Poster of the 1937 Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung
Poster of the 1937 Great German Art Exhibition

Munich 1937:
The Development of Two Pivotal Art Exhibitions

by Ursula A. Ginder
March 18, 2004, revised June 2004

graduate student paper for
UCSB History 133C, Winter 2004, Prof. Marcuse

Hist 133c homepage; 133c projects index page
Student Research Papers page

Entartete Kunst Exhibition Guide
"Degenerate Art" Exhibition Guide, 1937

Modern vs. Traditional
"Great German Art"
"Degenerate Art"
Works cited;

Introduction (back to top)

When Hitler struck the first stone in the ground breaking ceremony for the Haus der deutschen Kunst in 1933, he proclaimed that "this temple will house a new German art." Recalling the legacy of King Ludwig I, he promised the German people a "rebirth of Athens by the Isar" in which German art would triumph.[1]

Hitler’s promise of a monumental temple was fulfilled on July 18, 1937, when the first Great German Art Exhibition opened to a limited audience of selected members of the public and international dignitaries. But did his vision of a new German art materialize? Was the opening of the monumental museum a serious dedication of a shrine for a contemporary German art that would celebrate the national socialist ideal? Or was the exhibition a failed attempt to eradicate Germany’s internationally acclaimed modern art which was simultaneously exhibited at the "Degenerate Art" show a few blocks away? It was intended as both. And the Third Reich failed in achieving either. German avant-garde art survived the Third Reich’s attempt to suppress it and a new German art symbolizing Hitler’s ideal of Aryan supremacy, although madly promoted after the opening of the Haus der Kunst, never became anything more than a temporary symbol of a rejected regime. These failures were forecast in the 1937 exhibitions, as the Third Reich scrambled to display an obscenely distorted presentation of the avant-garde in a vain effort to elevate the mediocre exhibition in the Reich’s new museum. In this paper I will examine how Nationalist Socialist propaganda surrounding aesthetic policies was focused on diminishing Germany’s avant-garde rather than sponsoring the promised ideal of a new German art.

Although Hitler dreamed of a new German art, he never articulated or demanded specific criteria for his ideal. In-fighting for power within the Kulturkammer took precedence over clear guidelines about "acceptable" contemporary German art. The struggle for influence over a new German culture distracted attention from the construction of coherent standards. National Socialist propaganda surrounding aesthetic policies focused on the "Verfallkunst" (art of decay) of Germany’s avant-garde rather than on the ideal evoked by Hitler. At the opening of both exhibitions, the first "Great German Art Exhibition" in the Haus der Kunst and the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in the Hofgarten, strategically set one day apart, it was ultimately the shunned modern art which triumphed. While the artificially created chaos of the "degenerate" art show provided viewers with a unique overview of modern German and international art, the properly displayed art in the light-filled halls of the "temple of German art" showed merely mediocre, provincial art, art that was not, like Hitler promised, revolutionary, but rather a return to aesthetic standards of the previous century.

The Haus der deutschen Kunst, a monumental colossus of sandstone and marble, was fashioned after Schinkel’s neo-classical Old Museum in Berlin. The opening ceremony on July 18, 1937 was preceded by pageants and festivities celebrating "Two Thousand Years of German Art" paying tribute to Germanic and Hellenist heritage and honoring Dürer and Cranach as the culmination in German art. "This temple," Hitler had proclaimed at the ground laying ceremony in October 1933, "will be part of the immortal achievement of the German artistic heritage".[2] The original plan was to fill the Haus der Kunst with art which would pay tribute to Germany’s two thousand years of culture. However, as the date of the opening approached, the euphoric promise changed. Without consulting with anybody, Hitler suddenly and categorically demanded that "a comprehensive and high-quality display of contemporary art" be collected for the opening of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst. His intent was obvious. He wanted to demonstrate to the world the triumph of German art under his leadership, as Führer of the Third Reich. We can only speculate what Hitler considered "high-quality". As the commissioner for the State of Bavaria, Adolf Wagner pronounced at the opening, "nothing that is unfinished or problematic" will make its way into the House of German Art.[3] This reflected the Führer’s conviction that only pictures which are uplifting and as close to nature as a photograph would be worthy of being called "good" art.[4]

This sudden shift in emphasis, from showing existing cultural treasures spanning two thousand years to art created within a mere couple of years, was disconcerting to many of his artistic advisors.[5] How could he demand an art that had barely been articulated, an art representative of the Third Reich? It was clear to Hitler that there was no place for avant-garde art in the new German culture being forged by him and his party. But less clear was the criteria for a new German art that would embody the National Socialist ideology. Although there was plenty of rhetoric threatening to replace all that was sick in German culture with something new, healthy and pure, there were no guidelines as to what this art would look like or which of the already existing traditional modes by practicing artists might pass as pure German art in the sense of the aesthetic policies of the National Socialists.[6] According to Petropoulos a lack of resolve toward the question of modern art and the formulation of a new aesthetic in the visual arts for the new Germany was due to the bureaucratic in-fighting in the various departments of the Kulturkammer.[7]

Cultural Policy: Goebbels' Modernism vs. Rosenberg and Hitler's Traditionalism (back to top)

Although Hitler was maniacal about having a new German art as a cultural standard for his Third Reich, he was not decisively involved in the art debate. Instead, he allowed Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, to originate and drive the propaganda that dominated all areas of the National Socialist Kulturpolitik, including a new art for Germany.

Hitler initially had conflicting views about modern art. While he expressed his dislike for the Futurists and Dadaists, he still professed admiration for the Expressionist Ernst Barlach. His active opposition to the avant-garde as a whole emerged only gradually.[8] As the "Great German Art Exhibition" from 1937 demonstrated, Hitler’s taste in art was petit Bourgeois and centered around Austrian and Bavarian genre and landscape paintings and the ideologically charged "blood-and-soil" subject matter promoted by some of the Heimatkünstler of the Worpswede art colony.[9] Hitler’s office was decorated with traditional representations of state power, such as history paintings and allegories of masculine heroism, mimicking the artistic taste of the Wilhelmine empire. Like the people he surrounded himself with, he lacked sophisticated knowledge of the many trends in modern art beginning with French Impressionism. A frustrated artist who was denied access to the Art Academy in Vienna twice, he sublimated his festering insecurity by attacking all those artists who succeeded – the Dadaists, the Futurists, the Expressionists. He then anointed himself as the savior of German culture who would bring back that which he and the Volk understood, "das Naturgetreue" (true to nature), the sentimental, and the heroic. Ultimately, painting was a secondary interest once he decided that he would not only be the architect of the Third Reich but the architect as well of a monumental grandeur in his National Socialist building program. The Haus der Kunst was his first project.

While Hitler’s taste in art was rather provincial, Goebbels was a sophisticated connoisseur and admirer of the French Impressionists and the various trends in German vanguard art. He was a major proponent of Germany’s modern art, which he expressed through various statements in liberal leaning magazines, such as the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung or the pro-modernist journal Kunst. Goebbels supported pro-modernist groups, such as the German Expressionists and the Italian Futurists until the end of 1935. He praised the New Objectivity movement as the "German art of the next decade" and promised in a passionate speech before the Reichskulturkammer in 1934 "we guarantee absolute freedom for the arts".[10]  Paradoxically, while he spoke for freedom in the visual arts, Goebbels instigated one of the first anti-Semitic and anti-intellectual excesses in 1933, the book burnings.[11] And he stood by while "subversive" writers and intellectuals were sent to concentration camps.

From the beginning of Hitler’s "seizure of power" in 1933, the question of the role of modern art in Third Reich Kulturpolitik was fodder for an ongoing public battle between Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg, the head of the Combat League for German Culture and the editor of the party newspaper Der Völkische Beobachter. Goebbels and Rosenberg expressed their opposing positions in speeches and articles. Rosenberg’s articles promoted radically traditionalist views, such as the idealization of peasants, the rejection of all non-traditional aesthetic styles, in particular the style particular to "cultural bolshevism." Goebbels, an admirer of international modernism, held a deep antipathy against the völkisch ideals articulated by Rosenberg and his equals, which Hitler seemed to share with him for a while.

It is against this backdrop of internal power struggle in the yet embryonic structure of National Socialist Kulturpolitik that spontaneous earlier excesses against the art world took place. Examples are the smaller exhibitions of "subversive" art, called Schandausstellungen that began to appear in many major cities of Germany in 1933. These shows were locally and privately engineered events whose goal it was to incite anti-modernist views in the public. In a Karlsruhe exhibition titled "German Government Art 1918-1930" state museums were attacked for purchasing modern art while they supposedly kept traditional artworks in storage. [12] Cultural decline was blamed on modern art in "November Spirit – Art in the Service of Decay," a show promoted in Stuttgart. "Horror Chambers of Art" were staged in a row of trailers in Dessau and Nürnberg and created an atmosphere of the carnavalesque. These were but a few of the non-state sponsored forerunners to the infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich in 1937.[13] While a campaign to demonize modern art was ongoing, attempts to promote "racially pure and high-quality" art were simultaneously organized by the "German Art Association", a conservative group of academic artists. The first rather unsuccessful "educational" touring exhibition titled "First Exhibition of German Art" took place as early as 1933 and is described in Schuster’s Die ‘Kunststadt’ München 1937.[14]

Outwardly the squabbles between the various authorities in the Kulturkammer were battles for control over the Reich’s aesthetic politics. For Goebbels it was a fight for a spot in the sun, next to his Führer. Thus, once he sensed that Hitler’s interest in the debate over modern art became politicized, he quickly and irreversibly changed his tune about modern art. [15] One could pinpoint Goebbel’s "change of heart" to Hitler’s speech at the Reichsparteitag in 1935 where Hitler expressed that "the Dadaists, Cubists, and those futuristic expressive ones and those objective chatterers will under no circumstances participate in our cultural renaissance. Thus we acknowledge that we have overcome the degeneration of our culture."[16] Goebbels’ loyalty to Hitler, his fervent nationalist feelings, and his avid anti-Semitism took precedence over his appreciation of modern art. Pragmatist that he was, however, he waited until after the International Olympic games in the summer of 1936 before he implemented his radical cultural policies. This was part of Hitler’s policy as well who wanted to show a human face to the rest of the world.

Goebbels’ radical shift in his aesthetic politics began with the removal of Hönig as the president of the Chamber of Visual Arts in December 1935. He promoted Ziegler, a pedantic painter of female nudes, and Hitler’s artistic advisor since 1929, to the post.[17] At this point, the idea to stage an officially sponsored "degenerate art" show had not yet been articulated. The seeds, however, had been planted by the Schandausstellungen and in the heads of zealots like Wolfgang Willrich, the völkisch art critic and painter who would publish a call to "cleanse the temple of art" in 1937. In the meantime, Hitler who had visions of "a German art that would reflect the passionate will of the Third Reich," as he proclaimed at the first Kulturtagung des Parteitags (Conference for the Culture of the Party) in 1933, seems to have been concerned merely with the architecture of his ‘temple’ and only vague ideas of what might fill it.[18]

In the fall of 1936, less than a year away from the opening of the Haus der Kunst, a surprising announcement was made by the Obergauleiter (regional party leader) Wagner, who was now Minister of Culture for the State of Bavaria as well. Rather than an exhibition of Germany’s cultural treasures over the millennia as was announced at the ground breaking ceremonies in 1933, the Haus der Kunst would be filled with the art of contemporary masters. [19] Not "One Hundred Years of German Art and Sculpture," a less ambitious plan "tactfully suggested" by Dr. Bucher, the director of the Bavarian State Collection – but "new art" that would evoke the spiritual renewal of Germany.[20] Moreover, the exhibition, which was originally hailed as a symbol for permanence and everlasting glory to German artistic heritage, now was to be the first installment for an annual contemporary art exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in the style of an art market. In December 1936, an open competition notice was sent out to all artists of German nationality or "race". In response 25,000 artists sent in written proposals and 15,000 works of art.[21] The chaos that ensued once the jury earmarked 1,500 pieces for the exhibition is in stark contrast to the smooth, systematic selection of the government censored art for the first "Degenerate Art" show, which took barely a week.

These changing ideas by Hitler and his artistic advisors caused tremendous confusion and frustration among the artists and the jury. As Hinz explains in his book, "Art in the Third Reich",  the Haus der Kunst was to replace the Münchner Glaspalast that burned down in 1931. The Glaspalast was an exhibition hall where contemporary art was shown, judged and sold in annual events. Works of art were exhibited in the fashion of an art market, categorized by subject matter. The exhibitions were judged by members of conservative artists’ organizations in Munich. Radically new art was excluded from the show. Generally speaking it was art for the bourgeoisie; genre and landscape art for homes, and large paintings for public buildings and government establishments. Once it was known that the Haus der Kunst was going to exhibit contemporary art and that the exhibition would change annually, artists assumed that any art that traditionally had been shown in the Glaspalast would qualify. This included works that under the new regime would no longer be considered "acceptable". However, temporary exhibitions, such as were said to be installed at the Haus der Kunst, did imply acceptance of experimental art as well. It is therefore no wonder that now "unacceptable" works made their way to the jury, and were even selected for Hitler to consider.

 The first Great German Art Exhibition was to open on July 18th, 1937. A few days before the opening, Hitler walked through the galleries and exploded: "There will be no exhibition this year! These works that have been sent in clearly show that we still don’t have any artists in Germany whose work is worthy of a place in this magnificent building. I hereby disband the Jury of Selectors!"[22] One must question the date of this statement. According to Goebbels’ diary excerpts published in Schuster, Hitler’s first trip to Munich to approve the selection took place on June 5th. It was at this visit to his Haus der Kunst that he was outraged and in a fit personally tore down 89 paintings that were already nailed to the wall. He then dissolved the academic jury and appointed non-artists and non-academics instead. In addition, Hitler ordered 500 more paintings to be removed from the selection process. From 1,500 works of art that had been earmarked for the show, only 884 works by 550 artists made it into the glossy marble halls of the House of German Art.[23] Goebbels described his personal disappointment with the proposed objects for the exhibition as well. "The sculptures are in order, but the paintings are a catastrophe. Some of the pieces make you downright sick … regular Bolshevik art. (…) The Führer is in utmost rage."[24] And on June 30th Goebbels wrote: "I am thinking again about an exhibition of degenerate art." And he continued on the same day after talking with Hitler: "Exhibition for degenerate art approved. Probably Munich. (…..) The Führer trusts me greatly. I will not disappoint him."[25]

It is not hard to imagine that Hitler was anxious about being humiliated by art that did not fulfill his promise to present a vibrant, new and genuine German art to the German Volk. His open dissatisfaction with the art collected for the opening of his temple leads me to believe that it was Goebbels who found a way to dissipate his anxiety. Hitler’s approval of Goebbels’ cleverly schemed plan appears to have been quick and spontaneous. The staging of both the Great German Art Exhibition and the "Degenerate Art" show could then be seen as a didactic instrument to contrast order, discipline and strength in a National Socialist-inspired exhibition, with chaos born from willful corruption by weakness of character, mental disease, and racial impurity.

Because the "Degenerate Art" exhibition is very often contrasted with the Great German Art Exhibition, it is a widely held view that the Haus der Kunst only exhibited Nationalist Socialist iconography in the style of Social Realism. According to Hinz, however, only 1.5% of all the works in this first exhibition represented subject matter particular to National Socialist Germany. The themes shown were for the most part landscapes, nudes, and farmers, in that order. The number of works of art purposely glorifying the Third Reich ideology did increase from year to year.[26] This makes sense because the largest portion of art works was purchased by the government. As artists realized that money was to be made in this large scale art market many of them applied their skill to depict subject matters promoting National Socialists ideals and thereby to gain fame and financial riches. In his book The Faustian Bargain, Petropoulos writes about several of the artists that became famous during the regime, such as the sculptors Thorak and Breker who used their artistic ability to help glorify the Third Reich.[27]

The "Great German Art" Exhibition (back to top)

Hitler and visitors at the Great German art exhibition, 1937In his book, Die ‘Kunststadt’ München 1937, Schuster reconstructs the list of works shown at the first exhibition of the Great German Art Exhibition in Munich and supplies illustrated copies of many of the works exhibited. Rather than a revolutionary new German art, what was shown in the Haus der Kunst in 1937 were works by obscure artists that modeled their paintings and sculptures after the realist genre paintings of the previous century. Other artists in the exhibition were those who never gave in to modernist trends and whose fame had been established in late nineteenth century under the ideal of "blood and soil". Such an artist was Mackensen, the founder of the Worpswede colony. His monumental painting "Prayer in the Moor", from 1885, was prominently displayed in the 1937 Great German Art Exhibition. Later works show his commitment to National Socialist ideology more drastically.[28] It is obvious, then, from the inventory illustrated in Die 'Kunststadt' München 1937 that the first Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung did not fulfill Hitler’s promise of a German art that would reflect the new cultural aesthetics of the Third Reich.

What started out as a grandiose plan for a temple with timeless German art, turned into an ostentatious exhibition space and a marketplace for mostly mediocre regurgitated 19th century genre paintings and--still limited--official propaganda art. Not much warranted the slogan "Kunst des Dritten Reiches" in this first Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung.[29] The subject matter that is usually associated with this period in German history - steely eyed, blond warriors, Hitler and his henchmen in uniform, muscular farmers and breast-feeding mothers - increasingly took over the inventory of subsequent exhibitions. Nazi propaganda art emerged as reputable artists, such as the sculptor Kolbe for instance, changed their style to suit Nazi ideology and as mediocre artists, but fanatic followers of the regime, got promoted. The last exhibition of the "Great German Art" took place in 1944.

In spite of all the pomp and ceremony surrounding the opening of the Great German Art Exhibition in July 18, 1937, Hitler’s bubble had burst. He had envisioned the grandiose Haus der Kunst being filled with grandiose art, a new, revolutionary art by truly great German artists who would take the place of the "dilettantes" and "canvas smearers"[30] of the avant-garde. Thus we find Hitler at the opening of the Haus der Kunst in an agitated mental condition. Rather than delivering an uplifting, euphoric speech, he incited the crowd with a hateful tirade against the modern and the Jews as corrupters of the German spirit: "From now on … of that you can be certain … all those … cliques of chatterers, dilettantes and art forgers will be picked up and liquidated. For all we care, those pre-historics can return to their ancestors and there apply their primitive international scratchings.[…]"[31] According to Paul Ortwin Rave, who was a curator at the Berlin National Gallery and present at the ceremony, Hitler’s manner of speech was so shrill, his face so distorted with apparent deeply felt hatred, that people close to him were concerned about his mental health. "He was spitting out his words and drumming with his fists, literally foaming at the mouth," recounted the eye witness.[32] It appears that Hitler’s attack on Jews as well as modern art was never more caustic than at the opening of the Great German Art Exhibition in 1937.

Hitler’s hateful speech against modern art was the overture to the opening of the "Degenerate Art" show the following day, July 19, 1937. Trying to outdo his Führer, Professor Ziegler succeeded in invoking equally evil forces in his speech at the opening of the exhibition.[33] The malicious slander of those who promoted a progressive visual culture in Germany was repeated over and over in printed and verbal slogans surrounding art during the Third Reich.

The "Degenerate Art" Exhibition (back to top)

The National Socialist rhetoric did not spring from a vacuum. The hateful tirades against Bolsheviks, Jews and other "alien elements" were not an isolated aberration in an otherwise uninterrupted cultural history of civility and humanity. Much of the sentiments expressed by the National Socialists had a long history. These verbal outbursts of hatred stood in a continuum, although an intensely fanatic one, of long-held ideas, originating in the 19th century.

Cultural degeneration was a subject discussed by a range of Kulturkritiker beginning in the late 19th century. There was in particular the very popular pseudo-scientific treatise by Max Nordau, titled "Degeneration," in which he railed against all modern art and literature as cause for mental and moral decline.[34]. This book, first published in 1893, was of decisive influence on the National Socialist rhetoric and was particularly adopted by Hitler in his book "Mein Kampf," published in 1923, in which he singled out Dadaism as "the degenerate excess of insane and depraved humans".[35] The idea of the artist as one "with highly refined, wilting, sickly nerves," was also commonplace among intellectuals such as the vanguard critic Hermann Bahr, the author Thomas Mann, and the painters Franz Marc and Emil Nolde. Nietzsche’s call for renewal in the arts preceded the frighteningly xenophobic cacophony of Nordau and others.[36]

According to Peter Paret, the general anxiety in Germany about the future of moral, physical and intellectual strength fostered the myth about a culturally distinctive and racially pure Volk. While many of the artists at the end of the 19th century perceived the alien elements infiltrating German art as those of the French avant-garde,[37] radical cultural critics like Phillip Stauff blamed destructive influences on the purity of German culture on the greed of Jews, such as the prominent art dealer Paul Cassirer and the Impressionist artist Max Liebermann. [38] While Langbehn’s blood-and-soil ideology encouraged artists to work from their roots, to stay away from French decadence, and to become authentic representatives of their Stamm, conservative factions among the cultural elite pointed to "the Jew" as a "dangerous enemy that had penetrated the citadel of German culture, which he could now corrupt and destroy from within."[39]

Given this history of cultural xenophobia and the popularity of the aforementioned books, it is very likely that the vocabulary used by the National Socialists was a familiar one not only among the intellectual elite, but the bourgeoisie as well. National Socialist propaganda made sure that the discourse surrounding the notion of the "unhealthy" in a people became a common concept among the general populace as well and could then be easily directed at intellectuals, artists, Jews, Communists and all opponents to the Reich’s philosophy. And, very soon after the rise of Hitler, the hatred at all that was "other" extended from a purge of the museums to the removal from society of all "outsiders"; impurities removed from a perceived culturally and racially pure Volk.

As mentioned earlier, the chaos that preceded the Great German Art Exhibition can be contrasted with the swift assembly of prohibited "degenerate" art from the German state museums. On the same day that he received Hitler’s approval for the "degenerate" art show, June 30, 1937, Goebbels signed a decree as president of the Reich Chamber for the Visual Arts and sent it to 101 museums in Germany. It was to give access to all museum holdings to Professor Ziegler and his committee in order to examine and secure works of German "decadence" from 1910 onward for a show to be held in conjunction with the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung. Within a period of less than two weeks, Ziegler’s committee confiscated 5,238 works of art.[40] During their zealous sweep through the museums, the newly appointed "art connoisseurs" confiscated works by international "degenerate" artists such as Picasso, Mondrian and the French Post-Impressionists, thus overextending the authority given to them by Goebbels. Most of the works by non-German modernist artists were ultimately not shown in the "Degenerate Art" exhibitions, but instead sold to the highest bidder at the Fischer auction in Lucerne, Switzerland, in June and August of 1939.

The way that the commission proceeded in securing the works deemed ‘degenerate’ was simple. Lists had been compiled of all the artists mentioned in avant-garde periodicals, such as Das Kunstblatt, Die Aktion, Der Sturm. Any books written by liberal museum directors were scrutinized for names. A comprehensive guide to identifying the avant-garde was Carl Einstein’s richly illustrated volume Die Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert, published in 1926. It became a quick source for the uninitiated "art specialist" to locate defamed works. Most importantly, though not emphasized in most accounts of these confiscation raids, but foregrounded in Die ‘Kunststadt’ München, is Wolfgang Willrich.[41] According to Paul Rave, who was at that time an assistant to Hanfstaengel of the National Galerie in Berlin, the selection of works for the "Degenerate Art" exhibition followed a list comprised by Willrich, a hateful art critic and, like Hitler, a mediocre artist. His book Säuberung des Kunsttempels, was published in the spring of 1937. The arrangement of collages and the inclusion of propaganda slogans and excerpts from Hitler’s speeches reproduced in Willrich’s book would become a blueprint for the "Degenerate Art" exhibition itself. Unfortunately, although photographic records of the installation had been made, no catalogue was created for the first "Degenerate Art" exhibition – there simply was not time.[42] Therefore, much of our impression of the inventory is based on the catalogue produced for the show in Berlin, which followed four months later.

The Munich show "Degenerate Art" coincided with the "Great German Art Exhibition" of July 1937. Physically, the two exhibitions were almost across the street from one another, the official German art in the newly erected Haus der Deutschen Kunst in the Prinzregenten Strasse, and the other in a building occupied by the Institute of Archeology in the Hofgarten. Crammed into dark, dank rooms that had to be emptied of a collection of dusty plaster casts, were 650 paintings, sculptures and prints by 112 artists. [43] The art had been confiscated, transported from various cities in Germany, and installed in less than two weeks. But it was not lack of time that caused this haphazard assembly of such chaotic dimension! The pompous show of "the good German art" in the Haus der Kunst had little more than one month for the new jury to select and to rehang and reposition the paintings and sculptures. Yet, where Hitler’s pride in his grandiose vision was at stake in one show, the disarray of works carelessly nailed to the wall in the other was to showcase his contempt. What contrast between the pristine shining halls of marble flooded with light, where officious comments would complement the echo of the clicking boots, and the shuffling of feet and the stunned silence in the tight tunnels of the storage rooms for plaster heads![44]

visitors at the degenerate art exhbitionSome of the narrow rooms contained works in thematic groupings, others contained random collections of all subject matter, medium and style. All works were installed in such a way as to promote disregard of the accomplishments by the masters of modern art. Many of the paintings had been taken out of their frames, and were often partly covered up by Nazi propaganda slogans or derogatory slanderous remarks about the intent of the artist. Graffiti-like large-scale scribbles on the walls connoted the degeneracy and lunacy of the artists. The purposely added acquisition price for the works and the name of the museum director was to establish further proof of the conspiracy of the artistic elite with "alien elements" such as Jews and Bolsheviks.      

The originators of the "Degenerate Art" show were probably expecting violent reactions from the viewers. It did not happen, according to the few eyewitness accounts presently published, and if there were some derogatory remarks, they were relatively discreet.[45]  Did anyone dare to verbally challenge the "official opinion"? It would be interesting to know whether many of the visitors to the "Degenerate Art" show also visited the Haus der Kunst, and how they incorporated emotionally and intellectually one into the other. Being pushed and shoved through the narrow rooms surrounded by the surreal visual spectacle of malicious slogans and fantastic forms and colors would at least have created a sense of claustrophobia in visitors. By contrast, how would a leisurely walk through the spacious halls of the Haus der Kunst surrounded by the sterile familiar genres have affected average viewers? There is an essay in Schuster’s "Kunststadt München" by an art student who had visited both shows. His reaction to the "accepted" art was boredom and embarrassment and a sense of wonder when he encountered the artists that he only knew from art books at this home.[46] The show of the "degenerate" art ran in Munich from July 17, 1937 to November 30, 1937 and had the highest number of attendance ever of any modern art show – 2,009,899, an average of 20,000 people per day. Over 3,000,000 visitors in total were counted after the long run in other cities in the Reich, including Berlin, Leipzig, Düsseldorf, Weimar, Halle, Vienna and Salzburg.[47] The touring of the exhibition ended in April of 1941. In Munich alone it attracted twice as many visitors as the official art show at the Haus der Kunst in the summer of 1937.

As the "Degenerate Art" exhibition traveled on to other cities, the content changed. This was only partially due to the loot from the second raid on German state museums, between August and October 1937, which further boosted the inventory of the "degenerate" art. As items were removed or simply broke during the transport from one town to the next – like the large sculpture "The Kneeling Woman" by Lehmbruck – others replaced them. Interesting is the removal of Franz Marc’s gigantic "Tower of Blue Horses" shortly after the opening in Munich upon the insistence of veteran officers from WWI. Franz Marc had been a highly decorated officer who died in that war. After its removal from the "Degenerate Art" show, the painting was never seen again. Emil Nolde’s religious paintings were particularly defaced by malicious slogans. This is curious because he was one of the earliest members of the National Socialist party and an open racial supremacist; but his style fit the category of "degenerate art." A few artists are testimony to the ongoing process of a developing National Socialist style and the abandonment by artists of their aesthetic principles. The sculptor Georg Kolbe was represented with his earlier work in the "Degenerate Art" show. As he altered his style to conform to the Third Reich’s aesthetic demands, his idealized men and women in heroic poses gained entrance into the annual shows at the Haus der Kunst. Although there were only five Jewish artists represented among the 101 artists, the defamation of Jews as degenerate profiteers of Germany’s cultural decline was present throughout the exhibition in banners across paintings and graffiti on the walls.

From the dark, crowded corridors of the Archeological Institute in the Hofgarten very few works made it to the elegant Grand Hotel National in Lucerne, Switzerland, where on June 30, 1939 the jewels among Germany’s art theft were auctioned off. Only 125 international masterworks confiscated by the Ziegler commission were put up for sale to private purchasers and art dealers from all parts of the world. The disposal of profitable works, previously owned by German museums and private collections, proceeded in an orderly fashion in neutral Switzerland.[48] The fate of most other confiscated paintings is a story of greed and hate, cold-blooded profiteering and many pathetic and passionate attempts to save a family heirloom or to protect a cultural treasure. If it were not for the fanatic tendency of minute record keeping by members of the bureaucratic National Socialist machinery, the random disposal of the confiscated objects could only be reconstructed through private memoirs.

Following the two principal raids on German museums and private collection, Franz Hofmann, the chairman of the confiscation committee, declared in March 1938 that the museums were now "purified". In May 1938 Goebbels created a new commission calling "for the disposal of confiscated works of the degenerate art."[49] Hitler visited the depot himself, and in June of that year decreed a law that would free the government from all compensation claims for the "safeguarded" works.[50] During the previous fall, the works of art that were not "on tour" had been collected in warehouses in the Köpenicker Strasse in Berlin. Surviving records indicate that there were a total of 12,890 inventoried paintings, sculptures, water colors and prints. Of these an unknown number was subsequently taken to Schloss Niederschönhausen outside of Berlin to be made available to international buyers.[51] The number of works held at both depots decreased rapidly, however, as dealers paid as little as $20.00 for a modern master or as private citizens attempting to safeguard German modern art rushed to offer Nazi approved art in exchange for art deemed "degenerate."[52] There was only a small window of opportunity to acquire works collected in these two depots. In December 1938 Goebbels and Hans Hoffmann, the photographer and unofficial artistic advisor of Hitler, began a campaign to burn all works remaining in the Köpenicker Strasse depot. By the time a secret bonfire was set to destroy that which was deemed worthless, the number of objects had shrunk to 1,004 paintings and sculptures and 3,825 drawings, water colors and graphics.[53] Before these works went up in flames on March 20, 1939, they were, of course, inventoried.

While very few of the objects displayed in the "Degenerate Art" shows were sold through proper channels – if we consider the auctions in Switzerland to be proper – all of the sculptures and paintings exhibited in the annual Great German Art Exhibition were offered and sold within the framework of an art market. After Hitler had abandoned his lofty idea of a permanent collection of art for the people and the state, the "temple of art" merely carried on the tradition of the old Münchner Glaspalast, the exhibition and sale of art for the general populace. It thus reflected and continued the standard practice in provincial art centers. As Hinz observed in his book Art in the Third Reich, "sales opportunities were excellent."[54] On the average, 800 to 1,000 objects shown in the Haus der Kunst were sold each year. At that rate, it is doubtful that the 884 pieces shown in the inaugural exhibition remained in the "temple" for very long. A large proportion of the paintings and sculptures were purchased for public buildings, government offices and private homes for government officials, according to Hinz. I conclude from this, that most of the 700 objects labeled National Socialist art, that are now deposited in the "Depot for Art between 1930 and 1945" in Berlin were secured from such public and official buildings by the Allied powers after the war. This is a small number of all the works created for the Reich, and, aside from the likelihood that a large amount was destroyed during the war, there must still be many objects in circulation that carry the face of the National Socialist ideology. A blockbuster show, titled "One Century of Art in Germany," took place in Berlin in September 1999. One room of the show was dedicated to Germany in the Third Reich. A Volkswagen car shared the space with Adolf Ziegler’s banal nudes and Arno Breker’s monumental, soulless "Prometheus".

Conclusion (back to top)

Schuster argues that the year of German art in Munich was a coordinated effort at "Gleichschaltung," beginning with the reconstruction of the facades on all buildings leading to the "temple of art".[55]  Although the "Degenerate Art" show and the Great German Art Exhibition were the pivotal events of that year, they were part of a project to showcase German culture, and Volk cultural treasures in particular for the people of Munich and the many visitors who traditionally flocked to that Southern German cultural center during the summer and fall months. There were exhibitions of Bavarian arts and crafts in the Bavarian National Museum, proclaiming folk-art as a source of cultural strength. Musical events from classical concerts and theater performances to Volksmusik at open plazas all around the city accompanied public dances and musical parades.[56] Incorporating cultural traditions from Bavaria, Hitler aimed to create a common German cultural identity – a Volk – to celebrate the opening of his temple. This paper was published on the UCSB Hist 133c website. However, Hitler may have misjudged both the charm and limitations of regional culture when trying to forge a bold new German art. He also misjudged the consequences of stooping to ridicule German avant-garde in a desperate effort to deflect attention from the Reich’s failure to endow the new temple of art with any treasure – a ‘temple’ which was mocked by the Munich art community as the "Palazzo Kitschi."[57] Hitler acknowledged the misjudgment one year later in 1938 at the second Great German Art Exhibition, when he rationalized:

"In the case of many pictures it was obvious that the artist had confused the two exhibitions, the 1937 exhibition of ‘German’ art and the concurrent one of ‘degenerate art.’ I therefore decided to make a clean break and to set one task and one task only for our new German art. I would force it to hold to the direction the National Socialist revolution had marked out for our new national existence. […] It is as difficult to know now as it has always been whether we have artistic geniuses of lasting stature working among us. […] But we do know that we have created the conditions under which great genius can flourish. […] I thought it essential that past year to give the decent, honest artist of average talent a chance."[58]

Although Hitler was late to recognize that trying to eradicate avant-garde art was not sufficient to realize his ideal of a new German art, he never succeeded in replacing the art he condemned.

Works Cited (back to top)

Artinger, Kai, Arn Strohmayer, Ferdinand Krogmann. Land, Licht und Mythos: Die Worpsweder Kunst unter Nationalsozialismus. Weimar: VDG, 2000.

Barron, Stephanie. Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. Los Angeles, County Museum of Art. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.

Gordon, Donald E. Expressionism: Art and Idea. Providence, R.I.: Federated Lithographers-Printers, Inc., 1987.

Hinz, Berthold. Art in the Third Reich. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Langbehn, Julius. Rembrandt als Erzieher. Leipzig: C.L. Hirschfeld, 1890.

Müller, Helmut M. et al. Deutsche Geschichte in Schlaglichtern. Mannheim, Leipzig, Wien: Meyers Lexikonverlag, 1996.

Nicholas, Lynn H. The Rape of Europe. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Paret, Peter. German Encounters With Modernism, 1840-1945. Cambr.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Petropoulos, Jonathan. Art as Politics in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Petropoulos, Jonathan. The Faustian Bargain: The Artworld in Nazi Germany. New York Oxford University Press, 2000.

Rave, Paul Ortwin. Kunstdiktatur im Dritten Reich. Ed. Uwe M. Schneede. Berlin: Argon Verlag, GmbH. n/d.

Roh, Franz. 'Entartete' Kunst: Kunstbarbarei im Dritten Reich. Hannover: Fackelträger Verlag, 1962.

Schuster, Peter-Klaus. Die 'Kunststadt' München 1937. Nationalsozialismus und ‘Entartete Kunst’. München: Prestel Verlag, 1987.

Willrich, Wolfgang. Säuberung des Kunsttempels. Eine kunstpolitische Kampfschrift zur Gesundung deutscher Kunst im Geiste nordischer Art. München: J. F. Lehmanns Verlag, 1937.

Zuschlag, Christoph. "Educational Exhibitions", in: Barron, Stephanie. Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazie Germany. Los Angeles, County Museum of Art. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.

Notes (back to top)

[1] Schuster, p. 84.

[2] Barron, p. 17; see also Hinz, p. 163.

[3] Hinz, p. 9.

[4] Schuster, p. 44.

[5] Petropoulos, Art Politics, p. 58 and Rohe, p. 99.

[6] Although there were earlier unofficial inspections of state museums, especially under such zealots as the art critic Wolfgang Willrich, no steps to remove the now outlawed art had been taken yet.

[7] Petropoulos, Art Politics, pps. 20-21.

[8] Petropoulos, Art Politics, p. 20.

[9] see Artinger, et al.

[10] Petropoulos, Art Politics, pps. 21-28.

[11] Müller, p. 271.

[12] Petropoulos, Art Politics, pps. 32-33.

[13] Zuschlag, in: Barron, pps. 40-50.

[14] Schuster, pps. 85-86.

[15] Petropoulos, p. 48.

[16] Roh, p. 28.

[17] Schuster, p. 13.

[18] ibid., p. 14.

[19] Rave, p. 97.

[20] ibid., p. 99.

[21] Schuster, p. 42.

[22] Petropoulos, Art Politics, p. 59.

[23] Schuster, pps. 40-41.

[24] ibid., p. 41.

[25] ibid., p. 45.

[26] A total of eight Great German Art Exhibitions were staged between 1937 and 1944. Hinz, pps 17-19.

[27] Petropoulos, "Faustian Bargain", p. 154.

[28] See Artinger,

[29] Hinz, p. 11- 17.

[30] Hitler’s speech at the opening of the Haus der Kunst; ibid., p. 10.

[31] Rave, p. 101.

[32] Rave, p. 101.

[33] Ziegler’s speech in its entirety is reprinted in Schuster, pps. 217-218.

[34] Ironically, the author, a medical doctor was the son of a Jewish rabbi. Gordon, p. 9-11.

[35] Schuster, p. 27.

[36] Gordon, pps. 9-11.

[37] These sentiments were particularly influenced by Langbehn’s book "Rembrandt als Erzieher", published in 1890.

[38] Paret, p. 60.

[39] ibid., p. 62.

[40] The "entartete Kunst" Aktion continued until the end of October, 1937. A second more ruthless raid on museums, this time also including private collections that were loaned to the museums, began on August 27, 1937. In these two raids a total of roughly 17,000 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper were taken. Schuster, p. 50.

[41] Schuster, p. 95-97.

[42] Barron, p. 22.

[43] These numbers vary from book to book and range anywhere from 650 to 750. The reason for this is that there was no catalogue available at the beginning of the show, and the show changed as it moved on.

[44] There are very few eyewitness reports published in books about this exhibition. Those few that recorded by memory their experience vary in their recollection of the mood in the 1937 "Degenerate Art" exhibition. One could deduce, however, from what is recalled, that people moved through the exhibition rather more quiet than loud and that many of them did seem stunned by what they saw.

[45] Barron, p. 50

[46] Schuster, pps. 311-315.

[47] Barron, p. 20.

[48] For insight into the controversy surrounding this and other auctions in Switzerland which many international dealers and private collectors attended while others purposely stayed away, see Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europe and Stephanie Barron, Degenerate Art.

[49] Petropoulos, Art Politics, p. 23.

[50] Nicholas, p. 23.

[51] Petropoulos, Art Politics, p. 83.

[52] A Beckmann landscape was bought by a dealer for $20.00. A number of modern German paintings were rescued by Emanuel and Sofie Fohn through an exchange. They safeguarded the works in Italy and returned them to the Städtische Museum in München after the war. Nicholas, pps. 24-25.

[53] Petropoulos, pps. 76-83.

[54] Hinz, p. 11.

[55] Even art nouveau facades were pulverized; Schuster, p. 20.

[56] Schuster, pps. 35-38.

[57] Rave, p.98.

[58] Citation from Hitler’s speech at the opening of the second Great German Art Exhibition, 1938; in: Hinz, p. 10.

paper completed June 2004; converted and uploaded on 3/30/05 by H. Marcuse, update 8/24/05
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