After 1933, the Nazis established a specific vocabulary in a large number of areas. Author Matthias Heine turns his attention to the term “Kulturschaffende,” a word that can be roughly translated as “culture creator” used for cultural professionals that has passed into common usage in German and explains its origins and background.
The totalitarian transformation of Germany by the Nazis also included the deliberate insistence on a new way of speaking that was intended to steer thinking along the desired ideological lines from the outset. Immediately after Hitler was named Chancellor, in March 1933 Reich Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels formulated the following objective: “The people shall now start to think uniformly, to react uniformly.”
To this end, students in schools were taught not only the Nazi doctrine, but also the correct use of terminology. Moreover, in daily meetings with what was now a largely government-controlled press, Goebbels specified desired expressions – for example, the November 1938 pogroms were to be called “actions against the Jews.”
Will to control language
Culture was likewise affected by this desire to steer language. From today’s point of view, coinages typical of this realm include “Thing” for a form of Nazi open-air theater play or “Gottbegnadete” (Those Blessed by God) for a group of outstanding artists who enjoyed special privileges.
Yet there are also Nazi-coined terms that are less easy to identify and are therefore still in use today. One of these is the widely used “Kulturschaffende.”
The word, used almost solely in the plural, referred to all persons who were members of the Reich Chamber of Culture from September 1933 onward. It was coined in connection with the establishment of the Chamber by the relevant Reich’s Act promulgated on September 22. Previously, only the adjective “kulturschaffend” had existed, referring to individuals, institutions, and occasionally peoples, who were contrasted with other, supposedly cultureless peoples. The legislation itself did not at that point include the expression, instead using the term “Kulturberufen” for the ‘cultural professions’. In 1934, however, many artists signed an “Aufruf der Kulturschaffenden,” an “Appeal by the Cultural Professionals,” which, in the run-up to the referendum scheduled for August 19, called for the offices of Reich Chancellor and Reich President to be united in the person of Hitler.
Some have objected that in fact the term “Kulturschaffender” can be found in isolated instances in newspapers before 1933. Yet these are always stances of nouns formed spontaneously from the aforementioned adjective “kulturschaffend,” in which “culture” has a different meaning. Here, it is used rather in the sense of “civilization,” the sense that it also has in expressions such as “early cultures” or the German “Hochkultur,” meaning “advanced civilization.”
For this meaning, the “Digital Dictionary of the German Language” offers the necessarily somewhat cumbersome definition: “the totality of the material goods created by humankind in the process of its interaction with the environment and serving its higher development, as well as intellectual, artistic, and moral values.” In this sense, an engineer, a priest, a politician, a tradesperson, or a medical doctor can also be a “cultural creator.”
However, this is not what is meant by the term coined during the Nazi period, which we still use today: It refers to the totality of those working in the arts – that is, artists in the broadest sense (not only visual artists, but also actors, authors, etc.) and those who help make artistic work possible, from publishers and theater directors to stagehands or editors. The word was not used in this sense until 1933-4. It is also identified as a Nazi neologism in “Aus dem Wörterbuch des Unmenschen”, a critical publication on Nazi language that appeared in the postwar period; indeed, sculptor Ernst Barlach still put it in quotation marks in a letter in 1934 – usually an indication that a word is still new and unfamiliar.
Ironically, the word “Kulturschaffende” as used by the Nazis during the Third Reich survived in the vocabulary of Communist East Germany. The “Großes Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache”, a dictionary published by Duden, listed “especially in former East Germany” as the area in which the expression was used in 1994. However, the word remained in use in West German political jargon after 1945, too, and is now more present than ever. Two examples of many beyond any suspicion of fascism: The City of Frankfurt explained its Corona assistance measures for artists as follows: “With the help of the emergency fund, cultural creators (“Kulturschaffende” in the German) will be assisted during the restrictions caused by the Corona pandemic and the continuation of their artistic activities is to be ensured.” And in April 2022, the broadcaster arte reported on “Kulturschaffende and the War.”
Reasons for the post-Nazi career of the word
There are three reasons why the word “Kulturschaffende” managed to survive the end of the Third Reich. First, it actually filled a designative gap – such an official and factual-sounding word for the totality of all those active in the cultural sector did not exist before. Second, semantically it is not as inextricably linked to Nazi ideology as are expressions such as “Untermensch” (a “subhuman” in Nazi terminology) or “verjuden” (“to Jewify”).
And third, it is very much in line with today’s need for gender-neutral expression. There is therefore no reason to worry about language cleansing: You don’t become a Nazi by using the word “Kulturschaffende” any more than if you use expressions like “betreuen,” “entrümpeln”, or “Eintopf,” or other words not closely linked to fascist ideology that arose after the Nazis took power 1933 in connection with propaganda, war, and measures taken by the regime. It is, however, of course interesting and enlightening to know their origins.