‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany
The Art of the Third Reich
Artists Under Vichy: A Case of Prejudice and Persecution
In the history of Western civilization, denunciations of the arts as “immoral” and “corrupting” date back to Socrates. But the fear of moral degeneration that haunted Hitler and many of his German contemporaries was a specifically modern obsession, one that first appeared only in the second half of the nineteenth century. Its origins lay in the concurrent emergence of the aesthetic cult of “decadence” and the scientific—or pseudoscientific—concept of “degeneration.” At about the same time that artists and writers were exploring the relationship between morbidity, disease, and artistic creation, the concept of degeneration became a central issue in medicine, the theory of evolution, and racial anthropology, where it was thought to lead to the extinction of a species or at least to the ruin of its strength and vigor.
The idea of degeneration was most forcefully applied to artistic decadence in Max Nordau’s book Degeneration (Entartung), published in Berlin in 1892. Nordau, the son of a Budapest rabbi, had trained as a medical doctor, traveled widely, and finally settled in Paris in the 1870s, where he became a prolific pamphleteer. In the two volumes of Degeneration, he denounced as degenerate the Parnassians, the Symbolists, and the followers of Ibsen, Tolstoy, and Zola. Nordau interpreted artistic decadence as a sign of dangerous social decay. He recommended that fin de siècle artists be given medical examinations and their family trees scrutinized. “In nearly all cases,” he wrote, “one would undoubtedly find degenerated parents or one of several symptoms, which put the diagnosis of degeneration beyond question.” The pseudo-scientific identification of aesthetic decadence with biological degeneration, the most fateful step in the prehistory of the Nazi attack on avantgarde art, was forcefully made in Nordau’s widely read book. By 1900 the ideological basis for the Nazi program of aesthetic eugenics was in place.
The purge of “degenerate art” in Nazi Germany depended upon very specific historical and cultural conditions. It occurred in a totalitarian state that had gained complete control not only of all public institutions serving the arts—museums, galleries, academies, and the press—but even of the private activities of the artists themselves: “degenerate” painters could simply be forbidden to paint. Such a purge could only succeed in a monolithic, parochial, even xenophobic society, and is thus unlikely to recur in the United States or Western Europe, where such conditions no longer prevail. About some other parts of the world, we cannot be so confident.
The neurotic obsession with the alleged moral and aesthetic “degeneration” of Weimar Germany befell a nation deeply unsettled by political and economic change. Much of German society, including the universities, the higher civil service, the army, and the middle class, especially small merchants and farmers, never accepted the defeat and collapse of the old order in 1918 or the establishment of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first truly democratic state. Nor had German society adjusted to corresponding developments that allowed “outsiders”—like the Social Democrats and the Jews—to gain power, equal rights and opportunities, and, in the case of women, the chance to establish themselves in professional and academic life. The liberated styles of behavior in big cities like Berlin exacerbated these feelings of unease. Fears of economic decline were confirmed by economic crisis, first during the inflation of 1922–1923, when many old fortunes were destroyed, and then during the depression of 1930–1932, when more than six million people lost their jobs. Nothing was easier, and nothing proved more successful, than to denounce modern art—from jazz to atonal music, from cinema to Bauhaus architecture to abstract painting—as both cause and symptom of cultural decay and the disintegration of German values. Not only the Nazis but many other German conservatives did exactly that in the years before the purge of 1937.
The “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Los Angeles and Washington did not introduce its visitors to the official art by which the Nazis claimed to overcome “degeneration” and return to the eternal values of German culture. Indeed, Nazi art has not been easy to find. After 1945, it was struck from the history of twentieth-century art, packed away, never publicly exhibited, and, until the Seventies, barely studied. The most obvious reason was political: that art had been a vital part of the propaganda of a tyrannical regime responsible for the most monstrous crimes in modern history. The American army shipped a great deal of Nazi art out of occupied Germany in 1945, so that it would not poison the country’s democratic re-education. Adenauer’s Federal Republic was only too glad to turn its back on an art that reeked of guilt and shame.
But there were aesthetic reasons as well for the disappearance of Nazi art after the war. Nearly all of it was very bad and deemed unworthy of serious art historical interest. Yet one may suspect another, deeper reason for the historians’ refusal to regard the art of the Third Reich as part of twentieth-century art history. As long as the history of modern art was dominated by the idea of continuous progress, all tendencies and achievements outside the avant-garde—and by no means only Nazi art—were dismissed as obsolete. Sir Nicolaus Pevsner, author of the pathbreaking book Pioneers of Modern Design, from William Morris to Walter Gropius, said of Nazi art: “any word about it is too much.” Though noble in sentiment, this was the statement of a missionary of modernism.
Around 1970, however, Nazi art began to attract renewed historical attention, in some cases from former “participants” with quite different perspectives on the art of the period. One impulse was revisionism. The reaction against the modernists’ international style of architecture that began in the 1960s led to a partial reevaluation of Nazi architecture, most strikingly in Leon Krier’s praise for the vision of Albert Speer. Another approach was that of a younger generation of German scholars who, beginning with the student revolts of 1968, began to take a new interest in Nazi art. Influenced by the criticism of Walter Benjamin, young art historians became fascinated with the problem of the aesthetics of violence in fascism and tried to analyze Nazi architecture, art, and film from this perspective. Peter Adam’s valuable book The Art of the Third Reich, although without the least moral or ideological sympathy for its subject, reconsiders some of the judgments of the art of Third Reich.
Adam’s book grew out of two television programs for the BBC in 1988: The Stage Management of Power and The Propaganda Machine. The book’s design recalls a television feature: it is lavishly illustrated and the reproductions have been chosen to emphasize the melodramatic character of Nazi art and architecture. They include stills from Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 Olympics, views of the grotesque pageants for the Day of German Art, and photographs of the state sculptor Joseph Thorak at work in the world’s biggest atelier. There are also plenty of mothers and nudes, peasants and soldiers, and of course the Führer: on horseback, as the builder of the Reich in armor and with a banner, as the commander-in-chief of the army with a map and a bunker in the background.
Adam’s first chapters deal with the origins of Nazi taste in Nordic mythology and cultural conservatism, the tastes and methods of Hitler and Goebbels (though curiously, not Rosenberg), the dismissal and emigration of many modern artists and intellectuals, and the hesitation and submissiveness of others—a particularly sad chapter in the history of what Julian Benda in 1927 called the “trahison des clercs.”
But it is the chapter on “The Art of Seduction” that presents fresh material. By demonstrating how the Nazis used all the media—film, photography, radio, parades, monuments and memorials, theaters with elaborate machinery—Adam makes clear that the architecture and the art of the Nazis were conceived as part of one big show. The daily staging of events as overwhelming visual impressions was explicitly intended to hypnotize the public by means of ersatz moods of exaltation.
In another telling chapter, “The Visualization of National Socialist Ideology,” Adam describes the paintings of German landscapes and family life that hung on the walls of Hitler’s House of German Art as characterized by “a total divorce from reality.” In them, there was no suffering, no sickness, no allusion to the cruelties of the Nazi regime or the horrors of the war. Adam’s book provides a reminder that Nazi art was a gigantic visual lie about a clean, moral, better Germany which Hitler pretended to have created, but which in reality never existed. And since these painthad nothing real to show, they remained boringly empty.
The book’s chapters on architecture reveal it to be the most ambiguous of the arts of the Third Reich. All the internal contradictions of a political system that wanted to be at once modern and reactionary are reflected in its buildings. The Bauhaus modernism of the Twenties survived almost unchanged in the construction of factories, bridges, and airports. But for youth hostels, housing projects, and the country retreats of the powerful, there was a return to a traditional style featuring timber-work and high roofs, intended to prove that German architecture stood apart from international modernism, remained rooted in regional traditions, and was based on pre-industrial craftsmanship.
Hitler himself was increasingly interested in the great public buildings he wanted to erect in the name of the state and the party, especially in Berlin. On January 20, 1937, Hitler made the young, little-known architect Albert Speer responsible for supervising the rebuilding of Berlin. The projects envisioned were gigantic, and they became more and more megalomaniacal as Hitler’s power began to dwindle during the later years of the war. A triumphal arch 325 feet tall was planned that would have dwarfed not only Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate but also the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. A great hall was to be erected, seating 180,000 and vaulted by the largest dome in the world. Adam writes:
Albert Speer had thought to emulate Claude Ledoux’s and Etienne Le Boullé’s grandiose architectural projects for France. But in contrast to those eighteenth-century masters, he thought that his plans were technically realizable.
No doubt, but the salient difference between the French architects and Speer is not technical. Boullé’s project for a vast public library had been based on the Enlightenment notion that knowledge should be accessible to everyone, regardless of rank or origin, and the proportions of his plan reflect this architectural “declaration of the rights of man.” Speer’s and Hitler’s projects brutally inverted such goals. They aimed not to liberate but to astound and control the public, to arouse awe and fear where Boullé had sought to inspire reason and critical thinking.
Speer’s plans for Berlin were never realized, but a great deal of Nazi art survives, and some years ago there was a passionate debate in the Federal Republic over whether works of Nazi art that had been returned from the United States should be exhibited in German museums. For the time being, as Adam writes, it was decided to shut the embarrassing legacy away, as if the paintings and sculptures produced under Hitler still represented a public danger to the democratic tastes of the re-educated Germans. In an ironic reversal of the situation in 1937, Nazi art is now banned, while so-called “degenerate” art has once again found its legitimate place in public collections.