The Nazis’ Theater of Seduction

'Degenerate Art': The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany

by Stephanie Barron et al
Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Abrams, 423 pp., $75.00

The Art of the Third Reich

by Peter Adam
Abrams, 332 pp., $45.00

Artists Under Vichy: A Case of Prejudice and Persecution

by Michèle C. Cone
Princeton University Press, 264 pp., $35.00

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…

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