Puppet theatre during the Nazi era

by | Apr 14, 2021 | A look in the depot, time of remembrance 2020

As object of the week we presented on Monday the Kasper (Punch) from the hand puppetry collection of the Reichsinstitut für Puppenspiel (Hitler’s National Institute for Puppetry) as well as a rough outline of the plans for this institution in the future.A few years ago, the magazine DaT – the publication representing the German branch of UNIMA – devoted itself to the topic of puppet theatre in the Nazi era. The following remarks are essentially based on the articles published there.

The seizure of power by the National Socialists in 1933 left no one unscathed, including puppeteers. It touched them on various different levels including: the official plans of the government to use puppetry intensively for propaganda purposes, the surveillance and ideological synchronisation of individual puppeteers, examining the biographies of those puppeteers with a focus on resistance to the Nazi regime values and conformity within it.

The “discovery” of puppetry and its potential by the National Socialist government began in 1937: puppetry was included in the Ethnicity and Regional Customs department, a subdivision of the Power through Joy department: Kraft durch Freude (KdF). Puppeteers and performance venues were systematically screened and enlisted by the KdF cultural programme. From 1933 onwards, the Kraft durch Freude department organised leisure activities in Germany, sponsoring trips, variety perfromances, galas and concerts etc. From 1939 onwards, the focus moved to supporting the troops. Performances within the framework of these KdF programmes offered diverse and comparatively stable income opportunities for professional puppeteers. As early as 1937, 35 stages were under contract to the KdF performing in schools, clubs and later in military hospitals.

The National Institute for Puppetry was then founded in 1938 with the explicit aim of utilising hand puppetry in an ideological way specifically geared towards propaganda. Siegfried Raeck was the director. In the Institute’s brochure, it is clear how hand puppetry is described as popular and thus firmly rooted in the psyche of the population; an advantage that was to be exploited with a one-sided ideological reorientation of the plays and especially of the Kasper puppet:

“Kasper is without doubt often crude in his delivery. However he is not malicious. And when he pulls someone’s leg, he doesn’t do it out of a need to gloat or malice. He seeks rather to set the other character straight. The other character may be one representing the continual voice of doom and gloom; of despair or a grumpy nag. Or it may be the conceited type – full of righteous self-confidence, or even one who seems completely ‘normal’. Thus puppetry is in the front line of ideological-political education; as true as ideological-political education means educating people for the essence of the community and for the people.” (Quotation from the brochure of the Reich Institute: “Das deutsche Puppenspiel” ed. by Amt Feierabend of the NSG Kraft durch Freude, Abt. Volktum/Brauchtum, n. d. (1939), p. 8f.)

A set of 24 puppet heads were designed by Harro Siegel and could be ordered from a catalogue either in the cheap labolit (an artificially manufactured material) or the more expensive wooden version. In addition, play texts, so-called “political interludes” were available for purchase. Hand puppetry was to be promoted especially in the youth organisations of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeitspartei – NSDAP (The National Socialist German Workers Party) and serve to further their political education. Unfortunately, there is however little research on the extent to which these ambitious plans were actually implemented. What has survived are mainly the puppet heads, the play texts and the brochure of the National Institute for Puppetry. A few autobiographical drafts by players provide material on life histories during the Nazi era.

The fact that the lines are not clear-cut in this chapter of the history of puppet theatre is shown by the attitude of Xaver Schichtl, who represented the puppeteers’ union in the German Labour Front (Gewerkschaft Deutsche Arbeitsfront) on a daily basis. He maintained the position that state tour organisations such as the KdF should not deprive puppeteers outside of the state drafted regime . The National Chamber of Theatre observed the ambitious plans of the Hitler Youth movement with suspicion and tried to gain influence, as Silke Technau puts it (DaT 85(2014), p.4). At the same time, Xaver Schichtl worked as a tireless lobbyist to free the self-employed puppeteers from their classification as showmen. He saw the synchronisation of cultural life in Germany, which was pursued by the National Chamber of Culture from 1933 onwards, as an opportunity to finally classify puppetry in the field of performing arts and thus enhance its value.

Further Reading:

FrontPuppenTheater – Puppenspieler im Kriegsgeschehen, Hrsg.: Dorothea Kolland und Puppentheater-Museum Berlin, Berlin 1997 Puppentheater und NS-Zeit. NS-Zeit im Figurentheater, Das andere Theater 85(2014) Matthias Brand, Silke Technau: Kasper und die Nazis I, in: Sammlung 5, Jahrbuch für antifaschistische Literatur und Kunst, Röderberg-Verlag Frank-furt am Main 1982, S. 82–91 mit Abb. Gerd Bohlmeier: Puppenspiel 1933-1945 in Deutschland. Das Puppenspiel im Dienste der nationalsozialistischen Ideologie in Deutschland, Bochum 1985. ders.: Das Reichsinstitut für Puppenspiel. Ein Beitrag zur Kulturpolitik des Nationalsozialismus, Phil. Diss. Braunschweig 1989 Melchior Schedler: Schlachtet die blauen Elefanten! Bemerkungen über das Kinderstück, Beltz-Verlag Weinheim und Basel 1973, vgl. darin besonders: »Der Kasper, das Kasperle, die Kasperei«, S. 60–169 Hans Richard Purschke: Schuster, bleib bei deinem Leisten! In Perlicko-Perlacko, Fachblätter für Puppenspiel, Heft 10, I/1973, S. 150–168 Hans Richard Purschke: Dokumente einer verabscheuungswürdigen Tat, in Perlicko-Perlacko, Heft 5, I/1985, S. 91 Michael Harro Siegel: Vom Puppenspiel in Deutschland. Erinnerungen an die N.S.-Zeit, in: Perlicko-Perlacko, Archiv für Puppentheatergeschichte Nr. 2, Frankfurt am Main 1981, (24 S. mit Abb.)

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