nation, connoting a combination of ritual and performance (2013:80). Bell describes how ritual is the, ‘deliberate, self-conscious ‘doing’ of highly symbolic actions in public,’ with a ‘performative dimension’, absorbing audiences into a sensory experience (Bell, 1997;160). This description cements the entire Nuremburg Rally as ritual with a strong performative dimension; shown through documented close-ups of marches, cheering audiences, historical monuments and detailed architecture (Triumph of the Will, 1935).
Many scholars have argued the true definition of ritual. Are they the, ‘fundamental basis for human culture’ (Holcomb, 2002;42)? Do they qualify as ‘symbolic and performative’ actions (Possel, n.d.)? The dictionary states that ritual is a, ‘religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order’ (Ritual, 2006). However, with scholars now considering ritual within performing arts, sports, and everyday life (Schechner, 2013;52), to what extent does this definition lack scope? According to Anthony Wallace’s classification of rituals, the Nuremburg Rallies would be an Intensification Rite- an ideological ritual, where group equilibrium and solidarity is maintained to control behaviour (Wallace, 1966); or a Revitalisation Rite- solving an entire community’s crisis (ibid). The Third Reich’s dictatorship strived to create a better Germany, promote Aryan ideals and restore Germany’s identity crisis by controlling behaviour. This was a key function and goal of the Nuremburg Rallies.
In this study, the bounds by which ritual is recognised is based upon Durkheim’s fundamental components, seen in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1954). Furthermore, I will acknowledge the sequence of activities, gestures, speech, and objects (Turner, 2012;1100), which enhanced emotional energy and projected Nazi ideology. Holcomb (2002;41), condenses Durkheim’s work to highlight ritual’s fundamental components: a group’s assembly; a focus of attention, a mutual awareness of mood, and sacred objects. Therefore, the Nuremberg Rallies can be viewed as ritual due to the masses of nationalistic and devoted supporters who flocked to Nuremberg. They shared a collective awareness and worship of Nazism, Hitler, and Germany, with ‘adoring roars of “Heil!” (Schechner, 2013;216), colourful flags and other symbolic Nazi paraphernalia. Triumph of the Will (1935), effectively documents and consolidates the ritualistic elements found in the 1934 Nuremburg Rally.
The gestural Hitler salute is constantly repeated, binding Nazi supporters together with a common action and ideology; the audience-performer relationship is strong, which Schechner (2013;30) describes rituals to include. In amongst a sea of flags, Riefenstahl (Triumph des Willens, 1935), consistently floods her footage with the once Anglican associated swastika flag (World Media Rights, n.d), both in the foreground and as a background symbol. Figure II exhibits the flag strung up, creating a large symbolic backdrop. This symbol allows the Nuremburg Rallies to be seen as a form of political ritual. These rituals were a, ‘major means for propagating,’ Nazi political myths (Kertzer, 1988;13), in order to, ‘solidify feelings of belonging to one community and a single cause’ (Lahman, 2010;51). This suggests connections to Wallace’s definition of Intensification and Revitalisation rites (Wallace, 1966;PGNO), furthering the Rally’s qualification as ritual. One must question if the Nazi’s use of ritual and symbolism was the lead factor for their consolidation of power, as discussed by Holcomb (2002). Indeed, ritualised elements, such as gestures and regimented military parades, were repeatedly used at the Nuremburg Rallies to heighten emotions, strengthen the party’s ideologies and create an ‘illusion of social cohesion’ (Lahman, 2010;53). Moreover, Hitler was idolised as the, ‘Hero-Leader’, shaping the nation’s destiny (ibid) and solidifying feelings of communitas and community cohesion, as a means of striving towards a better Germany. The high status and the follower-leader relationship maintained (Sinclair, 1938;570), is seen through repetitive and rigid displays of devotion to Hitler, as Triumph of the Will documents (1935). This was a Revitalisation ritual, as the Nazi’s attempted to control the behaviour of an entire community, striving for racial domination (Kershaw, 2001- A), lead by the prophetic figure of Hitler.
A further ritualistic element within the Nuremberg Rallies, was the Honouring of the Dead ceremony, which shares specific conventions with other memorial ceremonies across the world, such as the British Legion Festival of Remembrance. Despite the RBL memorial being dedicated to remembering and respecting our soldiers, the Honouring of the Dead memorial was only a small element of the Nuremburg Rally. Figure III. details the similarities between these ritualised memorial sequences, allowing the Nuremburg Rallies to be viewed as a ‘ritualistic procedure’ (Merriam-Webster Incorporated, n.d), and a combination of a Rite of Revitalisation and Intensification rituals. Schechner’s Efficacy-Entertainment Braid (2013;80) can be applied
here, fulfilling the conventions of being highly valued, with high audience appreciation, observation, participation and belief, with a focus on history and present day. Goals to ‘solidify feelings of belonging to one community’ (Lahman, 2010;51), with a ‘shared understanding of intention and content’ (Alexander, 2011;25) are identified.
The Totenehrung- Honouring the Dead. Party Congress 1934, Memorial. (Source: Berry, 2014,
unless otherwise stated)
RBL Festival of Remembrance. 2018.
(Source: BBC ONE, 2018, unless otherwise stated)
Remembrance of German soldiers who died, especially those in the 1923 Munich Putsch, who were given a martyr like status (Lehman, 2010;53).
Remembrance of all British soldiers who fought during World War One, not just those who died. It has since evolved into a commemoration ceremony for conflicts both past and present.
Annual event occurring every September
Annual event occurring every 11th November
Silent and solemn moments
Moments of silent remembrance, however, the whole event is celebratory and uplifting, a feeling created through the use of lights and stirring music.
Uniformed, regimented ranks and large crowds gathered in the Luitpold Arena
Uniformed, regimented ranks and large crowds gathered in the Royal Albert Hall
Music of marching military bands
Music of military bands as well as recent artists (e.g. Sir Tom Jones)
Wreaths and pins of the Poppy
British flags. Flags from specific regiments across the country and the commonwealth
Salutes to the Fuhrer
Salutes to the Queen by removing headdress
Hitler, Himmler and Lutze walked between the crowds to pay their respects at the Ehrenhalle (War Memorial) (Wilson, 2012;49)
Important people and groups parade between the rows of soldiers
Blutfahne (Blood Banner) carried by SS Sturmbannfuhrer (Major) Jakob Grimminger (ibid)
Torch of Remembrance carried by flight lieutenant Matthew Smith – a focal point and symbol of honour and remembrance.
Nazism as a political religion has been highly debated due to the religious iconography seen at the Nuremberg Rallies; whereby ‘religion in action’ (Wallace, 1966- page no) connotes ritual. Schechner tells how, ‘many state ceremonies approximate or include religious ritual’ (2013;53), evidencing the thorough intertwinement of sacred and secular elements in many ceremonies and rites, communicating doctrine and moulding individuals; a key function of the Rallies. Many religious movements and political rulings have a central hive. The Nazi’s redesigned the historical urban landscape of Nuremburg to accommodate for the mass Rallies, idealising it as a city bursting with political greatness (Hagen and Ostergren, 2006). In September 1934, Nazi supporters flocked, as if on a pilgrimage, to the heart of the movement, participating in ceremonies and parades (Historyplace.com, n.d). During a time of inhumanity, it can be argued that the mechanics of Nazism were not run by Hitler alone, sharing responsibility with the chaotic political and social situation within Germany, such as long-standing anti-Semitism (Brustein and King, 2004). This adheres to Schechner’s theory of the political state playing the ‘role of the transcendent or godly other’ in ‘quasi-religious performance(s)’ (Schechner, 2013;53), which the 1934 Rally can aspire to. Contrary to this, scholars have evaluated Hitler’s central position as a “god-like” figure and ‘underlying driving force’ (Kershaw, 2001-560- A); associating Hitler with god, and Nazism with religion. Hitler was viewed as Germany’s messiah and saviour during this period of plummeting economy, high unemployment and past weak government. After the 1933 Enabling Law, allowing the German Cabinet to make laws without the Reichstag and Reichsrat (Weikart, 2016), power was consolidated. Hitler had absolute dominance, with many German’s believing only he could elevate them from troubled times (Lahman, 2010;44). Goring’s comment reflects this widespread outlook; ‘Today the entire nation, the entire people feel strong and happy, because in you not only the Fuhrer but also the saviour of the nation has appeared’ (1936- FIND). The Nazification of Germany flourished after the Enabling Law was passed, educational and social life was increasingly controlled (Layton, 2005;13) and Hitler was able to secure his personal dictatorship. Moreover, by July 1934, the German army swore an oath of loyalty to Hitler, not the state, seeing the regime abide by a common practise with religious origins, furthering its similarity to religious ritual. Triumph of the Will (1935), evidences Hitler’s godly position through the opening shots of his aircraft dismounting through the clouds, as if from heaven. Performance crosses with religion here, as Hitler’s impressive entrance corresponds to that of the traditional entrance of gods in opera: Desus ex Machina, and from the theatrical Greek tradition of lowering the ‘god’ onto the stage (Reed, 2012;77). This infers that Hitler sent from heaven to the, ‘theatrical stage of the Nuremburg Rally Grounds’ (ibid) to ‘save the heroic, loyal Germans from the threats facing them’ (ibid). They ‘looked up at him as if he were a Messiah’ (Shirer, 1942;24) and a powerful political entity in times of need (Akland;12). Historian’s suggest this adoration for Hitler acted as ‘a substitute for devotion to God’ (ibid;iv), as a sign of the ‘regime’s inherent opposition to Christianity’ (ibid), despite the Rallies featuring Christian and Pagan derived ritual elements (ibid).
Hitler’s oratory carried much emotional punch (Herlihy, 2015;27). Footage shows he was incredibly charismatic, speaking with a booming, almost robotic, rallying and rousing tone (Triumph des Willens, 1935). While evaluating ritual using Schechner’s Efficacy – Entertainment Braid (2013;80), Hitler solidifies the category audience-performer interaction and participation category. His “performance” as leader was so intense, even he started to believe in his dictatorial role. Nietzche discusses the power in believing the role oneself is playing, a theory applicable to the Fuhrer (Nietzsche, 1986;40). He was fully absorbed in his confident performance and his ability to connect with his devoted followers. Therefore, ‘is so of the founders of religions, as surely it is of Hitlerian dictators’ (Schechner, 2013;215). The efficiency- entertainment braid can be further acknowledged here, reiterating the idea of a performer’s trance-like state. Hitler believed his in his dictatorial front, but he was also undoubtedly self-aware of his power and status (ibid;80). Hitler being ‘comprehensive and total’, embracing ‘all spheres of national life’ (Noakes&Pridham, 2000;198-9), closely compares to Christian theories of God being self-existent and independent (AllAboutGOD.com, 2002). Although not on the same scale as Christianity, one can draw similarities here; of the great emotional power Hitler held, and the devotion of his followers, seen in the 1934 footage. This conforms to Kershaw’s Hitler Myth (2001- B), whereby in the Nuremburg Rallies, Hitler, ‘portrayed himself as uniquely able to lead Germany from its existing misery to greatness’ (ibid;243), with ‘the levels of hero-worship never been witnessed before in Germany (ibid;484)’. Furthermore, Weber’s idea of charismatic authority (1964:117), infers Hitler’s power was ‘derived and legitimated through the devotion of the followers’ (Holcomb, 2002;43). For many supporters, the Rallies were religious experiences, with a renewed dedication to Nazism on their return. (Historyplace.com, n.d).The underlying goal was to show Hitler as the personification of a united Germany, bringing ‘cohesion’ and ‘solidarity’ (ibid;65). Accounts of the semi-religious devotion and practise allows us to view the Rallies as an Ideological Ritual, because group equilibrium and solidarity are displayed (Wallace, 1966PAGENO).
Performance and ‘precise choreography’ (Burden, 1967;115), was key to the Nuremburg Rallies intensity and influence. ‘Spectacle was systematically fabricated’ (Labanyi, 1988, as quoted by Herlihy, 2015;47), with use of ‘expert staging, elaborate use of flags, manuals of arms, a sham battle, marching, rousing short speeches, singing, and impressive ritual’ (Sinclair, 1938;575). On many occasions Hitler stood at a high podium, creating a common focus of attention of the symbolic leader, as seen in Triumph of the Will (1935). Hitler is the common focal point for the assembled group, holding focused attention, emotion, mood and awareness, which ritual embodies (Holcomb 2002;41). This further incorporates the elements of ritual and performance classified by Schechner; acknowledging that the rally was looking for results- a unified Nazi Germany; featuring high virtuosity, transformation of oneself mentally, but not physically; and strong audience observance, appreciation, participation and belief (2013;80). These audience values are evident when the salute of ‘Sieg Heil’ receives a thunderous reply (Educational Video Group, 2002). Performance and careful choreography were used to educate and project ideologies at the time of a failing Germany, whilst engaging the public in ‘miraculously and compellingly displays’ (8); thus, here we see a intertwinement of elements, furthering the Nuremburg Rallies as a ritualised performance. Religion in action
When Hitler asserted his leadership, the rallies became effectively stage-managed performances (Educational Video Group, 2002). The seas of cheering crowds, flags, adoring fans, the audience’s immersion, the atmosphere suggested and nationalistic processions justify the Rallies as a celebratory performance (The Third Position, 2015). This ‘monstrous “total theatre” (Schechner, 2013;216) created, using bright spotlights to create dramatic effects (Speer, 1970;58), classifies the 1934 Rally as performance. One of the leading performative elements was Albert Speer’s ‘Cathedral of Light’: 130 searchlights placed 40 feet apart (ibid). This feat of modern technology saw ‘beams serving as mighty pillars’ (ibid) spanning a visible height of 20,000 feet at night (Labanyi, 1988, in Herlihy, 2015;47). Speer (1970;59) describes it the first ‘luminescent architecture’ of its type. A further display of performative elements across this Rally are evident, with displays from Rudolf von Laban’s “movement choirs” (Schechner, 2013;216) and music, for example on September the 5th, ‘The Badenweiler March’ was played as Hitler and Nazi officials walked to their stage (Wilson, 2012;41). Reed, comments on the influence that the German composer, Wagner, had on Hitler, describing the Rally as a ‘vibrant display of the use of music, spectacle, and theatricality’ (2012,74), seen in the playing of Wagner’s overture from
Rienzi at every Rally’s opening (ibid). The presence of Riefenstahl, with thirty cameras and 120 technicians (Historyplace.com;2018), undoubtedly cements the 1934 Rally as performance. In Triumph of the Will (1935) there are a plethora of unique camera angles and lighting effects, such as moving aerial shots during Hitler’s final speech, documenting the true engagement of the regimented mass crowds, with his strong, passionate oratory, displaying great emotional power.
In overview, the Rallies exploited ‘powerfully evocative theatrical methods’ (Reed, 2012;78) to consolidate their power through a structured programme that played on the communities’ hopes, creating a mutual focus towards bringing national change. It is because of this and the integration with the ideology and performance, that these rallies can be seen as a ritualised performance with a shared mutual consensus (Alexander, 2006). Bell (1997;159-161) conveys that ritual and theatre shares a ‘performative dimension’ through the ‘deliberate, self-conscious “doing” of highly symbolic actions in public’ creating spectacle. In the Nuremburg Rallies, performance is essential to shape and model the ideas of Germany to coincide with the Nazi party- supporting the 1934 as a performative ritual.
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