Scout’s Honor - Baden-Powell, Regimentation, Art, and Sexuality

This essay relates mainly to Baden-Powell and scouting, while bringing in regimentation, indoctrination, civic and personal virtue, as well as sexuality, ideas about our bodies, recent historical and cultural tendencies, a lot about the the German art of the Nazi period, and other themes and tangents as well. The first few of these topics relate readily to scouting; the latter ones are less obviously related, but important. To go from scouting to the treatment of the nude figure in art may seem too great a leap, but it will be seen that it’s not so far after all.

I have a thing or two to say about the ethos of scouting, both favorable and unfavorable, and the complicated man who started it out. But Baden-Powell’s surprising contradictions led me straight to the themes of the body and sexuality, and how these relate to regimentation and organization and the mentalities we absorb from them. All these topics have their repercussions in turn, and I’ve had a fair look at some of the material. It seems there is considerable sexual ambiguity in some people’s ideas of masculinity (sometimes expressed in male society and organization), and in the ideologies that profess a doctrine of strict purity and discipline, such as Nazism. This general conclusion may be surprising to some, and old news to others, but I hope to make some useful observations along the way. There are also a few good pictures to illustrate and divert, extensive footnotes, and links. (I’m truly sorry that David Foster Wallace, who raised annotation to the position it deserves, is no longer with us. But I appreciated what he did, and will do my best to follow his example.)

Robert Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, is a good example of a person of another time who is difficult to judge, both for his many attitudes that today we would find anachronistic or repellent, and for certain of his actions that offend modern sensibilities, to say the least. My interest in him was sparked by chance, but I found much food for thought in learning about him. Although some of my simplistic notions about his negative side were deepened and confirmed, I ended by liking him more than I had expected.

Serendipity and What You Think About – La Pista Ciclabile Robert Baden-Powell
The Surrealists emphasized the importance of the chance occurrence, the encounter with the unexpected, and for this the bicycle is the perfect mode of transport. You are accelerated and slowed down at the same time, exposed to many things quickly, but up close and intimately. I get around mainly by bicycle, and here in Torino there is a charming bicycle path that follows the outskirts of a building complex of the Amedeo di Savoia Hospital. For some reason it was named in honor of Baden-Powell. At the entrance to the path there is a plaque with his name and a few sentences about why he was to be so honored. This rankled a bit, as historic figures are commonly viewed with a simplistic admiration little informed by history, especially where monuments and such are concerned. But it made me smile, too, as I’d read something not widely known about Baden-Powell, which would surely complicate the typical, reflexive good feelings most folks probably have towards the man who founded the Boy Scouts: most folks would be surprised to learn that B-P admired young boys in a way that powerfully suggests a repressed homosexuality. In all fairness to him, however, it must be added immediately that it seems he never abused any of the boys in his charge.

People Are Surprising
We can hold nothing against him for his personal inclinations, especially since he appears never to have abused anyone. It had surprised me to hear about it, but I was amused by the irony of the fact that an organization known for solid, moral values and wholesome, old-fashioned masculinity had been founded by such a man. The irony is highlighted by the recent attention Scouting has had due to its traditional homophobia: if Baden-Powell were to be reincarnated in our day and, as a boy, he wished to join Scouting, he would be rejected if he did not conceal his tendency – at least until quite recently, at least in the U.S.. We easily sense the irony because the underlying hypocrisy is so obvious. Given the apparent tendencies of the Chief Scout of the World, Scouting’s homophobia is worse than just outmoded – it’s a hypocritical denial. Those who favor Scouting’s traditionalism would be embarrassed to confront the facts about B-P’s sexuality and about his ideas regarding sexuality, health, and the body, which were far more sophisticated than is generally supposed, and modern for their time. (See endnote I, “Ahead of His Time”, below.)

The Dish on Baden-Powell
I first heard about the other side of B-P in the New York Review of Books of March 15, 1990, in a review (entitled “Boys Will Be Boys”) by Ian Buruma of Tim Jeal’s biography, The Boy-Man: The Life of Lord Baden-Powell. In the review, part of a letter of 1919 (from B-P to an old friend, A.H. Tod, a retired bachelor schoolmaster) was cited in which B-P expressed eagerness to have another occasion to view the friend’s collection of photographs of nude boys (taken by the friend). Modern eyebrows instantly raise at such a thing, but back then, if they were raised, they were raised only privately by those who had their suspicions about what lay behind the hobby of the photos (perhaps it takes one to know one), as there seems to have been no trace of public scandal. The photos were not a secret, and no one made an issue of the collection at the time, or of the choice of subject matter of a dilettante photographer. Since I don’t have those photos, here’s something distantly comparable by Thomas Eakins.

Cub Scouting
My own experience of Scouting has been limited to the Cub Scouts – from about age seven to eleven, our den gathered weekly in our basement, in our uniforms, and did projects in crafts, under the supervision of our mother, who somehow gravitated into the task of Den Mother. Besides my brother and myself, there were about six other boys our age, all our classmates at school. After an hour or so of gluing or whittling to work towards the merit badges we wanted to earn, we were turned loose to play in the yard. This anarchy probably suited us better, especially after a period of structure and discipline. We also took part, uniformed, in the annual Memorial Day Parade. This for us was a tedious obligation, as we never found it appealing to parade down the street in a cute blue uniform with a yellow neckerchief while everyone in town watched us, but we were somewhat compensated with the barbecue-picnic afterwards.

When we were old enough to pass to the Boy Scouts, we began to satisfy the requirements. One of these was to learn a pageful of knots – not many, no more than any expert sailor or macramé artist would know. I was getting frustrated with it and losing my patience. Soon my brother and I said to each other “the heck with it” (this was the limit of our active profanity), and dropped out. (We were a few years ahead of Timothy Leary’s famous slogan.) I think we were just losing interest – it was late preadolescence, and I guess we could hear that train a’comin’. Had we learned that Indian trick, and put our ears to the track, as Tonto had once taught the Lone Ranger?

Scouting and Regimentation
As an adult, I have always disliked Scouting’s tendencies towards regimentation, simple-minded patriotism, and even militarism. There are questions of degree here, but I remember well that as a kid I was very susceptible to this kind of appeal, which also came from school, from the news, and from our culture as a whole. I resented, once I got a little older, having been propagandized and fed a rather whitewashed version of history. As a twelve-year-old I was no more politically sophisticated than most, conservative by inclination, and patriotic as only a child can be. I was a bit of a goody-goody, and it was a few more years before I got with the rhythms of the time.

At the age of five or so, when I anticipated becoming a scout, I had an embarrassingly puerile idea of just what scouts did: rather than campfires, sports, or learning Indian crafts, I imagined war games with other scouts – not with guns, but with our scout knives – and the idea both scared me and excited me. Perhaps I was thinking of juvenile delinquents and youth gangs like the Sharks and the Jets, and their street battles – I guess I supposed that, at a certain age, that was simply what one did, like it or not, as if it were part of the ordinary cycle of life. Around that time I also had the notion, picked up from scary talk about the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons, that the Russians were aiming to blow up the moon. (The truth was worse - we were all aiming to blow up the world.) I hope all this says more about the cold-war mentality of the time of my childhood than it says about me personally. (See endnote II, “The Wave”.)

How To Be A Good Person
So you can see I had it bad, with my notions rather twisted from my exposure to the news media and the propaganda and preaching. However, I think Scouting was much less to blame for this than other stronger, more constant influences. I have to give credit that part of Scouting’s propaganda had a good effect – how can I argue with a code of honor that prized honesty, kindness, hard work, service to others, doing your best, and so on? (We could use some more of this; the proof of this is that such phrases sound so quaint nowadays.) I also appreciate the fact that all this was delivered only lightly wrapped in religion. I have always believed that the U.S.A.’s secular religion of democracy and civic duty already included, in the form of the Golden Rule, all that we need of the religious sphere. The lesson seems to have been poorly learned in recent times, by people as different as gangbangers and Tea Party reactionaries. I don’t believe that all people, children or adults, are innately good – some need to be taught not to think only of themselves – and it doesn’t hurt that organizations and institutions should try to inculcate some solid values, taking care not to transmit harmful or false values.

As I Was Saying
But I should return to what got me started on the subject of B-P – his homoerotic tendencies (about which the plaque along the bike path naturally said nothing). My first idea was simply to put an adhesive sticker on the plaque with a few sentences to this effect. (See “Stick It Back”, another blog entry.) My intention, of course, was not to discredit him for his attraction, but simply to add a dimension to the public perception of this man, who nevertheless deserves credit for his accomplishments. But the more I looked into B-P – about whom I had known very little – the more I found him an interesting and, in some respects, even admirable figure. My idea of the sticker, as a bit of informative revisionism, could only scratch the surface of the subject. We shouldn’t be afraid of complexity, which is just as well, as this is a complicated subject.

Historical Tendencies, Tendencies in History
In Baden-Powell’s time homosexuals could hardly be open, so most suppressed their inclinations in one way or another. (Oscar Wilde was open and eventually paid dearly for it.) There was also, in those times, a strong Romantic or Post-Romantic tendency that manifested itself, perhaps most notably in Britain and Germany, in forms of nature-worship and the cult of the body, usually the male body. (This was clearly a reaction to encroaching industrialization and the mechanization of life.) Apparently Baden-Powell was a fairly common type for his era – almost certainly a repressed homosexual, but very Victorian in that he repressed his tendencies so well, successfully channeling them into socially acceptable forms, such as his military service (more on this later) and the Scouting movement.

Baden-Powell on Sexuality: The Kids Are All Right
In some respects, B-P’s attitudes toward sexuality were very progressive for their time. About sex and masturbation, for example, he said “It is often used to be taught that self abuse is a very dreadful thing leading to insanity… Now this is a grossly exaggerated picture to say the least”, and “No, the desire is natural, so don’t blame yourself for this.” Also: “There is no sin in sex. The sin arises when sex is abused.” And: “Sexual desire comes from perfectly natural causes.” These remarks about sexuality are much more enlightened than what most of his contemporaries thought. He favored sex education. He seems not to have been very sexually attracted to women, but he did finally marry and have three children with his much younger wife. He praised married life and the deep satisfactions of marriage and the family.

Nude Bathing, Prurience, and a Vision of Not Being Born in Sin
The reports of nude bathing may surprise us moderns at first, but remember that these were the days before bathing suits were in general use: boys and men commonly bathed together nude, without females present, and it wasn’t generally supposed, nudge-wink, that this was some sort of Victorian gay paradise or a breeding-ground of pederasty and sodomy (as English public schools are often considered). When nude bathing began to be forbidden, B-P objected to this as mere prurience on the part of society – the unconscious dirty-mindedness that presumes that others are dirty-minded as well, with the conviction that the whole thing must be suppressed. (Many are still scandalized at the idea of nude bathing.) It may be that B-P’s natural sexual tendencies, being impossible to realize, brought him to a very un-Victorian appreciation of sexuality as a perfectly natural and healthy thing, but one which had to be channeled in a healthy direction. So the repression bore in Baden-Powell a perhaps unexpected fruit. (See Endnote III, “Sexuality and Nudity”.)

Naturfilmen and Leni Riefenstahl – The Cult of the Body in German Pre-WW2 Art
There were comparable developments elsewhere in Europe. In Germany in the 1920s, the so-called Bergfilmen or Naturfilmen, whose main themes were bonding between males and mystical communion with nature, were very popular. (I saw a few of these ages ago at the Bleecker Street Cinema.) The terms mean “mountain films” or “nature films”, but should not suggest what we think of as documentary nature films. The male bonding was spiritual rather than sexual, but the viewer often can’t help sensing in the narrative a homoerotic aspect, hidden even from the protagonists. I haven’t found a suitable image to show this, so I offer instead a still from a well-known scene, with a similar theme, from Howard Hawks’s Red River.

Leni Riefenstahl was involved in several Naturfilmen as an actress, and finally as director. One of the more notable was her leading role in “Das Blaue Licht”, or “The Blue Light”, of 1932, which she also wrote and directed. (This was only a few years before she directed The Triumph of the Will and The Victory of Faith, and other Nazi propaganda films that made her world-famous.) This aesthetic evolved, to put it very simply, from Germany’s romantic traditions in thought and feeling, and its cults of nature-worship of previous decades, with Nazism finally adding its own special twist. (See endnote IV, “The Blue Light”.) Despite the ideology smoldering behind The Blue Light, it has to be acknowledged what effective cinema it was, and what a talent Riefenstahl was. It should be noted also, just to show how complicated things are, that Riefenstahl as an actress adopted a persona that can well be seen as proto-feminist.

Likewise well-known from the Nazi period are Arno Breker’s sculptures of Aryan heroic types, whose style takes a lot from classical sculpture – more Roman than Greek – but which show not so much a love of the beauty of the human body as an obsession with it, with the perfect Aryan physique as the embodiment of Nazism’s bizarre ideals. Nazism had also a strong pagan-mystical streak, derived from its glorification of all things pure and German (including pre-Christian religion), which is strongly felt in some of these works.

To be fair to Breker, his work had a stylistic range that went well beyond the extreme, severe, heroic style of “The Calling”, below, which I hope is made clear by the few images that follow it. His “Dionysos” of 1936 is heroic as well, but perhaps too beautiful, even effeminate, not to raise some Nazi eyebrows – or other parts. “Eos” (or Aurora) is excitingly mystical, a figure I think most Nazis would have found disturbingly mysterious, a goddess who embodies some uncontrollable force, rather than just some romantic notion of Dawn. His “Psyche” has a natural grace comparable to that of classical Greek sculpture. All three contrast considerably with “The Calling”.

One indication of this stylistic range (and of how ambiguous art can be) is that at first, in 1934, “Alfred Rosenberg, the editor of the Nazi newspaper…denounced some of Breker’s work as degenerate” (I am paraphrasing Wiki). However, Rosenberg changed his tune when it became clear that Hitler admired Breker very much. I don’t know what Breker privately thought about the Nazi regime. He was esteemed and befriended by numerous important figures of the art world since well before the Nazi period, a cultivated and worldly man, perhaps the sort that, you might suppose, would have found the Nazis distasteful.

But he certainly didn’t rock the boat, or reject the esteem of Hitler and other Nazi officials. To me, it appears that he worked (for his own artistic reasons) within a stylistic tradition that happened, at least in part, to harmonize very well with Nazi ideology when Hitler came to power, and Breker went along for the boat ride. But in 1946, he refused a commission from Joseph Stalin, stating, “One dictatorship is sufficient for me.” Maybe he wasn’t entirely comfortable as Hitler’s favorite artist. (That Stalin admired Nazi art says a lot about Stalin, and about what his ideology and mindset had in common with Hitler’s.) See endnote 5, “Arno Breker and Heroicizing Sculpture”, a very long endnote with several images.

Nazism’s Ambiguous Sexuality
The Nazi youth organizations (not to mention the adult rank and file) seem to have been characterized by an ambiguous sexuality. This I have gleaned from a cursory look at some material on the subject; I won’t go into it here, and refer the reader to the sources mentioned in the endnote for this paragraph. Suffice it to say that, despite Nazism’s exaltation of the heterosexual (or asexual) Aryan ideal, there seems to have been considerable suppressed homosexuality in the Nazi movement, and the hypocrisy that is inevitable when what is preached is not always what is practiced. Sadism was inherent in the totalitarian power structure of Nazism, as it was in the ideology and practice of the Nazis: the war, the subordination of everything in life to the war effort, and above all the concentration camps.

How homosexuality fits into this, I can’t say; for me, the sadism, fanaticism, and psychopathology of heterosexual Nazis had always seemed enough to explain the entire catastrophe of that time. Since there was scarcely any alternative to conformity, homosexuals surely had to be extremely discreet (or celibate, if not securely married), and some must have put on a hyper-masculine front to avert suspicion. It may be that some Nazis were motivated in part by an unconscious fear of their own homoerotic tendencies, and the loss of control that this implies, and so they fiercely condemned homosexuality. For more than that, since I’m getting out of my depth, consult a real psychoanalyst, or see the links below. (See Endnote VI, “The Pink Swastika”.)

Scouting and Nazi Youth Organizations
The Boy Scouts of the pre-WWII period had a lot in common with the Nazi youth organizations, and there were many British who admired the Nazi movement, at least in its early years. (B-P himself noted in his diary in 1939 – though not a very early year for Nazism, I have to say – “(I have) Read Mein Kampf. A wonderful book, with great ideas on education, health, propaganda, organisation etc – and ideals which Hitler does not practise himself.” (Wiki.) I don’t know if B-P goes on to specify these.) Yet Hitler objected strenuously to overtures from British Scouting officials to incorporate German youth organizations into Scouting, for fear of losing his control over them. Still, there is much evidence of B-P’s fascistic inclinations; I found many of his remarks abhorrent, and somehow unexpected in a man who was, in other respects, thoroughly decent, or who at least professed decency so convincingly. (See endnote VII, “Baden-Powell and Politics”.)

Baden-Powell’s Military Career
Regarding B-P’s military career, Baden-Powell made a name for himself as a commander in the Boer War and the other colonial wars in the south of Africa. He seems to have been diligent, inventive, courageous – an outstanding commander. On the other hand, some reports point to incompetence, deviousness, and numerous other negative traits, besides a talent or instinct for self-promotion. Apart from his participation in Empire, for which we can hold him responsible if we wish, there is at least one incident (mentioned by Wikipedia) that speaks very badly for him. This was the execution, in 1896, under B-P’s orders, of an African chief, Uwini, Chief of the Matabele, who had been promised humane treatment if he surrendered. (This time the future Chief Scout of the World was not trustworthy.) He also was accused of “allowing native African warriors under his command to execute enemy prisoners, including women, children, and non-combatants” – this also from Wikipedia. (See endnote VIII, “Baden-Powell in the Military”.)

Baden-Powell’s Racism
I’ll end with a brief mention of B-P’s racism. There is abundant evidence of this, and I won’t try to defend him. It is often said, to excuse or mitigate a charge of racism, that a person was “conventionally racist” for his time. This could be said of B-P as well, but it might be better to say that he was unconventionally racist. Notwithstanding his own racism, he went further towards respect for blacks as human beings than most of his contemporaries did. That is, he took for granted the intellectual and general superiority of the white man, but admired and respected the black man for the wholesome strength of his natural existence, as B-P saw it (as condescending as that is). This can be compared, of course, to other modern views of traditional cultures, which lament the corrupting influences of modernity and romanticize the “pure state of nature” of the “primitive”. Today we see such a notion itself as primitive, as a grossly naïve conception, both romantic and ethnocentric, of traditional cultures, and a judgment that says more about the judge than the judged. I’ve seen quotations of B-P that are shockingly racist, and some which are surprisingly progressive or enlightened, coming as they do from such a man. (See endnote IX, “Baden-Powell and Racism”.)

So in Baden-Powell there are things to admire and things to deplore. I’ll have to take another look at that plaque and see if I still have anything to add. Too bad you can’t attach a hyperlink to an object in the real world!

Allen Schill
September 2014

Endnotes:

I. Ahead of His Time
Baden-Powell’s ideas about sexuality prefigure the basic assumptions of the sexual revolution that has taken over a century, so far, to unwind. Notwithstanding these enormous cultural changes, we still have with us (in 2014) strong vestiges of puritanical thinking. That is, not only are there still many who are horrified by homosexuality, but also many who can’t get away from the idea that any kind of sex is a sin – unless it’s for procreation, in which case it’s a necessary evil – and that attitude goes really deep. That priest who was discovered in the far recesses of the brain, trying to sabotage the erection in Woody Allen’s movie “…About Sex…” – he really exists for some people.

II. The Wave, German film of 2008 (Die Welle)
In present-day Germany, a high school teacher, who personally is a left-anarchist (he wears punk rock t-shirts to school), is obliged to teach a class in autocracy. To teach his students the dangerous ease with which we fall into dictatorship and fascistic organization, he transforms his class into an experiment. He adopts an authoritarian style and imposes strict classroom discipline. He requires students to stand when they speak in class and to give short, direct answers. A uniform is adopted to diminish individuality and to unite the group. They also adopt a name – Die Welle, or The Wave – and a salute, a sideways motion of the forearm, with a little undulation along the way that suggests a wave. When all the students do it in perfect unison, it’s scary – you can’t help but think of the Nazi salute. But the experiment, like that of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, soon gets out of control, with tragic results. We are made to see how easily we succumb to autocracy, and worse: that many of us seem to want to be ruled by a fascistic order.

III. Sexuality and Nudity
For this paragraph and the one preceding it I am indebted to a very fine Wikipedia sandbox, which examines this side of B-P, and which does it more justice than I can here. See:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DParlevliet/sandbox1

IV. The Blue Light
It says something about this strange brew of notions that, many years later in 1960, L. Ron Hubbard wished to produce a musical remake of Das Blaue Licht, and worked with Riefenstahl to that end. (However, he lost interest in the project.) It’s also amusing that Wikipedia, referring briefly to this project, describes Hubbard as “a small-time U.S. pulp science fiction writer” (accurately enough, as far as it goes), without mentioning Scientology. See:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leni_Riefenstahl

But I see now (March 2018) that the reference to Hubbard is gone.  Perhaps someone found it unflattering and took it as his or her right to expurgate anything that criticizes or denigrates Hubbard, at least on Wiki.  A rather Stalinist approach to censorship, in my opinion.  Aside from that, I have seen very briefly a somewhat contrary story, the gist of which is that it was Riefenstahl who sought out Hubbard to do a screenplay.  If that is indeed the case, then it would seem that Riefenstahl recognized a kindred spirit.  Perhaps Ayn Rand would also have been suitable for the job.

V. Arno Breker and Heroicizing Sculpture

Arno Breker did some softer, more sensual, and even beautiful work, but his “classic” Aryan figures display at most a suppressed sensuality. If you’re not acquainted with this work, a few not-too-distant cousins are the big sculpture of “Prometheus” over the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, or the nearby “Atlas”. Otherwise, for this Aryan-pure sculpture, try to imagine a far subtler and more skillfully executed version of the drawings of Tom of Finland, without the packed crotches, sailor hats, and S&M gear – idealizing, and completely aseptic, rather than ironic and blatantly erotic. (Sorry – it’s not fair to Breker’s impressive talent, notwithstanding the often repellent spirit of the results, to compare his work to the mere cartoons of Tom of Finland. It’s buffoonery on my part, and I could leave the buffoonery to Tom of Finland. Still, though Tom is no kind of great artist, his works have the virtue of being unapologetically trashy, and of not taking themselves at all seriously. They at least will make you grin, with or without embarrassment, while Breker’s Aryan figures embody something frightening.)

Since this Nazi-sanctioned art is not very familiar these days except to art historians and other experts (we can all hope it won’t come back into fashion, but you never can tell), I thought it worthwhile to offer a few quick examples to help illustrate what I’ve suggested about the attitudes toward the body which seem to have been an issue here, percolating under the surface and in the “philosophies” of some of these mysterious worlds. I refer broadly to Nazi society and other male organizations (especially military, paramilitary, and fraternal), permeated by strong traditions, where not all is necessarily plain to see, or even coherent. These organizations in turn have deep roots in the secret societies of the remote past, with their strict hierarchies, codes of conduct, oaths of secrecy, and arcana.

The variously puritanical and sometimes ambiguous sexuality, or attitudes towards the body, of the works favored by Nazism, can also be suggested by alluding to modern body culture. Though there is quite a range to body culture, think of body-building magazines – it is impossible to look at these without noticing the narcissism of the protagonists (who are ostensibly heterosexual), and wondering whether they’re sure about what they really want. The philosophy the magazines manifest is a match for this stew of self-expression and self-obsession – not highly evolved, and kind of confused. To me, these pictures express the exaggerated toughness and masculinity of those who are secretly insecure about their sexuality, or simply a very primitive mentality.

The images in these magazines recall the impossibly muscular or even grotesque physiques seen in most manifestations of science fiction and fantasy (which target mainly boys): movies, video games, comic books, and toys. (Arno Breker has been compared to Frank Frazetta.) Naturally the female heroes and alien queen-warriors in SFF have fantastic bodies to match, very appealing to preadolescent and adolescent boys (and grown men). They need such fantasy figures to correspond to the male protagonists, who are of course projections of the boys (of all ages) who watch, read, and play. They are very powerful, of course, due to the requirements of the genre, but still intensely feminine, and never masculinized with the exaggerated musculature that the men get. Such women are avatars, basically, of the Dragon Lady, very sexy and highly sexed – because they’re drawn that way, as Jessica Rabbit says. Great legs, great everything, and above all great potential for fantasy. In their sexuality they possess a strength more essential than mere muscles, something tantalizingly unreachable by any male, except in fantasy – and hence they are all the more desirable. (An overly muscular female protagonist, like the real-life women who do extreme bodybuilding, would never do.)

The first two works will be familiar to anyone who has ever been to Rockefeller Plaza in New York. “Atlas” is by Lee Lawrie, and is the most heroically idealized among these. “Prometheus”, by Paul Manship, is lyrical instead, the male figure’s musculature deemphasized. These are worth seeing, for anyone who hasn’t studied a lot of art, just to provide a familiar reference point from which to judge Arno Breker’s Nazi-sanctioned work. They are also worth seeing side by side to appreciate how much certain stylizing tendencies favored by the Nazis were also admired in the U.S.. If this were better known, these works would not be seen in quite the same way by the U.S. public. (Still, the motivations of Lawrie and Manship should never be associated with those of Arno Breker just because their works are comparable in their heroicizing or idealizing. A stylistic similarity does not necessarily imply an ideological one, though there may well be valid and interesting comparisons to make.)

For a further (possibly amusing) contrast with the heroic Nazi aesthetic, compare Breker with “The Fountain of the Muses” (also called the “Aganippe Fountain”), by Carl Milles, which years ago was on view in the restaurant of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Milles stylizes the male figure in a way that makes the work come across as lighthearted, humorous, or even silly. The Fountain, though not really typical for this artist, verges on kitsch, and perhaps that is its secret charm – I always enjoyed it over coffee at the Met. (It would have been out of place in the sculpture galleries.) I don’t know what Milles felt, but his five prancing male figures could be seen as the queer cousins of the godlike hunk in “The Calling” that seems to have been Arno Breker’s ideal of male beauty (or at least what he made for his Nazi patrons). Milles’s muses are very far, aesthetically, from such Aryan figures. (Note well: as with Lawrie and Manship, I am not implying that Milles had any connection with Nazism. In fact I have no idea of what his politics were. I only make the comparison because Milles’s approach to idealizing the human figure is so different from Breker’s. )

It’s understandable to suppose that these five male figures are the Muses of the name of the work – which would be very unusual, as the Muses of classical tradition are female personifications. It seems, however, that the figures are artists rather than muses. (It’s a sexist explanation, but I have no other.) According to Milles, they have drunk from the waters of inspiration and are rushing home to carry out their new ideas in sculpture, painting, music, architecture, and poetry. Besides these five males, there are three less conspicuous figures arranged around the rear edge of the pool: a centaur and a satyr at left and right, and the naiad nymph Aganippe in the center; neither are they muses. I can only conclude that the Muses themselves are only represented by the water of the fountain, the source of inspiration.

So far I’ve only mentioned sculpture, which is perhaps a better medium than painting to express ideas about the body. This is not the place for a detailed look at the work of Nazi-approved artists generally, but the subject of the treatment of the human figure is important enough here to include a few examples of painting, with few comments, and to let the reader judge. In many ways they feel very different from Breker’s heroic sculpture. Where female figures are depicted, they seem anemic rather than heroic, without sensuality or physical power, and without convincingly embodying anything abstract or ethereal. (Diana in her Repose, for example, shown below, comes a small notch closer to sensual than her companions - she is enjoying the sun at least, while they seem anxious to get back to chasing rabbits and deer. But even Diana’s limbs seem more like logs arranged for the fire than the arms and legs of a real woman.) These paintings tend to be exercises in classical style that fail to bring anything original or worthwhile to the enterprise. For something more in depth, I hope to write another blog article on artists sanctioned by the Nazi regime.

One of the ironies of this Nazi-sanctioned art movement was that its promoters tarred other tendencies, such as Expressionism, as “degenerate”. A great exhibit was organized by Nazi authorities to lampoon these other tendencies, and called “Entartete Kunst”, or “Degenerate Art”. It was heavily promoted and well-attended, as this photo testifies. What people were feeling when they went to see it, however, you sure can’t tell from the picture. The people were taught to dislike and ridicule what they saw there, and this may be what most common people did. But some, with more sophisticated taste in art, must have gone to secretly admire the work; they may have sensed that they would never have the opportunity again.

VI. The Pink Swastika

For a review by Prof. Judith Reisman, “The Pink Swastika and Holocaust Revisionist History”, of a book on the homosexual currents among the Nazis, The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party, Scott Lively and Kevin Abrams, see: 

http://www.whale.to/b/reisman.html (and) 

http://www.whale.to/b/abrams_b.html 

I’ve only read short passages of these articles, and so I can’t judge their reliability. However, if true, it certainly is interesting.

VII. Baden-Powell and Politics

A good paper, “Baden-Powell, Charisma and National Leadership”, by Dr. Sam Pryke of Liverpool Hope University, which brings together some aspects of B-P’s leadership style, his personal psychology, with some speculation about his politics: http://www.lse.ac.uk/researchAndExpertise/units/ASEN/Conference/PastConferences/2010/conferencepapers2010/Sam_Pryke.pdf

There are also two interesting articles, “Robert Baden-Powell as an Educational Innovator”, at:
http://infed.org/mobi/robert-baden-powell-as-an-educational-innovator/ (and) 

“The Truth About Baden-Powell and the Boy Scouts” (from The Freethinker) at:
http://freethinker.co.uk/2007/11/01/the-truth-about-baden-powell-and-the-boy-scouts/ 

VIII. Baden-Powell in the Military

There is another story from that time, grotesquely worse than the two incidents just mentioned, that I will not retell because it seems quite unreliable. You’ll know it if you find it; it regards extreme brutality towards two young Irish soldiers. I do not believe it, because the author does not document his accusations, and because I find no other mention of any such story by anyone – certainly not by B-P’s main biographers, even the more hostile among them. A serious writer – which means also a writer who can be taken seriously – would provide sources for his assertions, so that others can check them. (The author seems to me nothing but a bottom-feeding, self-promoting conspiracy “theorist” who sells conspiracy books addressed to an ignorant but credulous public. I doubt that even he believes most of what he says.) But I repeat – it sounds like 100% horse-hockey to me, and the promulgator ought to be ashamed of himself.

IX. Baden-Powell and Racism
Leni Riefenstahl showed a similar admiration for traditional African culture, especially African bodies, in her post-war documentary photos of African societies (e.g. The People of Kau and The Last of the Nuba), in which a connecting thread can easily be detected from her earlier work celebrating the Aryan athlete. (Regarding these photographs, Wikipedia reports that Susan Sontag “claimed in a review that they were further evidence of Riefenstahl’s ‘fascist aesthetics’”. ) A few representative images by Riefenstahl follow, which relate of course to the above discussion of Nazi aesthetics and ideas about the body.


When I look at images like the ones below, I can’t help noticing that the African woman has an authenticity that the other figures completely lack (though they are full of sincerity and conviction). The African is truly of her culture, while Riefenstahl’s Nazi-era subjects are people of a modern culture who are play-acting at being primitive, as if they were ancient Greeks. To go around and play games and throw spears in the nude (healthy, appealing, and stimulating as this may be) is a collective activity whose purpose is to inculcate a spirit that these people have long lost, an ethos that can no longer exist for its own historical and natural reasons. It is a sort of revivalism, and it may have its benefits even if it is nostalgic.


This brings me back to scouting, another group activity that tries to keep alive a reverence for nature, an appreciation for vigor and good health, and some awareness of the old ways of life. These are good things of course. However, when I see young people throwing javelins (even though the activity is cast as an athletic event), I feel we are not far enough from plain indoctrination for war. In fact, we are not far from what I imagined scouts did when I was too little to be one – war, or war games – and that’s not healthy.

Back to Baden-Powell: to anyone who wants to read in some depth about B-P’s experience in Africa and his attitudes about race, I recommend Timothy Parson’s essay (with the fabulous title) “Een-Gonyama Gonyama!: Zulu Origins of the Boy Scout Movement and the Africanisation of Imperial Britain”. I have only read passages, but it seems intelligent, well-written, and informative.

http://artsci.wustl.edu/~tparsons/journal_articles/een-gonyama.pdf

© 2014 Allen Schill. All rights reserved in all countries. No part of this document may be reproduced or used in any form without prior written permission from the author. Anyone is welcome to link to it or to quote brief passages, but I would like to be notified.

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