Between the years 1937 and 1944, the ‘Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung’ (‘Great German Art
Exhibition’- GDK) was held a total of eight times in the ‘Haus der Deutschen Kunst’ (‘House of
German Art’) in Munich. With several hundred artists participating annually, sales figures running into
millions of Reichsmarks each year and often more than half a million people visiting, the exhibitions
undoubtedly represented the most important showcase of contemporary art in the Third Reich. This
observation is underlined by the opening ceremonies in the presence of prominent Nazi leaders, led by
Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.
The first ‘Great German Art Exhibition’ was ceremonially opened on 18 July 1937, together with the
‘House of German Art’ building. In his opening speech, Hitler declared war on modern art and gave a
comprehensive presentation of the Nazi understanding of ‘German art,’ stylistically as well as
ideologically, which would be the only art permitted in public in the future. With his idea that art was a
direct expression of the circumstances of the time that shaped it, he identified the art of the Weimar
Republic with the political system of the time. ‘Paintings for which you can’t tell whether they are
hanging upside down’ were definitely not art anymore in his view.
Examples of the ostracized art were displayed in the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition in Munich’s
Hofgarten, which opened a day after the first GDK in 1937. The last Great German Art Exhibition
took place in 1944.
Hans Schmitz-Wiedenbrück‘, ‘Familienbild’ (‘Family’, ‘Ritratto di Famiglia’), 1938. Displayed at the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1939 and at the XXII Venice Biennale, 1940. Awarded with the second price of the competition ‘Das Familienbild’, organized in 1938 by Alfred Rosenberg, Chief Nazi Party ideologist.
The GDK was conceived as a sales exhibition; artists could be represented with several works, but
sometimes non-saleable works were also exhibited (marked with a red circle on the back). Works sold
during the exhibition could later be replaced by others.
While the organizational and technical aspects of the exhibition preparation were the responsibility of
the public institution Haus der Deutschen Kunst (the successor of the ‘Glaspalast’), the overall artistic
direction was in the hands of a ‘Commissioner of the President of the Reichskammer of Fine Arts’.
Hitler appointed his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann to this position.
Both the state promotion and its scale turned the GDK into an influential mass spectacle. As the
central showcase for the officially accepted art of National Socialism, the GDK assumes a historical
role that reaches far beyond its own confines. Conclusions drawn from an analysis of the exhibition,
for example about the much-debated character of National Socialist art or its value for the
propagandistic purposes of the regime, possess general validity for the whole of the Third Reich.
Adolf Reich, ‘Das grossere Opfer’, (‘The greater Sacrifice’). Displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition 1943. In the possession of the German Historical Museum, Berlin.
Beginning in 1943, the first disastrous news comes from Stalingrad. Two members of the Hitler Jugend are collecting for the Winterhilfswerk. Responsible civilians are giving them money. In the background we can see the Munich Siegestor (built with Kelheimer Limestone, just like the Feldhernnhalle) and a young widow with a baby buggy. Two women are looking behind them at the soldier who had had his leg amputated. Originally there were plans for a stand for this painting with the inscription composed by Hitler: ‘He who is doubting whether to give or not, should look back. He would see someone who gave a much larger sacrifice’.
Hitler, the most important purchaser of great German art exhibition (GDK) works
With his insatiable passion for collecting art, Hitler was the most important purchaser of works from the GDKs. Every year, several times, he visited the Haus der Deutschen Kunst. From 1937 to 1944 he bought in total 1,316 works at the GDKs. Hitler’s mass art purchases were mostly undertaken without a plan regarding the future location of the works. He only had a specific usage in mind from the start for a few of these works of art. The majority of the paintings and sculptures acquired at the GDKs faced an uncertain future. They were stored at the Haus der Deutschen Kunst until further notice (some were eventually taken to the Führerbau).
Below we describe the fate of a limited number of artworks which were -as an exception- given a special destination by Hitler:
- 144 paintings, sculptures and graphic works were bought by Hitler in 1938; they were transported to Berlin and placed in the Neue Reichskanzlei under construction, which was completed in January 1939. The list of 144 works (in our possession) is not exhaustive. Hitler did buy more works at the GDK in 1938, and in later years, which were also placed in the Reichskanzlei.
- In 1939 Hitler gave ten works of art to the Jagdmuseum in Munich: works by Carl von Dombroswki, Ludwig Eugen, Felix Kupsch, Friedrich Reimann (5), Karl Wagner and Renz Waller.
- A few pieces were used to decorate Hitler’s various offices and private residences; for example, Adolf Ziegler’s ‘Die Vier Elemente’ was famously placed over the fireplace in a salon of the Führerbau in Munich.
- In April 1943 Hitler had 21 paintings from the GDK delivered to his Munich apartment in the Prinzregentenstrasse. This delivery included works by Anton Müller-Wischin, Franz Xaver Wolf, Freidrich Schüz, Hermann Urban, Ludwig Platzöder, Sep Happ and Sepp Meindl.
- In 1939 Hitler bought two works, explicitly meant for his own personal use: ‘Beethoven’ by Josef Jurutka and ‘Bauernkrieg’ by Franz Xavier Wolf.
Alfred Roloff, ‘Vormarsch’ (‘Advancing’). Displayed at the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1943. Size 194 x 138 cm.
The extreme scarcity of GDK-displayed works after 1945
From 1933 to 1949 Germany experienced two massive art purges. Both the National Socialist government and OMGUS (the U.S. Military Government in Germany) were highly concerned with controlling what people saw and how they saw it. The Nazis eliminated what they called ‘Degenerate art’, the Western Allies in turn eradicated ‘Nazi art’ and forbade all artworks, military subjects or themes that could have military and/or chauvinist symbolism from pictorial representation. Both the Third Reich and OMGUS utilized the visual arts as instruments for the construction of new German cultural heritages.
Wilhelm Tank, ‘Speerwerferin’ (‘Female Javelin-thrower’), zinc cast. Displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition 1942. In the possession of the Museum Kulturspeicher, Würzburg.
Massive, systematic destruction of Nazi art since 1945: the Potsdam-Agreement
The Potsdam Agreement of 2 August 1945, subparagraph 3, Part III, Section A, stated that one purpose of the occupation of Germany was ‘to destroy the National Socialistic Party and its affiliated and supervised organizations and to dissolve all Nazi and militaristic activity or propaganda.’ In accordance with Allied Control Council laws and military government regulations, all documents and objects which might tend to revitalize the Nazi spirit or German militarism would be confiscated or destroyed. For example, Title 18, Military Government Regulation, OMGUS stated that: ‘all collections of works of art related or dedicated to the perpetuation of German militarism or Nazism will be closed permanently and taken into custody.’ As a consequence, thousands of paintings –portraits of Nazi-leaders, paintings containing a swastika or depicting military/war scenes – were considered ‘of no value’ and destroyed. With knives, fires and hammers, they smashed countless sculptures and burned tens of thousands of paintings. Around 8,722 artworks, including many prominent GDK-displayed works, were shipped to military deposits in the U.S.
Oskar Martin Amorbach, ‘Brief am Morgen’ (‘Letter in the Morning’). Displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition in 1944. Size 178 x 152 cm.
Where are the GDK-works nowadays?
Most of what is left of the German art from the 1930s and 1940s, especially GDK-displayed artwork, is in the possession of three public institutions: the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington D.C. (stored in Fort Belvoir, Virginia), the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin and the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen (Die Pinakotheken).
The Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich -in cooperation with the Haus der Kunst, Munich, and the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin- has been making the GDK works accessible online since October 2011 to facilitate a social and art historical debate, see www.gdk-research.de
(partly based on ‘Hitler’s Salon, The Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung at the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich’, by Ines Schlenker, 2007, and ‘Capturing the German Eye: American Visual Propaganda in Occupied Germany’, 2009, by Cora Goldstein, professor of Political Science at California State University)
Fritz Kölle, ‘Der Erste Mann vom Hochofen’ (‘First Man of the Blast Furnace’), 1936, bronze. A large copy of 2,35 meter high was displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition 1939 and at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung 1940/41.