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Art of a Nasty Time

Art in the Third Reich

by Berthold Hinz, translated by Robert Kimber, by 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 the almost visceral detestation of the Nazi leaders for the internationally alert, socially rooted culture of the Weimar Republic and the formal innovations that were its hallmark—particularly those which involved distortion of the human face and figure. With them went a number of deliberate steps to stamp out modern art. Artists were sacked from their teaching jobs and forbidden to exhibit or even, in some cases, to paint; the Bauhaus was shut for good; museums were purged of “degenerate” works which were sold abroad, or pillaged by prominent Nazis like Goering, or eventually burned by the Berlin Fire Service.

The pernicious concept of “degeneracy,” first popularized by the Zionist doctor Max Nordau at the turn of the century, now formed part of the Nazi doctrine of race: “Entartung,” the German term for degeneracy, meant deviation from the “Art,” the species, something that was by no means a species in any objective scientific sense but stood in right-thinking minds for the racially pure Nordic, Aryan stock from which the Third Reich was to be brewed. By these standards, if by no other, the Jews could logically be identified with the modern culture which the leaders so hated; the same terminology, the same gut reaction, and in due course the same policy of total eradication were applied to both.

But what about the “positive” side? What was the alternative National Socialist culture actually like? The answer was clearly to be seen in the House of German Art and the pages of the magazine Die Kunst im Dritten Reich founded the same year. The architecture was massive, marmoreal, with rows of columns like well-drilled soldiers, based on the modified classicism of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, greatest of Prussian architects and a model for many moderns including Mies van der Rohe. Outwardly “representative” and fit for ceremonial parades, such buildings had interiors like immense luxury hotels or showy trans-Atlantic liners (Troost had actually graduated from designing these) with long perspectives, simple but expensive detailing, and monster chandeliers.

In such a setting the sparsely hung, heavily framed works of selected German “artists”—about six or seven hundred of them each year—seemed all of a piece with the regime and its ideals. This was not because the painters were conducting deliberate propaganda for the regime, aside from the more or less ghastly portraits of the leaders (which scarcely count, since portraits of leaders are likely to be mediocre under any regime) and the brutal-mouthed storm troopers by Elk Eber, former war artist and holder of party card number 1307 since 1923, the year of the Beer-Cellar Putsch. No: it was the actual artistic qualities of these pictures and sculptures that inspired the viewer to the same sense of nauseated rejection as he felt on seeing a parade of dumb but disciplined SA men or hearing a Hitler speech.

It is easy to laugh now at the awfulness of many of these works: at Wolf Willrich’s insipid nude, for instance, with a swastika symbol at her feet and the title Noble Blood (Edles Blut), or the same artist’s extremely pregnant strong-chinned blond lady tastefully dressed in a loose robe, a vestige of a halo, and a wedding ring, and called The Guardian of the Species (Die Hüterin der Art). Willrich, whose book The Cleansing of the Art Temple (Säuberung des Kunst-tempels) was an important part of the anti-modern campaign.

At the time, however, it was by no means so certain that the Nazis’ ideas and imagery were not going to dominate the world, with the result that there was a threatening edge of horror to even the tamest and most conventional of the approved works. Actually, programmatic party pieces were in a minority there, far outnumbered by such seemingly unpolitical exhibits as naturalistic peasant groups, traditional German landscapes and paintings of cattle, portraits of society ladies dressed in the height of Berlin 1930s fashion, Düreresque graphics and nude classical bronzes of an athletic or arcadian kind. They might be by artists of some merit, like the sculptor Georg Kolbe, whose figures were not all that far from those of Maillol and Lehmbruck. In the context of Nazi ideology, however, they were even more alarming, for they showed how certain already prevalent German traditions and characteristics could be harnessed to the Nazi cause. What is more, they recalled corresponding features in the art of other countries—the kind of tame classicism, flashy Italianate portraiture, sub-Barbizon rusticity, and lumpy earthiness that could be found also in London, Rome, Paris, and New York. And this suggested to some contemporary observers that the democracies too might be not quite so immune to the Nazi ethos as they would like to think.

It was a nasty time and a nasty art. Now of course we know more about it: about the four years preceding the 1937 exhibition, for instance, when enough still survived of Expressionism in art and literature, and of the international style in architecture, for some of their more racially and politically acceptable practitioners to think they might be able to go on working under the new apparatus of control.

So Barbara Miller Lane (in her excellent Architecture and Politics in Germany 1918-1945) was able to show Mies van der Rohe and Peter Behrens joining Goebbels’s monolithic Chamber of Culture, while Gropius in May 1934 was still trying to persuade its officials that the moderns were Schinkel’s true heirs. Dix and Schwitters were at that time also members of the Chamber; Nolde was counting on his long-standing membership in the party to tell in his favor; the novelist Gottfried Benn was still enthusiastic for its idea of racial perfection. For a short while the issue was uncertain enough for the Marxist critic Georg Lukács in Moscow to make his now notorious attacks on Expressionism as a contributory factor in the rise of the Nazi ideology (a view which he could never have sustained if he had not been deaf to the musical evidence and blind to that of art). But right from the outset Hitler himself had laid down the lines for what was to come, and any differences between his more (Rosenberg) and less (Goebbels) lunatic disciples were in the long run unimportant.

Art,” the leader told the Nuremberg party rally in his first year of office,

is a noble mission and one which calls for fanaticism…. The National-Socialist movement and its leadership cannot allow such incompetents and charlatans suddenly to change allegiance and to move into the new state as if nothing had happened, with a view to dominating its artistic and cultural policies as before. Whatever happens we are not going to have these elements distorting the cultural expression of our Reich; for this is our state, not theirs.

Ever since the First World War (so he said later) Hitler had dreamed of giving Munich “a new great exhibition palace for German Art.” The old Glaspalast which had housed the annual summer exhibitions there in the city’s heyday as an art center was destroyed by fire in 1931, and although there had been plans for a modern building to replace it in the last years of the Weimar Republic they had not been carried out. Accordingly Hitler in 1933 treated this as “the first great task” of the Third Reich, and commissioned Troost—who had already designed the party’s Brown House—to build what he termed a temple “not for so-called modern art but for a true eternal German Art, or better still a house for the art of the German People, and not for some kind of international art of the year 1937, 40, 50 or 60.” From the first, according to his speech at the opening, he had determined to take such decisions without discussing them with anybody else.

Hitler, then, saw himself as the progenitor of a new, strong, timeless German art. What he did however was to promote the more conservative Munich artists to be in effect the visual spokesmen of his ideas. Even under the Republic Munich had hardly been an avant-garde center: the Blaue Reiter artists had long since dispersed, the Magic Realists of the mid-Twenties were influenced by Fascist Italy rather than the Neue Sachlichkeit of Dresden and Karlsruhe and the ex-Dadaists. Only a handful of painters like Max Unold and Adolf Erbslöh stood out against the old local tradition of naturalistic genre and peasant painting in the style of Grützner and Defregger. Mixed together with similar conservatives from north Germany (including Mackensen and Modersohn of the Worpswede school) and a new sprinkling of pure Nazis such as Eber and Willrich and the muscle-bound sculpture specialist Josef Thorak, these previously obscure people aligned themselves effortlessly, and even perhaps unconsciously, with the mental and spiritual world of the Reich. That is to say, with Blood and Soil for the men, Kinder, Kirche und Küche for the girls, heroism and comradeship for the army, organized sadism for the Kämpfer, and the ennoblement of work for all the rest.

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