During the inter-war period, European authoritarian regimes’ perception of art and literature was closely related with their view on modernism. Even though the leaders of these regimes were quite modern figures in the sense that they pursued further industrialization, technology, growth and development while preserving a future-oriented outlook, they were highly cynical about modernism when it comes to art and literature. The reason behind this was very simple: modernism was perceived as a counter-culture, always having the potential to criticize the regime itself by offering alternative realities other than they promote. In other words, they were negative towards modernism because modernism put emphasis on the individual and promoted the autonomy of the artistic and literary field, leaving modernism – at least the way we know it – at odds with these regimes’ ambition to create a collective, unified national culture. That was the reason why most of the modernist artwork in Germany were burned to the ground or USSR got rid of all the previous modernist work within this period.
At that point, Italy (Mussolini regime) stands out as a slight exception. While Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR rigidly disfavored modernism in literary and artistic sense, Mussolini was softer towards it. There were a bunch of modernist intellectuals that stood by Mussolini, and the regime was more pluralistic and more permissive towards modern art – at least within the first ten years of Mussolini’s power.
In all authoritarian regimes, though, art and literature were used to move the society, in other words, used as a propaganda tool for mass mobilization. During that period, poster and graphic art were used extensively in an instrumentalist way, simply to convey the message of the regime in the most summarized, condemned and direct way to make the whole society understand them.
The authoritarian regimes of the period were largely dependent on the slogans, mottos, art, literary productions and even architecture to fill the ideological gaps and vagueness of the “national” culture and arts. These regimes were struggling to define and base the grounds of their national culture to claim leadership and cultural superiority in the continent, but due to the complexities of defining their national culture, they were clearer about what their culture is not, or what should be rejected. Therefore, in order to cover up or compensate for these ambiguities, they relied heavily on aesthetic production.
The third observation we could make about the European authoritarian regimes’ relations with arts and literature is the way they perceive arts. Having a totalitarian perception of the society, they were in favor of creating an art of politics, making it not a tool but an ultimate end of fascism.
The last, but not the least fundamental characteristic of the relationship of European authoritarian regimes with art and literature was the characters/heroes of the literary productions and the theme that revolved around them in their stories. Almost all literary works produced within that period used the figure “flaneur” (ordinary man in the city) and the stories were mostly themed around the concept of homelessness, decline of family and moral values, rise of material and sexual desires within the society. In addition, at the end of the stories, there was always a moral and ethical point/lesson to be grasped: do not remain aloof from taking political action and always choose a political side. These characters in the novels were always at a critical turning point of their lives and most of the time, “taking action” was offered as the best solution.
Being a neighbor to the continent and dealing with its own national construction, the new Republican regime of Turkey was not isolated from the artistic and literary movements in European regimes.
The early Turkish Republic’s attitude towards arts and literature, if talking within the framework of modernism, was closer to that of Italy’s Mussolini regime and its eclectic/pluralist ideology. Turkey was hesitant towards the Hitler model and was troubled with the anti-modernist, anti-bourgeoisie model in modernism. The negative, oppressive and repressive attitude of fascist regimes did not receive a welcoming response from the Turkish intelligentsia and the authors, as they were rooting for a nation-building process with a more optimistic and developmentalist attitude. In seeking for a more future-oriented approach, Turkish intelligentsia liked the hopeful and optimistic aura of the Italian model, turning more to this regime in their own journey of nation-building process and the arts and literature to be developed from there.