The National Socialists had nothing but deep contempt for the culture of modernity, which was perceived as decadent. They rejected avant-garde styles in art as ‘un-German’ and a ‘typical Jewish product’. The Nazi regime fought against everything ‘alien’ in art and promoted a ‘moral idea of the state and culture’, the national socialist art. Immaculate men and women were portrayed by the Nazis as propaganda for the aesthetics of the Nordic man. They symbolized beauty, purity, grace and strength and were intended to demonstrate the superiority of the ‘Aryan master race’. While modern art movements in the Weimar Republic were largely met with incomprehension and rejection, Nazi art, in classical realistic style, received broad approval among the population. Despite the focus on ‘new art’, the Nazi era did not produce many original works in terms of form and style. Essentially, Nazi art was linked to the Heimatkunst of the German Empire, which was oriented towards tradition and history. At the same time, Nazi art showed many similarities with American New Deal Art and Soviet Realism.
Arno Breker, ‘Du und Ich’ (‘You and Me‘), marble. A large plaster model of ‘Du und Ich’, measuring 2.32 by 1.28 meters, was displayed in the Great German Art Exhibition in 1944.
National Socialist cultural policy
‘Art is always the creation of a certain blood, and the form-bound essence of art is understood only by creatures of the same blood,’ wrote Alfred Rosenberg in his 1930 book ‘Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts’. The top Nazi ideologist strictly rejected ‘art in itself’, international art disengaged from its regional or national roots.
After the violent ‘removal’ of Jewish, Communist, liberal and other ‘undesirable’ artists from public office and the burning of books on 10 May 1933 on Berlin’s Opernplatz, it became clear in the first months after the National Socialists came to power that the diversity of art and culture of the Weimar Republic had irrevocably come to an end. The avant-garde, metropolitan art and culture scene, which was considered ‘alien’, was rejected and persecuted. The ‘Reichskulturkammer’ (‘Reich Chamber of Culture’), founded on 22 September 1933 under the chairmanship of Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, became responsible for the reorganization of the artistic sector. The purpose of this chamber was to stimulate the Aryanization of German culture and to prohibit, for example, Cubism, Dadaism, Expressionism, Surrealism and Symbolism.
Left: August Wilhelm Goebel, ‘Gudrun’, major figure in Germanic heroic legend and literature. Executed in marble. Bought by Hitler for 3.000 Reichsmark.
Right: Joseph Thorak, ‘Horse of Sword Bearer’ (‘Schwertträger-pferd’), bronze. Identical in shape and form as the horse of the larger ‘Schwertträger’, which was, together with the ‘Fahnenträger’ destinated for the March Field of the Nuremburg Party Rally Grounds.
Arno Breker and Josef Thorak, the most prominent Nazi sculptors, created idealized monumental figures of muscular men based on the model of Classical Antiquity, Classical Greek and Roman art, which was seen by Hitler as an art whose exterior form embodied an inner racial ideal and uncontaminated by Jewish influences. Art was to be both heroic and romantic, and comprehensible to the average man. Female nudes (Ernst Liebermann, Karl Truppe, Johann Schult, Robert Schwarz, Erwin Knirr) were the focus of painting. Other preferred motifs were landscapes (Hermann Gradl, Werner Peiner), still lifes (Ludwig Platzoder), the working life of people in agriculture (Oskar Martin Amorbach, Paul Mathias Padua) and industry (Erich Mercker, Ria Picco-Rückert), soldiers and battles (Claus Bergen), and large families (Hans Schmitz-Wiedenbrück). In their paintings, many painters mystified a blood and soil ideology based on imperishable values, tradition and pre-industrial peasantry. Pictures of Adolf Hitler (Fritz Erler, Franz Triebsch) as well as rallies and celebrations of the Nazi regime also played a significant role in Nazi art. The paintings were an expression of the ‘ideal community’, of ‘Führer, Volk und Reich’, propagated by the National Socialists. Starting in 1937, they were presented annually in the ‘Haus der Deutschen Kunst’ at the ‘Great German Art Exhibitions’.
Hugo Lederer, ‘Bogenschütze’ (‘Archer’), bronze, created in 1916. Original location: Kaiserdamm-entrance of the Lietzenseepark in Berlin (2.20 meter high). Depicted on the cover of ‘Kunst und Volk, -Die NS Kulturgemeinde’, 1936, and in ‘Die Kunst im Deutschen Reich’, 1940.
A year earlier, in 1936, a total ban on all modern art was established. The Nazi state had paintings and sculptures confiscated from museums, sold abroad or destroyed. Moreover, 650 confiscated works by ostracized artists were shown in the exhibition ‘Entartete Kunst’ (‘Degenerate Art’) in Munich in 1937, where they were deliberately displayed in a chaotic installation accompanied by defamatory labels.
The Nazi efforts in this regard were unquestionably aided by a popular hostility to Modernism that predated their movement. The view that Cubism, Dadaism, Expressionism, Surrealism and Symbolism had reflected Germany’s condition and moral bankruptcy was widespread.
As a result of this persecution, numerous German intellectuals, artists and writers emigrated. Their works, which were ‘dangerous to the state’ for the National Socialists or incompatible with the National Socialist worldview, were banned by the censors. Other modern artists who remained in Germany retreated to the private sphere, which was referred to as ‘inner emigration’. After 1945, this term led to fierce confrontations with the exiles, who claimed they represented the ‘real Germany’.
Left: Otto Rost, ‘Badende’ (‘Bathing’), bronze. An identical bronze cast of ‘Badende’ was displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition 1940. It was bought for 2.000 Reichsmark by the ‘Reichsjugendführung’ in Berlin, headed by Reichsjugendführer Baldur von Schirach.
Right: Anto Grauel, ‘‘Melodie’ (‘Melody’), displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition in 1941.
National socialist art after 1945
In the first years after 1945, OMGUS (the U.S. Military Government in Germany) regulated and censored the art world. The Information Control Division (ICD, the key structure in the political control of post-war German culture in the American zone) was in fact a non-violent version of the Reichskulturkammer. With its seven subdivisions (i.e., press, literature, radio, film, theatre, music, and art), the ICD neatly replaced the Reich Chamber of Culture. In the ideology of OMGUS, painting and sculpting were conceived of as a strategic element in the campaign to politically re-educate the German people for a new democratic internationalism. Modern art allowed for the establishment of an easy continuity with the pre-Nazi modernist past, and it could serve as a springboard for the international projection of Germany as a new country interacting with its new Western partners. ‘Free’ artists producing ‘free art’ was one of the most powerful symbols of the new Germany, the answer to the politically controlled art of the Third Reich. Modern art linked Western Germany to Western Europe -separating the new West German aesthetic and politics from that of the Nazi era, the U.S.S.R., and East Germany- and suggested an ‘authentically’ German identity.
Thus, for more than seven decades the classical realistic art style essentially disappeared and Modern Art became the favoured style. The former Nazi art genre became the ‘New Degenerate Art’.
(partly based on ‘Capturing the German Eye: American Visual Propaganda in Occupied Germany’, 2009, by Cora Goldstein, professor of Political Science at California State University, and ‘NS-Kunst und Kultur’ by Arnulf Scriba, German Historical Museum, 2015).
Erwin Knirr, ‘Das Erwachen’ (‘Waking Up’). Displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition 1942. Bought by Robert Ley for 5,000 Reichsmark.