The Thingspiel was a form of theatre pioneered in Nazi Germany for several years after 1933, when the Nazi Party took power. Thingspiel can be translated as "meeting-play" or as "judgement-play", as Thing means a meeting-place where judgement is passed; so it has echoes of a courtroom. And what was under judgement in this courtroom-judgement-play? Why, nothing short of the entire German people themselves! Naturally.

Thingspiels were typically performed in sports arenas or large, purpose-built ampitheatres. The idea of the Thingspiel was to break down the barrier between actors and audience which predominated in traditional (what the Nazis would call "bourgeois") theatre and instead to express an art form which was more appropriate to the supposed mass reawakening of the whole German people and the German "national spirit". It was also supposed to express the involvement of the mass of the people in this process. The sets and numbers of people involved were massive: in one of the earliest performances in Berlin, 17,000 people performed before an audience of 60,000. It was not infrequent for thousands of people to be drafted in from the crowds to take part, and audience participation was almost always called for in choruses.

Of course, such a huge audience and a strange mode of presentation called for a very different performance to a traditional play. This was especially the case because the action didn't take place on an elevated stage in front of the audience, but rather on a large piece of ground which was surrounded by the audience. Vast and complex landscapes were often created, including castles, cityscapes, and forests. The play itself consisted mostly of groups singing and acting out events in synchrony, backed usually by music; raw, group movement and sound being much more important than in traditional theatre.

The plots of the Thingspiels were appropriate to this vast tableux: not stories of individual struggle and morality, but rather of vast historical and social forces pitted against each other; this is where the "meeting" and "judgement" came into it. Thingspiels were written which demonstrated the rebirth of the German nation as it fought against foreign domination and Jewish influence. Others depicted historical events in which the unique character and virtues of the German people were inevitably celebrated. Thousands of identically-costumed actors represented the bourgeoisie, or Jews, or the plucky Germans; and speech-choruses which involved the audience made them feel part of this vast drama.

The Thingspiel is hence very interesting as a representation of the cultural side of the National Socialist revolution. Nazi Party members and theorists viewed themselves as bringing about a vast rebirth of the entire German people and its cultural spirit, shaking off the influence of foreign peoples, "degenerates", "Bolshevism", and, of course, "international Jewry". New, German forms of art were considered necessary - and these art forms had to correspond to the Nazi ideal of what it meant to be German.

The reality of the Nazi dictatorship has often blinded historians to the fact that in Nazi self-understanding, they were the spearhead of a mass movement which would purge the German race of all undesirable elements and bring about its rebirth in virtue. It was in this spirit that Hitler described himself as a "magnet" which "extracted the iron from the German people" - we know what he intended to do with the rest, the non-iron. And it was in this spirit that Joseph Goebbels declared that "the era of individualism has finally died . . . The individual will be replaced by the community of the people". The Thingspiel seemed the perfect embodiment of this transition, as it depicted the vast struggle of the German race rather than individual dramas.

However, there was an irony to all this - and it would eventually contribute to Goebbels first disassociating the Party from the Thingspiel, and then banning it altogether in 1936. For the Thingspiel was not a Nazi invention. The Thingspiel actually had its antecedents in left-wing plays from the Weimar Republic which had grown out of the Expressionist movement. As early as 1925, workers' movements were producing vast, open-air plays which displayed - you guessed it - the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Just like the plays shown under the Nazis, these depicted vast, impersonal forces; focused often on the hallowed dead of the movement; and involved lots of marching and chanting.

These movements never had the state behind them, as the Thingspiel movement initially did, and hence did not benefit from the forty-odd purpose-built ampitheatres (Thingplatz) which the Nazis produced. Yet the similarities between the two types of play were not purely coincidental - many of the authors of the left-wing plays actually went on to produce works which were acceptable to the Nazis. The Thingspiel was hence not purely an artifice of the Nazi state, but rather something the latter latched on to and encouraged while it found it convenient. The movement had its origins more in the breakdown of traditional morality and social structure during the Weimer period, which had led to a widespread devaluation of the role of the individual by both the Nazi and the Communist movements.

Goebbels did not do away with the Thingspiel just because of its origins on the left wing. The Nazis were much more aware of what they shared in common with the Communists than we are now of their links. The form, with its Communist content removed, could still be useful; just as while Weimer democracy remained to be destroyed, the Communists were allies of a sort towards this end. But such dynamism and rebellion against the status quo was less useful when the status quo was Nazi anyway. In such a circumstance - as well as being unnecessary - the Thingspiel fell victim to Goebbels' main injunction when it came to the production of art and propaganda: don't be boring.

Although the Nazis always saw themselves as the head of an active, mass movement, they were keen not to let things get out of hand or to bore people with propaganda; moving too quickly with their changes in German culture would demand the sort of constant political and ideological motivation which would quickly weary the people. The Thingspiel were cultural stormtroopers which needed to be dispensed with to create an impression of normalcy after the Nazis had liquidated all genuine cultural opposition, just as the Sturmabteilung were dispensed with once the need for revolutionary violence was over. Hence, after the Thingspiel movement was stopped, theatre under Nazi Germany was thoroughly Nazified in content, but retained traditional forms. The decisive creation of a new German theatre form would presumably have been pursued after victory in World War II, just as so many other radical policies were due to be implemented after the regime felt it had earned the legitimacy to conduct further revolutionary change on the battlefield.

Further reading

The best recent book on the Nazi regime, including a section on cultural aspects, is Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power: How the Nazis Won Over the Hearts and Minds of a Nation. On the Thingspiel movement specifically, see Henning Eichberg, "The Nazi Thingspiel: Theater for the Masses in Fascism and Proletarian Culture", New German Critique (Spring 1977).

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