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Culture Reviews: 'Painting Dutch Capitalism' & 'Mocking Hitlerism'

Painting Dutch Capitalism

The Rijks Museum in Amsterdam is home to the art of the Dutch Republic of the 17th century, which was ‘the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.’

The Dutch bourgeoisie declared their independence from the Spanish in 1581. The Explosion of the Spanish Flagship during the 1607 Battle of Gibraltar by van Wieringen reflects pride in the victory of the Dutch fleet over the Spanish. The Celebration of the Peace of Munster, June 1648 by van der Helst depicts a banquet and displays the bourgeois pride in independence and victory over feudalism.

The world financial centre was in Amsterdam. It had the first ever Stock Exchange, the Bank of Amsterdam, capitalist cycles of boom-and-bust, speculative asset inflation ('Tulip Mania'), and Isaac Le Maire, the first stock ‘bear trader’.

The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers Guild by Rembrandt depicts the sampling officials who checked the quality of dyed cloth, and it reflects the Calvinist simplicity of bourgeois self-confidence.

Amsterdam was noted for its 'schutterij', the bourgeois civic militias and these are portrayed in two famous paintings of the era: The Company of Captain Reynier Reael by Hals, and The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq better known as The Night Watch by Rembrandt. 

The bourgeois religious sensibility was dominated by Calvinism which provided a theological justification for the developing capitalist mode of production. The Merry Family by Steen appears to be a celebration of alcohol, music, and tobacco but a note in the painting provides the subtitle of ‘as the old sing, so pipe the young’ which warns the viewer not to copy such dissolute behaviour.

The Dutch Republic was the imperial power (‘the colonial system of trade and navigation ripened like a hothouse’) with colonies and trading posts in North America, Brazil, the East Indies and South Africa. The Dutch East India Trading Company controlled the maritime trade routes and dominated world trade for 200 years. By 1650 there were 16,000 Dutch merchant ships. View of Olinde, Brazil by Frans Post depicts the former Portuguese colony that had been taken by the Dutch in order to exploit Brazil's sugar cane plantations.

Economic competition with England for control over the seas and the trade routes led to three naval wars between the Dutch Republic and England which confirmed Dutch domination of world commerce until the Napoleonic Wars.  Several marine paintings by van de Velde depict Dutch merchant and naval supremacy such as The Cannon Shot and Dutch Ships on a Calm Sea.

The Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza depicts the great Dutch philosopher who advocated a classical pantheism, opposed Cartesian dualism and was admired by Marx for his materialism. Hegel believed ‘you are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all’.

Marx concluded ‘the total capital of the Republic was probably more important than that of all the rest of Europe put together and the people of Holland were more overworked, poorer and more brutally oppressed than those of all the rest of Europe put together’.

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Mocking Hitlerism

Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written in 1941 and first staged in 1958 was recently revived at the Chichester Theatre with a mesmerising performance by Henry Goodman as Ui.

Brecht's play is an extended metaphor for the rise to power of Hitler with the aim that ‘the great political criminals must be completely stripped bare and exposed to ridicule,’ and to show that it was ‘resistible’. The crisis in capitalism, the support of industrial capitalism, and the failure of bourgeois liberal democracy contributed to the rise to power of the Nazis.

Brecht recasts Hitler's rise in terms of a small-time gangster's takeover of the greengrocery trade in Chicago (Germany), and all the major figures are featured: Dogsborough (President Hindenburg) and Hitler's henchmen Giri, Givola, and Roma (Goering, Goebbels, and Roehm). The Warehouse Fire of scene 7 is the Reichstag Fire; a St Valentine’s Day Massacre in scene 11 is the 1934 'Night of the Long Knives'; and the Dock Aid Scandal of scenes 1-4 is the real-life 'Osthilfeskandal' (East Aid scandal).

East Aid was the 'Weimar' Republic's financial support programme to heavily mortgaged Junker estates in East Prussia. This was at the same time as stringent economic and deflationary policies, 30% unemployment, and the DANAT bank collapse.  The East Aid became a major scandal in January 1933 when it was discovered the Junkers had spent the money on luxuries and weakened the position of President Hindenburg, which in turn led to pressure from the capitalist class to appoint Hitler as Chancellor.

In 1927, Baron Von Oldenburg-Januschau, a friend and neighbour of Hindenburg, got up a subscription from industrial capitalists to buy the President the highly indebted former family estate of Neudeck (the country house of Dogsborough in scene 4).  To avoid inheritance taxes, the estate was put in the name of son and heir, Colonel Oskar Von Hindenburg.  This scandal came to light at the same time as East Aid.

These scandals prompt Ui in scene 4 to declaim: ‘Say, that's corrupt!’

Brecht shows the capitalist class helping Hitler come to power (‘in den sattle heben’ - lifting Hitler into the saddle).  Hitler courted the capitalists in his 1932 speech to the Industry Club in Düsseldorf.  The Nazis offered the capitalist class reforms to capitalism by crushing organised trade unions and ‘Bolshevism’, developing economic autarky, and rearmament as a prelude to the search for ‘lebensraum’ and markets and raw materials for the capitalist class.  

Brecht's aesthetics and Epic Theatre were influenced by Karl Korsch who emphasised Marxism as heir to Hegel. Brecht referred to Korsch as ‘my Marxist Teacher’.

There is a powerful speech in scene 9 directed at the Nazis: ‘Help! Help! Don't run away. Who'll testify? They gun us down like rabbits. Won't anybody help? You murderers! Fiend! Monster! Shit! You'd make an honest piece of shit cry out...’

In the epilogue Brecht warns: ‘though the bastard is dead, the bitch that bore him is again in heat.’