Modern history



Alongside the ‘new objectivity’ (Neue Sachlichkeit), Expressionism was in many ways the dominant movement not only in German literature but also in German art during the Weimar Republic.114 Its most widely acceptable face was represented by the sculptor Ernst Barlach, whose work was heavily influenced by the primitive peasant art he encountered on a visit to Russia before the First World War. Barlach produced solid, stumpy, stylized, self-consciously folksy sculptures of human figures, first of all carved in wood, later in other media such as stucco and bronze. The figures were usually given a monumental, immobile quality by being depicted draped in stylized robes or cloaks. They were popular, and he received numerous commissions after 1918 for war memorials in many parts of Germany. Elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1919, he had become an establishment figure by the mid-1920s, and was known for his hostility to abstraction, his critical distance from the rest of the Expressionist movement itself, and his steadfast refusal to engage in party politics. His art might have been expected to appeal to the Nazis, and indeed Joseph Goebbels recorded his admiration for one of Barlach’s sculptures in a diary entry in the mid-1920s and was said later to have displayed two small figures by Barlach in his house.115 The Propaganda Minister invited Barlach, along with some other Expressionist artists including Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, to the opening ceremony of the Reich Chamber of Culture, and his inclination to support them was backed by a campaign launched by members of the Nazi Students’ League in Berlin for a new kind of Nordic modernism, based on an Expressionism purged of Jewish artists and abstract images.116

But these efforts foundered on the hostility of Alfred Rosenberg on the one hand, and the refusal of Barlach himself to compromise with the regime on the other. Rosenberg denounced Barlach and the Expressionists in the pages of the Racial Observer and branded the Berlin students as outmoded revolutionaries along the lines of the disgraced Nazi leftist Otto Strasser. For his part, Barlach refused the invitation to the opening of the Reich Chamber of Culture. He had come to feel the hostility of the regime at a local level, and commissions for war memorials, plans for exhibitions and publications of his writings started to be cancelled soon after the appointment of Hitler as Reich Chancellor in January 1933. His monuments to the war dead had already run into criticism in the early 1930s from right-wing veterans’ associations such as the Steel Helmets for their refusal to portray German soldiers of the First World war as heroic figures dying in a noble cause. Germanic racists accused Barlach of showing German soldiers with the features of Slavic sub-humans. Living in the strongly National Socialist province of Mecklenburg, Barlach began to be exposed to anonymous letters and insults posted on the front door of his house. He felt obliged to withdraw his acceptance of a commission for a new war memorial in Stralsund under this pressure.117 Barlach had stayed in Germany partly because he hoped that the Third Reich would respect the creative freedom of the artist, partly because, given the kind of work he did, it would not have been easy for him to make a living elsewhere.118 By the beginning of May 1933 he was already disillusioned. ‘The fawning cowardice of this magnificent era’, he wrote bitterly to his brother, ‘makes one go red up to the ears and beyond to think that one is German.’119

Barlach’s unacceptability to the regime became clearer in 1933-4. The most controversial of his war memorials was a large wooden sculpture located in Magdeburg Cathedral. It showed three figures - a helmeted skeleton, a veiled woman pressing her fists together in agony and a bare-headed man with a gas mask between his arms, closing his eyes and clutching his head in despair - rising from the ground in front of the stylized forms of three soldiers, draped in greatcoats and standing side by side. The soldier in the middle has a bandage on his head and rests his hands on a large cross with the dates of the war on it, thus forming the centrepiece of the whole ensemble. Soon after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, the press began to carry petitions for its removal, encouraged by Alfred Rosenberg, who described its figures as ‘little half-idiotic, morose-looking bastard variations of indefinable human types with Soviet helmets’ in the Racial Observer in July 1933.120 While negotiations dragged on between the Propaganda Ministry, the Church and the Party about its removal, the press campaign against Barlach escalated. Allegations that he was Jewish prompted Barlach to respond that he did not want to issue a public rebuttal since he did not feel insulted by the claim. His friends researched his ancestry and published evidence that he was not Jewish. It filled his heart with sadness, he wrote, to think that such a thing was necessary.121 The memorial was eventually taken down towards the end of 1934 and placed in storage.122 Barlach defended himself from widespread attacks on his art as ‘un-German’ by pointing to the fact that its roots lay among the North German peasantry amongst whom he lived. Now in his mid-sixties, he found it difficult to understand how his sculptures could arouse such venomous hostility. In an attempt to deflect it, he signed a declaration in support of Hitler’s assumption of the headship of state after the death of Hindenburg in August 1934. But this did nothing to assuage the Nazi Party leadership in Mecklenburg, and the regional government began to remove his works from the state museum.

Many of Barlach’s admirers, including enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi movement, found such treatment difficult to accept. The Nazi girls’ organization official Melita Maschmann, for example, admired his work and could not understand why he had been branded by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’.123 In the end, however, Barlach fell foul of the regime because his work went against the Nazi glorification of war, because he refused to compromise his art, because he responded assertively to criticism and because he made no secret of his dislike of Nazi Germany’s cultural policies. In 1936, the Bavarian police seized all the copies of a new book of his drawings from the publisher’s warehouse in Munich. They were acting on the orders of Goebbels: ‘Have banned a crazy book by Barlach,’ he wrote in his diary: ‘It isn’t art. It is destructive, incompetent nonsense. Disgusting! This poison must not enter our people.’124 The Gestapo added insult to injury by describing the drawings as ‘art-bolshevik expressions of a destructive concept of art not appropriate to our age’. The book was placed on the index of forbidden literature. Despite his continued protests at the injustices to which he was being subjected, Barlach became progressively more isolated. He was forced to resign from the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1937. ‘When day after day one has to expect the threatened, deadly blow, work stops by itself,’ he wrote. ‘I resemble someone driven into a corner, the pack at his heels.’125 His health underwent a serious decline, and he died in hospital of a heart attack on 24 October 1938.126

The kind of sculptor for whom the Nazis could feel a genuine enthusiasm was Arno Breker. Born in 1900, Breker belonged to a younger generation than Barlach. During his student days he had produced a number of sculptures that clearly showed the older man’s influence. A lengthy stay in Paris, from 1927 to 1932, put him firmly under the aegis of Aristide Maillol, whose figurative style now shaped his own. During a sojourn in Rome early in 1933, when he was working on the restoration of a damaged sculpture by Michelangelo, he met Goebbels, who recognized his talent and encouraged him to return to Germany. After winding up his affairs in Paris, Breker duly obliged. Previously unpolitical, indeed as an expatriate not very well informed about German politics at all, he quickly fell under the spell of the Nazis. Breker’s style was framed mainly by non-German influences - Classical Greek sculpture, Michelangelo, Maillol. Some of his busts, like one of the Impressionist painter Max Liebermann, completed in 1934, were penetrating, subtle and full of illuminating detail. But soon he was smoothing over the rough edges of his work, rendering it more impersonal, and giving it a more monumental, less intimate quality, projecting toughness, hardness and aggression in his figures rather than the softer human qualities with which he had endowed them in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, Breker was producing massive, musclebound, superdimensional male nudes, Aryan supermen in stone.127

This soon paid dividends. Prizewinning entries in a competition mounted in 1936 on the theme of sporting achievement won him an increasing number of official commissions. In 1937 he joined the Nazi Party to smooth the way for further official patronage. Breker became personally acquainted with Hitler, who put his bust of Wagner in his private quarters in Berchtesgaden. He was nominated ‘Official State Sculptor’ on Hitler’s birthday in 1937 and given a huge studio with forty-three employees to help him with his work. He became an influential figure, lionized by Goring and other leading Nazis and protected by them from any criticism. In 1937 his work was given a prominent place in the German pavilion at the Paris World Exposition. In 1938 he designed two massive male nudes to be placed at the entrance to the newly built Reich Chancellery - Torch Bearer and Sword Bearer. Others followed, notably Readiness, in 1939, a muscly male figure frowning in hatred at an unseen enemy, his right hand about to draw a sword from its scabbard to begin the fight. Breker became a wealthy man, enjoying a huge variety of favours and decorations, including several houses, massive subsidies and of course large fees for his public work. Lifeless, inhuman, striking contrived poses of unbridled menace, and embodying the empty, declamatory assertion of an imagined collective will, Breker’s sculptures became the hallmark of the public artistic taste of the Third Reich. Their almost machine-like quality placed them unmistakeably in the twentieth century; they looked forward to the new type of human being whose creation was one of the primary aims of Nazi cultural policy, unthinkingly physical, aggressive, ready for war.128


By the time Breker came to public prominence, the cultural managers of the Third Reich had effectively disposed of abstract, modernist art of the kind they were accustomed to describe as ‘degenerate’. Hitler’s own tastes played a role here greater perhaps than in any other area of cultural policy apart from architecture. He himself had once attempted to make a career as an artist, but from the very beginning he had rejected modernism in all its varieties.129 Once in power, he turned his prejudices into policy. On 1 September 1933 Hitler told the Nuremberg Party Rally that it was time for a new, German art. The coming of the Third Reich, he said, ‘leads ineluctably to a new orientation in almost every area of the people’s life’. The effects ‘of this spiritual revolution’ must be felt in art too. Art must reflect the racial soul of the people. The idea that art was international must be rejected as decadent, and Jewish. He condemned what he saw as its expression ‘in the cubist-dadaist cult of primitivism’ and in cultural Bolshevism and announced in its stead ‘a new artistic Renaissance of the Aryan human being’. And he warned that modernist artists would not be forgiven their past sins:

In the cultural sphere, too, the National Socialist movement and leadership of the state must not tolerate mountebanks or incompetents suddenly changing their colours and thus, as if nothing had happened, taking a place in the new state so that they can talk big about art and cultural policy . . . Either the monstrous products of their production at that time reflected a genuine inner experience, in which case they are a danger to the healthy sense of our people and belong in medical care, or they were just done to make money, in which case they are guilty of fraud and belong in the care of another appropriate institution. In no way do we want the cultural expression of our Reich to be distorted by these elements; for this is not their state, but ours.130

Nineteen thirty-three had seen, accordingly, a massive purge of Jewish artists, abstract artists, semi-abstract artists, left-wing artists and indeed almost all the artists in Germany at the time who had any kind of international reputation. Declarations of support for the new regime, even Nazi Party membership since the earliest days, as in the case of the primitivist painter and sculptor Emil Nolde, failed to save those of whose earlier work Hitler disapproved. The few artists of distinction who remained in the hope of better times to come, like Ernst Barlach, were quickly disillusioned.131

In 1933, Jewish, Social Democratic, liberal and leftist art museum directors had been summarily removed from their posts and replaced with people deemed by the Nazis to be more reliable. The Folkwang Museum in Essen was even put into the hands of an SS officer, Klaus Graf Baudissin, who had the museum’s famous murals by Oskar Schlemmer, an artist closely associated with the Bauhaus, painted over. Yet art museum directors continued to show works of which the more extreme wing of the Nazi Party disapproved. Even Baudissin, a trained art historian, kept works by Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc and Emil Nolde on show well into 1935. The Director of the Bavarian State Painting Collections, Ernst Buchner, a Nazi Party member since 1 May 1933, fought for the right to exhibit the work of a Jewish-German artist such as the Impressionist Max Liebermann and in 1935 successfully resisted attempts by the Reich Education and Religion Minister Bernhard Rust to force him to sell off works by Van Gogh and the French Impressionists, to whom the Nazis objected not least because they were not German. When Hitler personally removed the long-term and pro-modernist Director of the National Gallery, Ludwig Justi, from his post in 1933, his successor, Alois Schardt, organized a spectacular new exhibition of German art that included works by Nolde and a variety of Expressionists. Visiting the gallery for a preview, Education Minister Bernhard Rust was outraged. He immediately fired the new director and ordered the exhibition to be dismantled; Schardt emigrated to the United States after presiding at a small Berlin gallery over an exhibition of work by Franz Marc that was closed down by the Gestapo the day it opened in May 1936. Schardt’s successor Eberhard Hanfstaengl, previously a gallery director in Munich, fared no better; he fell foul of Hitler when the Leader paid a surprise visit and saw some Expressionist works on the walls. On 30 October 1936 the new wing of the National Gallery was closed after it had housed an exhibition that included paintings by Paul Klee.132 Similar closures now followed elsewhere. Over the period since the middle of 1933, gallery and museum directors, including those appointed by the Nazis themselves, had fought a cultural guerrilla war against the demands of local Nazi bosses to remove paintings of one kind or another from exhibition. A few, like Hanfstaengl, had continued to purchase modern art, though he discreetly left it out of the museum’s published catalogue. But the time for such compromises and evasions was now over.133

From the very beginning, some of the most fanatical of the Nazi art gallery and museum directors organized shows of the modernist works they had withdrawn from exhibition, under titles such as ‘Chamber of Art Horrors’, ‘Images of Cultural Bolshevism’, ‘Mirrors of Decadence in Art’ or ‘The Spirit of November: Art in the Service of Decay’. Those exhibited included Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, August Macke, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Emil Nolde. German-based foreign artists such as Alexei Jawlensky and Vassily Kandinsky also featured, alongside the inevitable Cubists and avant-garde artists from other countries.134 The inclusion of Macke and Marc caused particular controversy because they had both been killed on the front in the First World War, and veterans’ associations objected to the insult their proscription did to their memory.135 Some of the earliest of these exhibitions, held already in 1933, had aroused strong protests on the part of art-loving visitors, leading in some cases to their arrest. But within a very short space of time, such opposition became impossible. By the mid-1930s exhibitions of this kind had been mounted in sixteen different cities. Hitler visited the most important of them, in Dresden, in August 1935. Close inspection of the offending works prompted him to deliver another lengthy diatribe against them at the Nuremberg Party Rally shortly afterwards, the third time he had used this occasion to lecture his followers on the subject. Clearly, Goebbels needed to fall into line if he was to prevent Rosenberg, Rust and the other anti-modernists from taking over the lead in cultural policy. So, in June 1936, he acted. ‘Horrible examples of art Bolshevism’, he wrote in his diary, ‘have been brought to my attention’, as if he had not seen them before; ‘I want to arrange an exhibit in Berlin of art from the period of degeneracy. So that people can see and learn to recognize it.’ By the end of the month he had obtained Hitler’s permission to requisition ‘German degenerate art since 1910’ (the date of the first abstract painting, by the Munich-based Russian artist Vassily Kandinsky) from public collections for the show. Many in the Propaganda Ministry were reluctant to go along with the project. Its political opportunism was cynical even by Goebbels’s standards. He knew that Hitler’s hatred of artistic modernism was unquenchable, and so he decided to gain favour by pandering to it, even though he did not share it himself.136

The exhibition’s organization was entrusted to Adolf Ziegler, President of the Reich Chamber for the Visual Arts, and a painter of classical nudes whose pedantic realism earned him the popular nickname of the ‘Reich Master of Pubic Hair’.137 Armed with commissions from Goebbels and Hitler, Ziegler and his entourage toured German galleries and museums and picked out works to be taken to the new exhibition. Museum directors, including Buchner and Hanfstaengl, were furious, refused to co-operate, and pleaded with Hitler to obtain compensation if the confiscated works were sold abroad. Such resistance was not tolerated, and Hanfstaengl lost his job at the Berlin National Gallery as a result. One hundred and eight works were seized from the Munich collections, and comparable numbers from museums elsewhere.138 When the Degenerate Art show opened in Munich, long recognized as Germany’s art capital, on 19 July, 1937, visitors found that the 650 or so works it contained were deliberately badly displayed, hung at odd angles, poorly lit, and jammed up together on the walls, higgledy-piggledy, under general titles such as ‘Farmers Seen by Jews’, ‘Insult to German Womanhood’ and ‘Mockery of God’.139 Ironically, the diagonal lines and the graffitoid slogans on the walls owed something to the design techniques of the Dada movement, one of the exhibition’s prime targets. Here, however, they were intended to express a congruity between the art produced by mental asylum inmates, a major point of discussion amongst liberal psychiatrists under the Weimar Republic, and the distorted perspectives adopted by the Cubists and their ilk, a point made explicit in much of the propaganda surrounding the assault on degenerate art as the product of degenerate human beings.140

Hitler toured the exhibition before it opened to the public, and devoted a major part of a speech on the eve of its inauguration to a ferocious denunciation of the works it showed:

Never has the human race been closer in appearance and temperament to Antiquity than today. Sporting, competitive and combative games are steeling millions of youthful bodies and they are increasingly taking on a form and constitution that have not perhaps been seen for a thousand years, indeed have scarcely been dreamed of . . . This type of human being, my art-stutterer gentlemen, is the type of the new age. And what do you knock together? Malformed cripples and cretins, women who can only arouse repulsion. Men who are nearer to animals than to humans, children who, if they lived so, would virtually have to be regarded as curses of God!141

He even instructed the Reich Interior Ministry to investigate the defective visual capacities he thought had partly led to such distortion. They were, he thought, inherited. Cubists and others who did not stick to slavishly accurate representations of their human subjects were to be sterilized.142

In fact, the most important criteria for the selection of works to be displayed in the exhibition were not aesthetic, but racial and political. Of the nine sections into which it was divided, only the first and the last were based on aesthetic criteria. The others pilloried the subjects chosen rather than the manner in which they were depicted. The first section covered ‘barbarism of representation’, ‘garish-coloured blobs of paint’ and ‘deliberate contempt for all the basic skills of the visual arts’. The second showed work deemed to be blasphemous, and the third political art advocating anarchism and the class struggle. A fourth section displayed paintings showing soldiers as murderers or, alternatively, as war cripples. According to the catalogue, in these pictures ‘the deeply ingrained respect for every soldierly virtue, for courage, bravery and readiness for action is to be driven out of the people’s consciousness’. A fifth section was devoted to immoral and pornographic art (most too disgusting to be shown, it was claimed). A sixth part of the exhibition showed the ‘destruction of the last remains of racial consciousness’ in pictures supposedly presenting negroes, prostitutes and the like as racial ideals. In a similar way, a seventh section was devoted to paintings and graphic works in which ‘the idiot, the cretin und the paraplegic’ were depicted in a positive light. Section eight was given over to the work of Jewish artists. The last and biggest section covered the ‘ “isms”, that Flechtheim, Wollheim and their Cohnsorts [sic] have hatched up, pushed and sold at knockdown prices over the years’, from Dadaism to Cubism and beyond. All of this, declared the catalogue, would show the public that modern art was not just a fad: Jews and cultural bolshevists were mounting a ‘planned attack on the existence and continuation of art altogether’. Five out of the brochure’s ten illustrated recto pages carried antisemitic messages just to underline the point.143 Modernist art, as many Nazi polemics of the time claimed, was above all the product of international, foreign influences. Art had to return to the German soul. As for modernism, one writer concluded with the fervent wish: ‘May the degenerate suffocate in its own filth, without anybody sympathizing with its fate.’144

The exhibition was enormously popular and attracted over two million visitors by the end of November 1937. Entry was free, and massive press publicity drew people’s attention to the horrors it contained.145 The exhibits were, the papers proclaimed, ‘shoddy products of a melancholy age’, ‘ghosts of the past’, from the era when ‘bolshevism and dilettantism celebrated their triumphs’. Lurid descriptions and illustrations showed readers what they could expect to see when they went to the exhibition.146 In its first few weeks, at least, it was visited mainly by people from the Munich lower middle classes, many of whom had never been to an art exhibition before, and by the Party faithful, eager to imbibe a new form of antisemitic hatred. The stipulation that children and young persons were not to be allowed in because the exhibits were too shocking added an element of titillation to entice the eager public. Despite this, some young people did attend, among them the seventeen-year-old Peter Guenther, who went in July. The son of a liberal art journalist who had been expelled from the Reich Chamber of Literature in 1935, Guenther knew a fair amount about paintings. He found the atmosphere at the exhibition frightening and intimidating. The visitors, he reported later, commented loudly on how incompetently executed the works displayed were, and how there had been a conspiracy of art critics, dealers and museum directors to fool the public, a sentiment encouraged by the fact that a number of the exhibits had price tags attached to them indicating how much they had cost (‘paid from the pennies paid in tax by the German working people’). One painting by Erich Heckel came with a price-tag of a million Marks; the exhibitors did not say that this had been paid in 1923, towards the height of the hyperinflation, and was in fact worth very little in real terms. Some Party groups who visited the exhibition telegrammed the Propaganda Ministry with messages such as: ‘The artists should be tied up next to their pictures so that every German can spit in their faces.’ Carola Roth, a friend of the artist Max Beckmann, noted how while older visitors went round the exhibition shaking their heads, younger Party activists and brownshirts laughed and jeered at the exhibits. The atmosphere of hatred and loudmouthed ridicule allowed no dissent; indeed it was an essential part of the exhibition itself, turning it into yet another mass propaganda exercise for the regime. Later on, however, when young Peter Guenther paid a second visit, the atmosphere was, he reported, much quieter, with some visitors lingering in front of artworks they clearly enjoyed and which they had come to see for what they suspected might be the last time. Yet overall, the exhibition was clearly a success. Like much else in Nazi culture, it allowed ordinary conservative citizens the opportunity to voice out loud prejudices that they had long held but previously been hesitant to reveal. 147

Many of the artists whose work was on display were either foreigners, like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, or Oskar Kokoschka, or had emigrated, like Paul Klee or Vassily Kandinsky. But some of the artists who featured in the exhibition had stayed on in Germany, in the hope that the tide would turn and they would be rehabilitated. Max Beckmann, whose last solo exhibition had been as recently as 1936, in Hamburg, left for exile in Amsterdam the day after the opening of the Degenerate Art exhibition. Though far from well off, Beckmann was still painting. He was supported by sympathetic dealers and foreign admirers in the following, difficult years.148 Others were not so fortunate. 149 The Expressionist artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who at this time, like Beckmann, was in his fifties, had already been living for most of the time in Switzerland since the 1920s, but he depended far more than Beckmann did on the German art market for his livelihood. Until 1937 he did not give up hope. But in July 1937 he was finally expelled from the Prussian Academy of Arts, and many of his works were confiscated from German collections by the Ziegler commission, which exhibited no fewer than thirty-two of them in the Degenerate Art show. Kirchner was already ill, and for some years he had lost his way as an artist, never really recapturing the greatness of his period in Berlin from 1910 to the mid- 1920s. For him this was the last straw. ‘I had always hoped that Hitler was for all Germans,’ he wrote bitterly, ‘and now he has defamed so many and really serious, good artists of German blood. This is very sad for those affected, because they - the serious ones among them - all wished to, and did, work for Germany’s fame and honour.’ A fresh round of confiscations of his work only deepened his despair. On 15 June 1938 he destroyed many of the works he kept in his rural retreat in Switzerland, stepped outside the house, and shot himself in the heart.150


Meanwhile, the regime, in a way that was characteristic of its decision-making in other areas too, took the opportunity of the exhibition to pass legislation generalizing the policy it represented. Hitler declared the day before the exhibition opened that the time for tolerance was at an end:

From now on we shall wage a remorseless war of cleansing against the last elements of the subversion of our culture . . . But now - I will assure you here - all those cliques of chatterers, dilettantes and art-frauds who puff each other up and so keep each other going, will be caught and removed. As far as we’re concerned, these prehistorical, antediluvian cultural stone-agers and art-stutterers can go back to their ancestral caves to carry on their international scrawlings there.151

The ‘chatterers’ indeed had already been silenced by an order issued by Goebbels on 27 November 1936 banning art criticism, which, he said, had been ‘elevated into a court of judgment over art in the era of foreign, Jewish domination of art’. In its place came ‘art reporting’, which was to limit itself to simple description. In an art world where everything exhibited in public museums and galleries was there with the approval of the Propaganda Ministry and the Reich Chamber of the Plastic Arts, art criticism could seem too much like criticism of the regime.152 To ensure that modernist works could no longer to be put on public display, Ziegler declared in his opening address that the country’s galleries would soon be stripped of such excrescences altogether.153 Goebbels told the Reich Culture Chamber shortly afterwards that the ‘frightening and horrifying forms of the “Exhibition of Degenerate Art” in Munich’ showed ‘botched art works’, the ‘monstrous, degenerate creations’ of men of ‘yesterday’, ‘senile representatives . . . of a period that we have intellectually and politically overcome’. On 31 May 1938 a Law for the Confiscation of the Products of Degenerate Art was promulgated. It retrospectively legalized the seizure of degenerate artworks not only from galleries and museums but also from private collections, without compensation save in exceptional cases ‘to avoid hardship’.154 The confiscation programme was centralized in the hands of a commission headed by Adolf Ziegler and including the art dealer Karl Haberstock and Hitler’s photographer Heinrich Hoffmann.155

The commission increased the number of artworks seized to around 5,000 paintings and 12,000 graphic works, drawings, woodcuts and watercolours from a total of 101 art galleries and museums all over Germany.156 Some non-German works were returned to foreign institutions and individuals who had loaned them to German museums, some forty were eventually given back, and some were exchanged. In addition, Hermann Göring reserved fourteen of the most valuable pieces for himself: four paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, four by Edvard Munch, three by Franz Marc and one each by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Paul Signac. He sold them off to raise money to buy tapestries to adorn Carinhall, the palatial hunting lodge he had built in memory of his first wife; an illegal piece of profiteering which hinted strongly at how he would behave when the art of other European countries was at his disposal.157 Moreover, as artists in exile and their supporters abroad quickly organized counter-exhibitions of ‘Twentieth-Century German Art’, most notably in London, Paris and Boston, they drew attention to the reputation many of the banned artists enjoyed abroad. The Nazi regime simply could not ignore the demand for modernist German art in other countries in its search for badly needed hard currency. Goebbels began negotiations with Wildenstein and other dealers outside Germany and remodelled Ziegler’s commission into a body more closely under his control. Set up within the Propaganda Ministry in May 1938, it included three art dealers and was charged with the disposal of the confiscated works. Over the next few years, up to 1942, over a million Reichsmarks from the sale of up to 3,000 confiscated artworks were deposited in a special account in the Reichsbank. The most public transaction was a sale of 125 works by Ernst Barlach, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Max Liebermann, Henri Matisse, Amadeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Maurice Vlaminck and others at the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne on 30 June 1939. All but thirty-one of them found a buyer. Some of the proceeds went to the museums and galleries from which the works had been seized, but most of them were put into a London account to enable Hitler to buy paintings for his personal collection. In this way, a good number of the confiscated artworks survived.158

The great majority, however, did not. The total sum realized from the Lucerne auction, just over half a million Swiss francs, was disappointing even by the standards of the day. The knowledge that the regime was confiscating and offloading large quantities of modern art caused prices to plummet in behind-the-scenes sales as well. One painting by Max Beckmann, Southern Coast, went for only $20. It seemed that big profits were not to be made from them after all. A million Reichsmarks was little enough in the end. Although two further auctions were planned, another small sale was held in Zurich in August 1939, and private transactions took place all the way up to 1942, the looming threat of war made the transport of large quantities of artworks abroad increasingly inadvisable.159 Their disposal was made more difficult by the fact that Hitler had personally inspected the collection of 12,167 remaining pieces in a warehouse in Berlin and forbidden their return to the collections from which they had been removed. There seemed little alternative but to destroy those that had not been sold. After all, in the eyes of Ziegler and his commission they were artistically worthless anyway. On 20 March 1939, therefore, some 1,004 oil paintings and 3,825 watercolours, drawings and graphic works were piled up in the courtyard of the central fire station in Berlin and set alight. The bonfire was not attended by the public or accompanied by any formal ceremony or public announcement. None the less, it bore strong reminiscences of the earlier book-burnings of 10 May 1933 that had consumed the works of Jewish, left-wing and modernist writers on the public squares of Germany’s university cities.160

Map 5. ‘Degenerate Art’Exhibitions

Modernist art in Germany had finally been destroyed in the most physical possible way. Modernist works had now been removed from German collections and thrown onto a bonfire. The only ones to be seen were displayed in the Degenerate Art exhibition, which now went on tour in a reduced form, and attracted substantial numbers of visitors in other cities such as Berlin, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt in the following two years.161 Modernist artists had been forced into exile or prevented from selling or exhibiting their work in public. Yet they had not disappeared altogether. On the contrary, as the Security Service of the SS reported in 1938, ‘cultural bolshevist’ and ‘Expressionist’ works were still being exhibited at private galleries and shows, especially in Berlin. In a competition held in Berlin in 1938, the SS complained, ‘the exhibition of young artists offered for the most part a picture of degeneracy and incompetence, so that this part of the artistic younger generation has opposed itself to the National Socialist conception of art’.162 It seemed, then, that Nazi views of art had not triumphed after all, except by the brutal physical suppression of the alternatives. Nor was this all. The SS also complained in 1938 that ‘opposition to the National Socialist view of art was present amongst wide sections of the German artistic community itself . . . insofar as they are not to be regarded as markedly National Socialist by inclination’. Particularly unpopular was the Reich Chamber for the Visual Arts, which, according to the SS report, almost all German artists disliked. 163 It exercised extensive powers over its 42,000 members, who included architects, garden designers, interior decorators, copyists, antiques dealers, potters, and indeed almost anyone who had any connection with the visual arts. To qualify for membership it was necessary to fill in an elaborate questionnaire listing the applicant’s previous political affiliations and giving the racial background of family members.164 Anyone who did not qualify could not practice. Unable to make a living any more from selling their work, some turned to humiliatingly menial alternatives. By 1939, for instance, Oskar Schlemmer was painting camouflage on military buildings.165

In the meantime, ‘German’ artists like Arno Breker prospered as never before. They were encouraged by the Propaganda Ministry, which instituted a whole series of prizes, awards and titles for artists whose work conformed to the Nazi ideal.166 Art exhibitions all over Germany now carried titles such as ‘Blood and Soil’ or ‘Basic Forces of the German Will to Form’, and devoted themselves to subjects such as portraits of National Socialist leaders, above all, of course, Hitler himself.167 Moreover, the Degenerate Art Exhibition was not mounted in isolation, but was in fact the pendant to a ‘Great German Art Exhibition’ opened in Munich the day before.168 The huge show, which was renewed annually thereafter and preceded by a massive pageant of German culture in the streets of Munich, contained landscapes, still life paintings, portraits, allegorical statues and much more besides. Its themes included animals and nature, motherhood, industry, sport, and peasant life and rural trades, though not, perhaps surprisingly, soldiers or warfare. Massive, impersonal nudes provided prominent, untouchable, superhuman images of permanence and timelessness to contrast with the human dimension of the art now branded as degenerate. 169 Hitler himself inspected the exhibits in advance and personally threw out one in ten from the list of works chosen for display. Dissatisfied with the lack of rigour shown by Ziegler’s commission, he appointed his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann to make the final selection.170 The relatively low attendance at the exhibition - little over 400,000 compared to almost three million who attended the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich and on tour - was probably due mainly to the fact that visitors had to pay.171 But it too was a success. According to Peter Guenther, visitors praised the craftsmanship and the realistic, lifelike quality of the statues and paintings (even those intended as allegories) and were generally impressed by the exhibits. Once more, many visitors, in the view of young Guenther, had not been to an art exhibition before.172 Nazi art policy, above all, was for people such as these.173


The Great German Art exhibition was housed in a purpose-built museum, designed in the style of an antique temple by the architect Paul Ludwig Troost. Its heavy, squared-off columns marching in front of a solid rectangular block of a building were a long way away from the delicate and subtle neo-Classical architecture that Troost sought to imitate. Like other Nazi buildings, it was first and foremost a statement of power.174 The House of German Art was only one of a large number of prestigious projects Hitler had begun as soon as he took power in 1933. Indeed, he had been thinking about them since the early 1920s. Hitler imagined himself an architect even more than he thought of himself as a painter, and paid more attention to architecture than to any other of the arts. ‘Every great era finds the concluding expression of its values in its buildings,’ he declared in 1938: ‘When peoples inwardly experience great times, they also give these times external expression. Their word is then more convincing than when it is spoken: it is the word in stone!’175

The new public buildings of the Third Reich were all conceived in this massive, pseudo-Classical, monumental style. Like the public buildings Hitler had observed and drawn on Vienna’s Ringstrasse in his younger days, they were intended to project permanence and durability. All of them were influenced by Hitler’s own personal architectural and design plans. Hitler spent hours working with architects on refining their ideas, poring over models and discussing the finer points of style and decoration. Already in 1931-2 he had collaborated with Troost on redesigning the Königsplatz in Munich, and when he came to power, these plans were put into effect. The old Party headquarters at the Brown House were replaced by a gigantic Leader Building and a huge Administration Building, housing vast reception halls and decorated with swastikas and eagles on the façade. There was a balcony on each one from which Hitler could speak to the crowds who were expected to gather below. Despite their appearance, the new buildings incorporated advanced technology in their construction and equipment, including air-conditioning. Adjoining were two characteristic expressions of the Nazi cult of the dead: temples of honour dedicated to the Nazis who had been killed in the 1923 beer-hall putsch. In each of them, an atmosphere of reverent sacrality prevailed, with the bodies of the recently exhumed martyrs displayed in sarcophagi mounted on a dais, open to the elements, and flanked by twenty limestone pillars lit by flaming braziers. The huge grass arena of the Königsplatz itself was paved over with 24,000 square feet of granite slabs. ‘Something new has been created here,’ remarked a commentator, ‘the deepest meaning of which is a political one.’ Here the organized and disciplined masses would gather to swear allegiance to the new order. The whole ensemble was, he concluded, ‘ideology become stone’.176

As in other fields, Nazi cultural managers took some time to impose their views. The Reich Chamber of Architects soon expelled Jewish practitioners from the profession, but despite Nazi hostility to ultramodern architecture, it was slower to move against the modernists, some of whom, such as Mies van der Rohe, remained in Germany for a while, though finding it increasingly difficult to practise. By 1935, however, the more experimental types of modernism had been effectively routed; Mies soon emigrated to New York.177 By the mid-1930s, constructions of the Weimar era such as modernist apartment blocks were no longer in fashion. Instead, the Nazi ideal of domestic architecture favoured a vernacular, pseudo-peasant style such as that practised by the leading proponent of racial theories of modern art, Paul Schultze-Naumburg. These were only showcases for the suburbs; necessity meant that blocks of flats still had to be constructed in the inner cities, where pitched roofs, however, were now preferred over flat roofs because they were believed to be more German.178 But it was into public buildings that Hitler put his real passion. In Munich, the foundations were laid for a gigantic new central railway station that was designed to be the largest steel-frame structure in the world, with a dome higher than the twin towers of Munich’s signature landmark, the Frauenkirche. Not only Munich, but other cities too were to be transformed into massive stone statements of the power and permanence of the Third Reich. Hamburg was to be graced with a new skyscraper for the Nazi Party’s regional headquarters higher than the Empire State Building in New York, crowned by an enormous neon swastika to act as a beacon for incoming ships. Down-river, the suburb of Othmarschen was to be demolished to make way for the ramps and piles of a gargantuan suspension bridge across the Elbe. The bridge was to be the largest in the world, larger by far than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, on which it was modelled.179

In Berlin, a huge new airport terminal was built at Tempelhof, with over 2,000 rooms. A grandiose new Ministry of Aviation incorporated lavish, marble-floored halls, swastikas and memorials to famous German aviators. A vast Olympic Stadium, costing 77 million Reichsmarks, held 100,000 spectators, attending not only sporting events, but also major Nazi rallies. Here too, in adjoining towers, there were memorials for the fallen, in this case German soldiers of the First World War. By 1938 Hitler had also commissioned a new Reich Chancellery, since he now found the existing one too modest. It was even bigger and more imposing than the Munich buildings. The main gallery was nearly 500 feet long; twice as long, as Hitler noted, as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.180 Inaugurated in 1939, the new Reich Chancellery, one commentator recorded, advertised ‘the eminence and richness of a Reich which has become a super-power’.181 In fact, the gigantism of all these projects, planned for completion by the early 1950s - a remarkably short space of time - was intended to signify Germany’s arrival by that date not just as a super-power but as the dominant power in the world.182

The new Reich Chancellery was designed not by Hitler’s favourite architect, Paul Troost, who had died in January 1934, but by a newcomer who was to play a central role in the Third Reich’s later years, Troost’s young collaborator Albert Speer. Born in Mannheim in 1905, Speer belonged to a generation of professionals whose ambitions were framed by the bitter and chaotic experiences of the First World War, the Revolution and the hyperinflation. The son of an architect, and thus a member of Germany’s educated upper middle class, Speer trained with the architect Heinrich Tessenow in Berlin, and formed close friendships with a number of Tessenow’s other pupils. Their teacher imbued them with an open approach to architecture, espousing neither modernism nor its antithesis, but emphasizing simplicity of form and the importance of rooting their style in the experience of the German people. As in every university in the mid-to-late 1920s, the atmosphere among the students was strongly right-wing, and despite his liberal background, Speer succumbed. In 1931, Hitler addressed Berlin’s students at a beer-hall meeting. Speer, in the audience, was, he later confessed, ‘carried away on the wave of the enthusiasm which, one could almost feel this physically, bore the speaker along from sentence to sentence. It swept away any scepticism, any reservations.’183

Overwhelmed, Speer joined the Nazi Party and threw himself into its work, volunteering for the National Socialist Drivers’ Corps and exploring, though not taking up, the possibility of joining the SS. By 1932 he was practising architecture independently, and began to use his Party contacts to get commissions. Goebbels asked him to help with the conversion and refurbishment of the Propaganda Ministry, a building by the great nineteenth-century architect Friedrich von Schinkel which Goebbels had vandalized with the help of a gang of brownshirts on moving in. Not surprisingly, Goebbels scorned Speer’s attempt to preserve what was left of Schinkel’s Classical interiors, and had the work redone in a more grandiose style a few months after Speer had completed his task. The young architect’s next project was more successful, however. Seeing the plans developed in the Propaganda Ministry for the celebration of the Day of National Labour on the Tempelhof Field in Berlin on 1 May 1933, Speer complained about their unimaginative quality and was commissioned to improve them. His successful innovations, including massive banners, swastikas and searchlights, led Goebbels to commission him to design the surround for the Nuremberg Rally later that year. It was Speer who, in 1934, created the ‘cathedral of light’ effect produced by upward-beamed searchlights that so impressed foreign visitors. Soon he was refurbishing Nazi Party offices and remodelling the interior of Goebbels’s new house on the Wannsee, just outside Berlin. Speer felt himself energized by the purposeful atmosphere surrounding the Nazi leaders. He worked extremely hard and got things done quickly. In no time at all, still only in his late twenties, he had made a name for himself amongst the Nazi leadership.184

The death of Troost, whom Hitler had revered, catapulted Speer into the Leader’s personal entourage, as Hitler co-opted the young man as his personal architectural adviser, someone to whom he could talk about his favourite hobby without the deference he had felt was owed to Troost. Speer was overwhelmed by this attention, and moved his family and home to be near to Hitler’s Bavarian retreat above Berchtesgaden. A frequent guest at Hitler’s mountain lodge, Speer was carried along by the Leader’s desire to construct huge, monumental buildings in a style ultimately derived from Classical antiquity. Soon he was being entrusted with schemes of rapidly increasing ambition, many of them based on sketches Hitler had himself made in the early-to-mid 1920s. Speer was commissioned to rebuild and extend the Nuremberg Party Rally grounds in a series of imposing new buildings constructed at vast expense from the late 1930s, including a stadium that would hold 405,000 people, a Congress Hall seating 60,000 and two huge parade-grounds, the Zeppelin Field and the Mars Field, flanked by rows of columns and providing standing room for 250,000 and 500,000 people respectively.185 Meanwhile he designed and built the German Pavilion at the 1937 World Exposition in Paris, another huge, bombastic structure, the largest in the entire exhibition. It was dominated by a massive pseudo-Classical tower of ten fluted piers joined by a cornice at the top, towering over all the nearby structures, including the Soviet pavilion, and outdone only by the Eiffel Tower, which stood at the end of the avenue on which the pavilions were located. Red swastikas glowed at night from the spaces between the piers. Next to the tower, the long, rectangular, windowless main hall projected a monolithic sense of unity to the outside world. Its interior was compared by an exiled German art critic, Paul Westheim, in a macabre, prophetic image, to a crematorium, with the tower taking the place of the chimney.186

Speer’s success as the architect of propaganda constructions such as these led to his appointment by Hitler on 30 January 1938 as the General Building Inspector for the National Capital, charged with putting into effect the Leader’s megalomaniac plans for the transformation of Berlin into a world capital, Germania, by 1950. A huge axis of wide boulevards designed for military parades was to be cut through Berlin. In the middle would stand a triumphal arch 400 feet high, more than twice as big as its counterpart in Paris, the Arc de Triomphe. The main avenue would lead up to a Great Hall, whose dome was to be 825 feet in diameter, the largest in the world. At the end of each of the four boulevards there would be an airport. Hitler himself had drawn up the plans many years before and discussed them with Speer many times since they had first met. Now, he decided, was the time to begin to put them into effect.187 They would last for all eternity, a monument to the Third Reich when Hitler had long since departed the scene. Evictions and the bulldozing of houses and apartment blocks levelled the ground for the new boulevards, and part of the scheme was eventually opened to traffic. Meanwhile, fresh buildings were added, including the new Reich Chancellery, and soon Speer had built a scale model which Hitler spent many hours in the following years poring over in his company, making adjustments, and bemoaning the fact that he himself had never become an architect.188

By the mid-1930s, Speer was heading a large firm of architects and gaining managerial experience that would stand him in good stead when he was suddenly catapulted into a much larger and more important role during the war. Many of his most striking designs were not purely his own but were worked out in a team whose members, notably Hans Peter Klinke, a fellow student of Tessenow’s, played a role at least as creative as his own. Moreover, the firm’s designs were far from original or even particularly Nazi in style: the civic architecture of the era drew on Classical models in other countries too, and the idea of remodelling cities along geometrical lines, with broad boulevards and great public buildings, was hardly new either; in many ways, for instance, Speer’s plans for Berlin bore a striking resemblance to the centre of the Federal capital of the United States in Washington, D.C., with its wide central mall surrounded by large colonnaded neo-Classical structures all in gleaming white stone. What distinguished Nazi civic architecture and city planning was not the Classical derivation of its style but the maniacal gigantism of its scale. Everything might not be very different from civic structures elsewhere, but it certainly was going to be vastly bigger than anything the world had so far seen. This was already apparent in the models of Berlin that Speer spent so much time inspecting with his master. On one occasion, he showed them in a private session to his 75-year-old father, himself a retired architect. ‘You’ve all gone completely crazy,’ the old man said.189

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