Art of the Third Reich

Essays by Steven Heller
1 637 words9 min read

It should come as very little consolation to the artists whose lives were ruined and whose work was ridiculed in Hitler’s travelling Degenerate Art Show that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, was a closet Expressionist. In the early days of the Third Reich not all Nazi leaders saw eye to eye. In fact, Goebbels was in a critical power struggle with the cultural theorist Alfred Rosenberg over what should be sanctioned as German art. In the search for a distinctive national style, Goebbels decided that aspects of German Expressionism—the force and vitality of the woodcut—could be incorporated into Nazi art; Rosenberg vehemently argued against such “Bolshevik filth” in the pages of the official arts magazine, Art in the Third Reich. A consummate politician, however, Goebbels knew when to back down the moment Hitler himself described Expressionism in this way, “It is not the function of art tot wallow in dirt for dirt’s sake, never its task to paint the state of decomposition, to draw cretins as the symbol of motherhood, to picture hunchbacked idiots as representatives of any strength."

Hitler’s war on Modern art—his “cleansing” of German culture—was the cornerstone of Nazi cultural policy. A wannabe artist himself Hitler was, as Peter Adam describes in his excellent analysis The Art of the Third Reich, obsessed with eradicating the modern artists which conspired to keep the future Fuhrer as a house painter. Though Hitler was a competent watercolorist and a better than average renderer of architectural details he was just not good enough to be accepted into the Vienna Art Academy when he as a young man. Instead he turned to politics.

Hilter wrote about what he’d do with Modernism in Mein Kampf, “ is an affair of the state... to prevent people from being driven into the arms of spiritual lunacy... for on the day that this kind of art were actually to correspond to the general conception, one of the most severe changes of mankind would have begun; the backward development of the human brain.” When first written in 1923-4 this passage was merely the reactionary bluster of an inmate of Spandow prison sentenced for his role in an attempted coup. Little could anyone conceive at the time that this statement would underscore a national policy. And although it did not take hold overnight, within three years of the Nazi rise to power the heartbeat of German modernism was silenced by the drumbeat of Nazi ideology.

Almost immediately the Nazis closed the Bauhaus—the perceived haven of socialists, bolsheviks and Jews—and began to suppress the manifestations of Modernism elsewhere in Germany. Hitler saw art as idealizing and mythologizing the state on the one hand and the German Volk, the people, on the other; this could only be accomplished through the most straightforward means. Expression was verbotten! The new official German artist had to be a technician of the highest degree, skilled at portraying the essence of the Aryan spirit through labored depictions which told unambiguous stories. Even the few Expressionist artists, most notably Emil Nolde, who were early party members were prevented from practicing because their abstractions subverted the needs of the state.


The hoopla around NEA funding policies in recent years—what and what not to support—pales when compared to the degree that the Nazis were so totally involved in the creation and production of art. Even the Italian Fascists, who were no less totalitarian, were more lenient in their tacit support of modernist approaches. If Adam’s book does nothing else, the portrait he paints of Hitler exercising his will over painting, sculpture, exhibition and pageant design, and of course his greatest love, architecture, is valuable for what it reveals about the power of these forms in a society dominated by the ideology of a charismatic leader. “As in all things the people trust the judgement of one man. Our Fuhrer. He knows which way German art must go in order to fulfil its task as a projection of the German character,” stated an art administrator, Adolf Ziegler. Hilter had such an acute understanding of the effect of images on the German people that nothing about Nazi art was left to chance. For those who might argue that totalitarian art is the same whether Nazi, Fascist or Communist Adam notes significant differences unique to the Nazis: “the representation of the individual man in the factory was considered a sigh of past liberal times that according to the philosophy of the National Socialists, saw a kind of salvation in technology...[the Nazis] castigated even socialist realist art of the Soviet Union with its ‘mechanical dehumanization, blind adoration of the machine, and its crude materialism.’ Both liberalism and Communism put technology above man. The National Socialists stressed the fact that behind the machines stood the will not of a single man but of the people."

Disappointingly, Adam gives short shrift given to graphic design. The Nazis are often credited with the most successful national “identity,” ever designed; and its visual propaganda was among the most effective in the modern world. Adam allows that the ideals behind the other arts were manifest in applied art, but does not give the same exacting detail into creation of, say, posters and advertisements as he does the other arts. Given the totality of Nazi control, it would have been fascinating to know why Goebbels brought back German Fraktur to replace sans-serif, which he was reputed to have called a Jewish invention. Or why some years later the more legible sans-serifs do make their way back into German typefoundries replacing Fraktur as a dominant typeface.

Adam is at his best when analyzing the monumental sculptures of Hitler’s favorite artists, Arno Breker and Josef Thorak, whose flawless Aryan statues stood in and outside of many Nazi office buildings as a reminder of German ideals, and the buildings themselves which, designed by Hitler’s handpicked state architects (whom the Fuhrer coddled more than any other functionary) were intended to dwarf the volk, who in every aspect of their lives were to be subordinate to the state. Hitler’s plans for rebuilding Berlin as a fortress of concrete and stone, including a domed party stadium twenty times the size of St. Peters—perhaps akin to the Houston Astrodome today—and able to hold party rallies of more than 100,000 people, is the epitome of totalitarian design in the service of power.


But with all the examples of art serving the state, nothing discussed in The Art of the Third Riech is more eerie than the account of Entartete “Kunst,” the Degenerate Art show, which is made to come alive in the book Degenerate Art, a precisely detailed analysis of every room and alcove of this vicious exhibition. To explain the purpose of the show one can read Goebbels’ statement about it (and perhaps recall Jesse Helmes’ comments on contemporary art): “How deeply the perverse Jewish spirit has penetrated German cultural life is shown in the frightening and horrifying forms of the ‘Exhibition of Degenerate Art...’ This has nothing at all to do with the suppression of artistic freedom and modern progress. On the contrary, the botched art works which were exhibited there and their creators are of yesterday and before yesterday. They are the senile representatives, no longer to be taken seriously, of a period that we have intellectually and politically overcome and whose monstrous, degenerate creations still haunt the field of the plastic arts in our time."

Rather than simply remove, hide, or destroy art that offended the Nazi regime, party curators assembled up large numbers of confiscated paintings by Kirschner, Nolde, Beckmann, Heckel, Dix, and other masters of Expressionism, as well as canvases by Braque, Derain, Chagal, van Doesburg, Ensor, and more, and displayed them jammed together as if in a concentration camp for art with “labels so insulting that even Hitler thought some of them too strong,” writes Adam. However, in its arrangement, which is documented with period photographs and contemporary diagrams in Degenerate Art, the designers borrowed from the “much despised Dadaists.” The way of inelegantly hanging pictures and the graffiti-like slogans, based on the need to shock had been done by the Dadaists at their art fairs. Young people were barred from the show to underscore the pornographic nature of the works. At one point organizers of the show suggested that museum directors and artists be placed next to the work so that the public could spit upon them. The Degenerate Art show in Munich (and elsewhere) was a big success. Goebbels believed he had issued the death blow to modern art; actually many viewers came to pay their final respects to art they liked. When the show was over the Nazis burned as many as 1,000 paintings. Goebbels wanted to destroy more, but according to Adam, “Hitler, realizing that this art could be a source of considerable income, decided to sell it."

Hitler had over a decade to produce art that was to be the foundation on which a one thousand year culture would be built. After Hitler lost the war these spoils were distributed between the victors. Many examples were shipped back to the United States and selected pieces were deposited in study collections, such as the poster collection at the Library of Congress. Many of the larger paintings and sculptures were stored in a huge airplane hangar in Virgina until a few years ago when offered back to the Germans. They declined. It is rumored that afterward the unwanted work was unceremoniously dumped into the Atlantic ocean. While there are those that argue that it is now where it belongs, some still see the function of art to support the highest ideals of society and support its myths. Both these books show some similarities with art being proffered even today.