The art of survival in Nazi Germany

Artists in the Third Reich swiftly learnt to adapt to Hitler’s traditionalist cultural diktats

Giles Macdonogh

Never has a state been so governed by aesthetics as the Third Reich, which makes histories of art that skimp on the period all the more wilful. People may not approve of Third Reich art, but it is impossible to deny it. The reason why it assumed such importance is Hitler himself: he had tried and failed to enter the Academy in Vienna and for years he painted topographical pictures in the style of Rudolf von Alt. Once in power, Hitler aimed to ensure no conformist painter suffered as he had. He encouraged sales and awarded grants.  Naturally his own oeuvre was highly sought after and sycophants flocked to Hitler exhibitions at the Haus der Kunst (HDK) in Munich and in Schneidemühl, in the old grand Duchy of Posen.

From 1937 onwards, Hitler scattered money like confetti  on a series of Great German Art Exhibitions (GDK) in the brand new Haus der Kunst, lavishing a total of seven million Reichsmarks on pictures. Nothing, of course, was spent on art condemned as “decadent”: there were to be no absinthe drinkers in the Third Reich. Moreover, the first edition of the GDK was flanked by the famous Degenerate Art Exhibition. The two shows were to be seen as opposite poles: health versus sickness, order versus chaos.

Hitler’s personal taste was for German or Austrian 19th-century genre painters such as Franz von Ameling, Henrich Bürkel, Hans von Marées, Josef Danhauser, Franz Defregger, Carl Spitzweg, Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Franz von Lenbach, Hans Makart, August von Pettenkoffer, Anselm von Feuerbach and (of course) Alt. He was keenest of all on the painter Eduard von Grützner and had about 30 canvases.  He also had a considerable admiration for Franz von Stück, the most famous Munich painter at the time he lived there. And he liked Arnold Böcklin, the Island of the Dead in particular.

Hitler rarely put living artists on his own walls. They were purchased to hang in provincial galleries denuded of modern art. Adolf Ziegler’s Four Elements hung over a chimneypiece in the Führer Building in Munich, which was not exactly home, and he had two of Ziegler’s portraits of his dead mistress Geli Raubel. The living painters Hitler admired most were Hermann Gradl and Raffael Schuster-Woldan. Gradl was a decent landscape painter whose style was a cross between Claude and Dutch 17th-century masters. Schuster-Woldan painted misty, soft-edge scenes in warm colours reminiscent of Rembrandt, with elements drawn from the Nazarenes and Corregio. In 1941 Hitler bought 16 works by Schuster-Woldan for 496,000 marks, paying 60,000 marks for one alone. Art was the way to his heart.

The Third Reich was good news for Gradl and Schuster-Woldan, who had fallen from grace after 1918. But the ideological lines were not as tightly drawn as it seemed. The “impressionist” Julius Paul Junghanns (1876-1958) continued to pull crowds and even exhibited at the GDK. The Expressionist tradition was far from dead. It was a German movement, after all, and many Expressionist painters were sympathetic towards nationalism. The influence of Ferdinand Hodler on Franz Eichhorst is clear. More mature expressionism is visible in the paintings of Wilhelm Petersen, A. Paul Weber and Albert Birkle.

“The Four Elements” by Adolf Ziegler, 1937, on display in Munich today (© Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images)

Some painters joined the Nazi Party, like Werner Peiner in 1932. He had been on the left of the New Objectivity movement and was later part of the magical realism school with Alexander Kanoldt. Peiner ran Hermann Göring’s art school in Kronenburg, which took 12 pupils a year — including Will Sitte, who went on to become the most famous painter in East Germany. Another convert from the far Left was Franz Radziwill, who joined in 1933, but was thrown out in 1938. Kanoldt was close to Otto Dix and Max Pechstein of “die Brücke”. He was made a professor in Düsseldorf in 1938, but his professional life came to an end that year when he was expelled from the Party.  Emil Nolde, who after Schmidt-Rottluff was the most pilloried artist in the Degenerate Art exhibition, joined the Party in 1920; Nolde was protected by Goebbels, but that did not prevent him receiving a Malverbot, an  interdiction to prevent him painting.

You needed protection to survive. The great sculptor Hans Barlach was shielded by Goebbels until his death in 1938. Avant-gardistes like Dix and Erich Heckel learned to adapt. The Führer said natural colour and no abstracts, hence the latter’s Rhine near Andernach comes complete with a view of Hitler’s new Autobahn. Otto Modersohn was 68 when the Nazis came to power. He had been one of the men behind the ostensibly communist Worpswede artists’ colony. His dead wife Paula’s work was prominently hung at the Degenerate Art show. Worpswede painters still saw themselves as proudly German. Leo von König, who painted in an anaemic expressionist style, did a portrait of his nephew, the homosexual tennis-player Gottfried von Cramm, who fell foul of the regime. But he sensibly painted Goebbels, Bormann — and two of Goebbels’s daughters as well. Goebbels did not protect Käthe Kollwitz, who was never issued with a Malverbot. She kept her head down and continued to exhibit privately.

Christian Schad’s portraits became less angular. Dix exhibited in 1935 and Pechstein in 1938. Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff produced toned-down landscapes. A Malverbot issued against the latter in 1941 failed to stop him painting.

Paul Weber was actually one of the greatest talents of his age: his macabre capriccios had a sharp political edge. He was a man of the Right, but he opposed Hitler and spent some time in a concentration camp until Himmler took him under his wing. Prints such as Der Bürger have a power fully equal to Goya or Daumier. One has only to look at some of the pictures from the Britische Bilder book.

Hitler’s first lecture on art was broadcast from the 1934 Nuremberg Rally. Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt asserts that put together, Hitler’s art speeches “would make a good-sized volume”. Goebbels was even more doctrinaire. As he told the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler:

Art should not just be good, it must also be conceived in the spirit of the people . . . only an art that is created for the whole nation can . . . be good for the people and mean something to the people for whom it was made.

Pictures to be shown at the HDK were inspected by Hitler, who was always the final arbiter. “Bolshevism” was naturally a pet hate, Cubism and Dadaism “intellectual rubbish.” Works by painters like Moritz von Schwind or Böcklin inspired proper artists: they were “true German painters, not buffoons”. Various German cities mounted exhibitions mocking acquisitions from the Weimar years. Nazism’s chief art ideologist was Wolf Willrich, who pointed out how much Weimar galleries had paid for avant-garde works. In 1921, Dresden had shelled out 3,000 marks for a Dix and 10,000 each for a Kokoschka and a Grosz. Half a million was spent in all. Willrich’s Purging of the German Art Temple, published in 1937, was a trumpet-blast against liberal critics. “Let the degenerate be pitilessly suffocated in their own filth so that the healthy and noble prosper and rule.”

The Bavarian Academy received 15,000 submissions for the first GDK exhibition. Of these 884 by 556 artists were accepted. It was popular: even in 1942 there were 846,674 visitors. The critic Bruno Werner recognised the exhibition was essentially traditional rather than ideological:

Most of the painting shows the closest possible ties to the Munich school at the turn of the century. Leibl and his circle and, in some cases, Defregger are the major influences on many paintings portraying peasants and their wives, woodcutters, shepherds etc., and on the interiors that lovingly depict many small and charming events of country life. Then one finds an extraordinarily large number of landscapes that also continue the old traditions . . . We also find a full display of portraits, especially likenesses of the state and party leaders. While themes taken from the National Socialist movement are relatively few, there is nonetheless a larger group of paintings with symbolic and allegorical themes . . . the female nude is also strongly represented in this exhibition, which is full of joy in the healthy body.

Some pictures were unabashed propaganda for the Movement, however, often featuring the simple SA-man at home  or on duty. But a large number of painters continued to paint in an Expressionist idiom. The best was probably Birkle, his canvases slightly reminiscent of Dix. Birkle received plenty of patronage, painting walls at the Air Ministry and the Schiller Theatre. He later exhibited his works in the 1944 SS Art Exhibition, and yet politically he was a convinced pacifist.

The Peasant School had turned to “blood and soil” and more craven artists included a copy of a Nazi newspaper in the canvas. “Blood” was nourished by racial thinking: Germans were shown in an heroic light while foreigners, chiefly Jews, were mocked. The master of the genre was Wilhelm Petersen, whose powerful yet folksy drawings in particular exhibit considerable talent. His admiration for the regime came back to haunt him after 1945, when the British incarcerated him in the old concentration camp at Neuengamme.

The most noteworthy painters of the peasant school were Hans Adolf Bühler, Sepp Hilz and Franz Eichhorst. Bühler’s canvasses are partly derived from the renaissance painter Altdorfer: plenty of fantasy, realist detail and masses of soldiers. Sepp Hilz was the most successful blood and soil painter of all, famous for his crisp portraits and nudes. Besides an obvious nod to the German renaissance, there is freshness and technical mastery in his work. A photograph shows him with his model, the latter au naturel barring a slipper on one foot and a sock on the other. Eichhorst was an opportunist whose oeuvre is divided between war and peasant life. His lost murals in Schöneberg Town Hall in Berlin were strangely reminiscent of Stanley Spencer’s work at Burghclere, expressionistic with a hard edge like Dix or Beckmann. His experience as a soldier in the Great War endeared him to the Nazis. Like many Third Reich painters, he did a stint as a war artist.

Nazi art is often written off for concentrating on nudes, but these represented just 10 per cent of the pictures shown in the eight years of the exhibition. Hilz and Martin Amorbach were perhaps the most famous exponents. Nudes ranged from imitations of Cranach to hyper-realism. Important was the issue of pubic hair — many painters felt that the naked body had to be depicted, hair and all. How much this realism was a relief for the repressed people of the Third Reich is not known. Even before 1945, outside commentators applied the word “pornographic” to describe these hairy life paintings, which is clearly idiotic in most cases. Only a few pictures, such as Paul Matthias Padua’s Leda, were intended to be erotic. It is interesting to note that in that other totalitarian state, Soviet Russia, there were no nudes.

Other painters may be characterised as opportunists. For the new men of 1933, a portrait on the wall gave the impression of lineage and authority. All important shops and offices needed a Hitler, and up to 150 Adolf portraits were painted annually — which means that there might have been as many as 1,800 in circulation by the end of the Third Reich, of  which  31 were exhibited at the GDK. Hitler directed that one sole Führer portrait should be hung every year.

Of the four most exhibited painters at the GDK, only Eichhorst was a fellow traveller. Most were apolitical. Ziegler headed the painter’s branch of the Culture Chamber, but even he had his doubts. In the spring of 1944, Ziegler and two industrialists talked about negotiating peace through Randolph Churchill. All three were thrown into Dachau. Ziegler’s wife asked Hitler’s photographer Heinrich Hoffmann to intervene. Hitler told him: “Ziegler can thank his lucky stars that he stands under my protection! The Gestapo would have shot him long ago.”

There was no GDK in 1945: Germany had lost the war and Munich was part of the American Zone administered by OMGUS (Office of the Military Government of the United States). As far as art was concerned, the boot was on the other foot. What was orthodox to the Nazis became degenerate to the Allies. The four Allies in their different Zones fed the Germans on a diet of American, African, pre-Columbian and abstract art. Artists had to be licensed and some were arrested and roughly treated. Figurative art was discouraged and certain subject matter off limits: genocide, Jews, world wars and the Allied Occupation. A CARE parcel could alter an artist’s style — as Brecht says, “Grub first, then morality!”

Many works of art had been destroyed by bombs, and monumental sculpture suffered from the vandalism following defeat. Soldiers used pompous Nazi sculpture for firing practice. Some of it was stolen — such as Breker’s sculptures for Hitler’s New Chancellery, which the Soviets eventually abandoned in a barracks on the Oder. Bernhard Graf von Plettenberg’s statues on the Nibelung Bridge in Linz were tossed in the Danube. They are probably still there.

The Allies’ official policy deemed Nazi art would corrupt the defeated Germans and it needed to be removed from public spaces. Private policy was subtly different, as soldiers craved trophies. The American art boffin Gordon W. Gilkey wanted pictures with military significance: he was chiefly interested in the artists attached to the Wehrmacht and the SS. Gilkey collected 8,722 works by 379 artists and shipped them back to Washington, where the plan was to house them in a museum, much like the one projected for Moscow. Little by little, the Pentagon got cold feet. The vast majority of the Gilkey Collection has now been returned, but the Germans were by no means keen to have them back. For the most part they are stored below ground and taken out only when needed. The German Historical Museum in Berlin displays Nazi art but only as historical documents to fit in with their permanent or temporary exhibits. Some 450 Nazi paintings remain in the US, including four by Hitler himself.

BUNDESARCHIV Bild 183-2015-0611-501)

Some say that large numbers of paintings were destroyed after 1945, but this is disputed. Murals were naturally painted over. The most obvious example is the Sistine Chapel of the Third Reich: Eichhorst’s paintings in Schöneberg. It is possible that they could be reclaimed but I have never been given a straight answer. Peiner’s murals in the Prussian House of Lords have been covered in plaster and a similar fate befell Wilhelm Dohme’s graffiti in Braunschweig Cathedral. It is still true that there is no tolerance of Nazi art, and those who deal in it (and they exist) are careful to avoid publicity. There are no guide prices for the remaining Third Reich works of Weber, Hilz, Birkle or Eichhorst, but there are representative examples to be had. They may not be as good as those produced in the white heat of Weimar, but that probably proves the point that mere patronage is not enough: great art only flourishes in freedom.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"