When Kurt Waldheim, a former U.N. secretary general, was found in 1986 to have served in a German military unit that may have committed wartime atrocities, his reputation was ruined. Although elected president of Austria, he was forbidden to visit the United States. Shunned by the international community, he eventually dropped out of politics.
History repeated itself as farce this month when Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne, appeared at a costume party in Nazi uniform. The full wrath of the media — and of everyone else — came down on his boyish head. “Harry the Nazi,” proclaimed the tabloid Sun in its largest typeface. Politicians called for his expulsion from college. Jewish groups — along with his father, Prince Charles — demanded that he visit Auschwitz.
In between the extremes of Waldheim, who actually fought for Nazi Germany, and Prince Harry, one of the British royal family’s dimmer bulbs, lies a wide range of celebrities whose fascist sympathies have rightly brought them disgrace. Charles Lindbergh, at one time the most admired man in America, retired from public life after World War II because he had received a medal from the Nazi government. Ezra Pound, the poet who helped launch T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, spent 13 years in an asylum for the mentally ill, largely because he had made propaganda broadcasts for Benito Mussolini. Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, was temporarily prohibited from teaching after the war because he had briefly joined the Nazi Party in the early 1930s. His work, like that of Pound, remains under a moral cloud.
It seems like a pattern — but it isn’t. Take, for example, Philip Johnson, who died last week just as the world was marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In its obituary, the New York Times described Johnson as “architecture’s restless intellect.” The Post proclaimed him a “towering figure.” Both articles, like most of the other obituaries, described Johnson as the “elder statesman” of American architecture. Both also mentioned, more or less in passing, Johnson’s “early admiration for fascism and anti-Semitism that he soon recanted.”
But read a bit more and it turns out that this “early admiration” lasted for the better part of a decade. During that time, Johnson didn’t merely sympathize, like Lindbergh, or make a juvenile joke, like Prince Harry. On the contrary, Johnson helped organize a U.S. fascist party. He worked on behalf of the Nazi sympathizer and radio broadcaster, Father Charles E. Coughlin. He attended one of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies in 1938, and in 1939 he followed the German army into Poland. “We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed,” he wrote afterward. “It was a stirring spectacle.”
In the week since his death, a few articles, including one in the New York Times, have examined Johnson’s in fact elaborate and widely known fascist past in more depth. But in his lifetime — as his obituaries reflect — nobody was very interested. Johnson won every major architectural award, built dozens of buildings and received commissions from the likes of AT&T and the Lincoln Center. He occasionally apologized for his youthful politics, but with ambivalence. Asked in 1993 whether he would have built buildings for Adolf Hitler in 1936, he answered, “Who’s to say? That would have tempted anyone.” He frequently described himself as a “whore,” a phrase that seems to have amused him — he liked to shock — and to have provided another sort of excuse for his past.
I leave it to others to determine whether Johnson’s amorality bears a relationship to the chilly skyscrapers he built, or whether his politics influenced the celebrated glass-walled house he designed for himself, whose brick interior he once said had been inspired by the brick foundations of a “burned-out wooden village I saw,” presumably in Poland. But his death makes me think that the rest of us should occasionally reflect a bit harder about why we find it so easy to condemn the likes of Prince Harry, a silly, thoughtless boy, and so hard to condemn Philip Johnson, a brilliant, witty aesthete. Or why it was thought scandalous when an allegedly anti-Semitic Ukrainian businessman was allowed to ride on Colin Powell’s plane to Kiev last week, while Johnson, who once wrote a positive review of “Mein Kampf,” lectured at Harvard University. Or why the Nuremberg tribunal didn’t impose the death penalty on the urbane Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, or why the Academy Awards ceremony in 2004 solemnly noted the death of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s filmmaker, or why Herbert von Karajan, a Nazi Party member who never apologized at all — party membership, he once said, “advanced my career” — continued to conduct orchestras in all the great concert halls of Europe. We may think we believe any affiliation with Nazism is wrong, but as a society, our actual definition of “collaboration” is in fact quite slippery.
In the end, I suspect the explanation is simple: People whose gifts lie in esoteric fields get a pass that others don’t. Or, to put it differently, if you use crude language and wear a swastika, you’re a pariah. But if you make up a complex, witty persona, use irony and jokes to brush off hard questions, and construct an elaborate philosophy to obfuscate your past, then you’re an elder statesman, a trendsetter, a provocateur and — most tantalizingly — an enigma.