Art of a Nasty Time

Art in the Third Reich

by Berthold Hinz, translated by Robert Kimber and Rita Kimber
Pantheon, 268 pp., $7.95 (paper)

It has been common in surveys of the arts to treat the twelve years of Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich as an insignificant break in the story of the modern movement—something too contemptible for serious consideration. Historians, critics, and exhibition organizers, on coming to the 1930s, have concentrated on those parts of the globe (like England and the United States) where the innovations of the 1920s were still being fruitfully absorbed; elsewhere they have either cut the story short, as in the big Paris-Berlin and Paris-Moscow exhibitions at the Centre Beaubourg, or simply skipped its more embarrassing aspects. Thus “following the enforced suppression of artistic creation during the period 1933-1945,” says the otherwise very useful Ullstein Kunst Lexikon of 1967, “German art sought to renew its connections with modern artistic tendencies through W. Baumeister, E.W. Nay, G. Meistermann and others.” That is all. Today, however, especially in Germany itself, and especially now that the very idea of modernism has come to seem a bit old-fashioned, it has become natural to wonder just what did happen in those blank years. Surely “artistic creation” did not simply come to a stop. Was there perhaps (to use a fashionable term) some kind of alternative culture?

There was, with a vengeance, and nobody who experienced it will ever forget it. Following a short period of uncertainty as the Führer’s ideas percolated downward, by 1937 the new National Socialist art and architecture were all too solidly there for the world to observe. That year three great exhibitions were mounted in Munich, the cradle of the Nazi party: first, in July, the inaugural “Great German Art Exhibition” in the House of German Art designed by Hitler’s favorite architect Paul Ludwig Troost and opened by the Führer himself; then a day later the “Degenerate Art Exhibition” organized by his pet painter Adolf Ziegler; finally in November, to lend good taste to the whole operation, the all-out anti-Semitic show in the Deutsches Museum “Der ewige Jude,” “The eternal Jew.”

Angered by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize the previous year to the antimilitarist Carl Ossietzky, then a concentration camp inmate, Hitler banned all Germans from the Nobel awards and instead founded his own German National Prizes for art and science (naturally omitting peace). The “Great German Art Exhibitions” were to become the only representative exhibitions each year, thereby not only making Munich “the capital of the Movement” but Germany’s artistic capital too. Meanwhile in Paris a world fair was being held at which Albert Speer’s lofty pseudo-classical, heavily be-eagled German pavilion exactly represented the new style and spirit of the reborn arts. With a certain cynical aptness the French organizers located a site for it facing the almost equally large and pretentious pavilion of Stalin’s USSR.

Like the ceremonial book-burnings of May 1933, the Munich Degenerate Art Exhibition has become a familiar item of Nazi history (there was also a rather less well known Degenerate Music Exhibition at Düsseldorf in the following year). These great philistine gestures showed…

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