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Modernism and the Nazis. A Nightmare

What would have happened if the Nazis had embraced modern art? The very thought seems idiotic. We are brought up to accept that dictatorship has its own taste: muscle-bound literalism. So how could National Socialism have declared the German Expressionists and their successors – marvellous painters like Beckmann and Kirchner, Kokoschka and Nolde – as cultural heroes of the Nazi 'national uprising'? And yet they might have done so. And if they had, we would be looking at art now in a quite different way.

The dogma that the Nazis were always fiercely antimodern survives. So does the related assumption that the avant-garde painters in the Germany of the 1930s were politically left wing. Neither is true. Otto Dix, for example, is best known for his shattering images of trench war, mostly done in the 1920s. Work like that produced since 1945 is instantly identified as the expression of left-wing pacifism, and indeed the socialist wing of the anti-Nazi emigration from Germany had already claimed Dix as an ally after 1933. But the 1920s were different times, and Otto Dix was not a communist – in fact, he was quite unpolitical.

The painting generation to which Dix belonged is labelled 'Neue Sachlichkeit' – 'New Objectivity'. Some of his contemporaries, like his friend George Grosz, were communists or socialists of other varieties. Many, however, were not, and their sense of a world ending, of another foundering in blood and chaos, was not unlike the perception that took conservative revolutionaries into the Nazi movement.

These brief opening observations can serve as an introduction to the minefields of perception which surround this topic. Surfaces are treacherous here. But now I want to enter one of these minefields and, carefully, to look at its booby-traps.

What was the most successful exhibition of modern art in this century? I mean successful in the senses of both attracting and of changing substantially the course of artistic development in the ensuing years. The answer, I am sorry to say, is highly disagreeable. It was the exhibition of 'Degenerate Art' (Entartete Kunst) opened by Adolf Hitler in Munich on 19 July 1937.

The exhibition, which held the entire Modern Movement in German painting, graphics, sculpture and architecture up to ridicule, contained no fewer than 7630 works of art. Not all of them survived into our own times. But among them were works considered now – and indeed before Hitler's accession to power in 1933 – as marvellous and immortal expressions of human genius. The list of the involuntary 'exhibitors' is too long to reproduce but among them were Paul Klee, Otto Dix, Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Oskar Schlemmer, Lyonel Feininger, Käthe Kollwitz, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Willi Baumeister.

Entartete Kunst was an instant and enduring winner. No fewer than two million people visited it between July and November. Most were German but many foreigners made the journey to Munich specially. Hitler himself went round it, accompanied by Goebbels and the bigwigs of the Reich Arts Chamber, the Nazi guild of artists. After Munich, the exhibition went on tour, opening in Berlin, Hamburg Leipzig and other cities.

There is a comforting fib put about, which is that the enormous rush of visitors who wanted to see 'Degenerate Art' was composed of secret fans: admirers of Expressionism, Post-Expressionism or the Bauhaus who went only to see for the last time the works of modern art they loved and understood so deeply. But this is rubbish. There were certainly some among the crowds who felt like that. There is even one recorded case of a collector – Bernhard Sprengel – who was actually converted to Modernism by what he saw in that show. The vast majority, however, went for the reasons the Nazis hoped for. They thought modern art was mad and sick, and they regarded the exhibition as sort of magnified circus freak show. As one depressed spectator wrote at that time: "The aim of the propaganda, which was to deal a death blow to genuine modern art, was in large measure achieved."

The exhibition was remarkably well presented. In our own times, especially in Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite Britain, art galleries have to wrestle with unfamiliar concepts like sponsorship, marketing and targeting. 'Degenerate Art' would have had no problems there. The sponsors of Entartete Kunst were not directly the state, or the taxpayer, but the Party – The National Socialist German Workers' Party. In each city, when the exhibition went on tour, the local Nazi regional organisation took on sponsorship, giving the show a spurious flavour of spontaneity. Marketing and targeting were adept. Nobody had to be threatened with a holiday in Dachau if he or she didn't go. Instead there was mass advanced ticket selling at reduced prices, with huge publicity. In addition the show was 'sold' as an adjunct to a spectacular official event close by: the opening by Hitler of the new Haus der Deutschen Kunst with the Nazis' own 'Great-German Art Exhibition' inside, which took place on the following day to the 'Degenerate' opening.

Targeting was simple enough. The exhibition was not aimed at the converted Nazi ideologues. It was aimed at the million upon million of stupid, racialist, half-educated people who thought the problems in their lives were caused by Jewish department stores, negro jazz bands, Russian atheists and posturing perverts. It scored a memorable bull's eye. Adolf Hitler now spoke for everyone who had been boiling with suppressed rage against Modernism, for everyone who had been made to feel a clown for pointing out that people are not made of cubes and triangles: "There really are men who see today's Germans as simply degenerate cretins, and who perceive – or as they would no doubt to say, 'experience' – the meadows as blue, the sky as green, the clouds as sulphur-yellow, and so on. I do not want to enter into an argument as to whether or not these people actually do see and perceive things in this way, but in the name of the German people I wish to prohibit such unfortunates, who clearly suffer from defective vision, from trying to foist the products of their faulty observation on to their fellow men as though they were realities, or indeed from dishing them up as 'art'." (Quoted in Entartete Kunst, exhibition guide, Munich 1937).

The presentation of the show was also – as the modern cliché has it – 'exemplary'. The cultural historian Hermann Glaser has pointed out the deliberate contrast between the new 'pure' art housed in the supposedly beautiful new Haus der Deutschen Kunst, and the 'ugly' art squeezed into the obsolete old gallery on the Königsplatz. Squeezed is the word. The paintings and sculptures were crowded together at the walls, and some even stood on the floor as if just unpacked. This was deliberate. It was calculated to convey a sense of chaos, of claustrophobia, of unhealthiness, and to make the visitor feel like throwing open a window. Large didactic texts, explaining in Nazi terms the sickness of the exhibits, sprawled across the few empty spaces. And beside each picture, neat and nasty, was a ticket stating the last price it commanded. Trendy profiteers, it was implied, paid a worker's annual salary for this garbage.

The exhibition was divided into sections: 'Mockery of German Womanhood', 'Vilification of German War Heroes' and so on. Professor Adolf Ziegler, president of the Reich Arts Chamber, told parties of tourists, "around us, you see the monstrous products of lunacy, impudence, dilettantism and degeneracy."

His own heavy, literal female nudes were in the other, 'good' exhibition. Not for nothing was Ziegler known as 'German master of the mons veneris'. All the same, the monstrous products were not considered too horrible to sell. When the show was finally over, in 1939, many of its works were sold by the German government in Switzerland, leading to one of the greatest dealer-stampedes in art history. However, an enormous mass of paintings and drawings was left over. The authorities let it be known that they were burned as part of a training exercise by the Berlin Fire Brigade. This was a lie, but it was what they wanted the world to believe.

The Entartete Kunst catalogue juxtaposed the paintings with works by mental patients; other exhibition material put together Expressionist representations of the human body with photographs of gross deformity in hospital patients. The association of artistic distortion with the symptoms of disease (an utterly senseless comparison) gained strength. That, too, was to be adopted by the Stalinists, who insisted that the literal was also the progressive and healthy, while abstraction or non-realistic art was the surface rash of bourgeois decadence.

It is a pretty incredible thought that Expressionism itself might have become the official Nazi art-style. It is true of course that not all the practitioners, from Die Brücke through to the Bauhaus were women and men of the Left. What we easily forget is how deeply and passionately the German intellectuals had responded to early Expressionism even before the first outbreak of the First World War. By 1914, Expressionism was on its way to becoming semi-established or, as one modern critic has put it, "accepted as the natural language of the German spirit".

In 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor, it was therefore natural that many dealers and gallery directors and curators thought that it might make sense to go for Expressionism as the German national style. Göring was only one of several Nazi leaders who bought these works. And the intellectuals and sympathisers were reassured by what had happened in Italy, where Futurism had been promoted to be the art of the national revival. This line of thought was represented by the mixed group of people who seemed to revolve round the journal Kunst der Nation, especially Andreas Schreiber who wrote in 1933 that the "promoters of the national revolution in Germany were the artists of Die Brücke".

On the other wing were the Nazi ideologues, the biological warriors. In 1927, Alfred Rosenberg himself had been one of the founders of the Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur. With him was the horrible Paul Schultze-Naumburg, who was later to have the pleasure of personally painting over Schlemmer's Bauhaus murals in Weimar. The Kampfbund went straight for the association of non-realistic art with physical and mental disease, and it was the Kampfbund which started showing Expressionist representations of the human body alongside photographed deformities. Anyway, the battle between Kunst der Nation and the Kampfbund over what was to be the official style broke out in earnest when Nolde applied to join the Kampfbund and – to his own bewilderment – was refused.

The battle was still raging when in 1934 the Italians sent a major Futurist exhibition to Berlin. This show drew a curious response from Adolf Hitler himself. He called down a plague on both houses. He attacked the anti-traditional corrupters of art whom he called "alien both racially and nationally". But he also savaged what he described as "backward-looking cranks who think they can spin an old-style German art out of the muddled world of their own imaginings".

What was going on here? Nobody really knows. To some extent, Hitler was practising one of his favourite spectator sports: letting rival factions within the Nazi movement fight it out to the death – the Darwinian life struggle for the survival of the fittest transferred to institutions. Anyway, by 1936 the Führer had tired of the struggle, perhaps following the final suppression of the Strasser faction and other so-called revolutionary elements in the movement. Hitler came off the fence and, in cooperation with Goebbels, commissioned Adolf Ziegler – he of the montes veneris – to start collecting for a show of degenerate art whose centre-piece would be Expressionism and Post-Expressionism. At the same time, the decision was taken for the heroic, ultra-naturalist style. So began the triumph of sculptors like Arno Breker, and of painters like Hubert Lanzinger who did that famous picture of Hitler as Joan of Arc, on horseback.

Let us now play the 'If' game. Suppose Hitler had chosen the other way, and Modernism up to and including Klee had become the official art of the Thousand-Year Reich! The first and most obvious result is that the emigration of painters and sculptors would have been much smaller. And the West, above all the United States, would not have received the painter-teachers who, a few years later, were to generate the eruption of abstract expressionism. The second consequence might well have been to leave abstract painting as an interesting but marginal affair on the fringes of art. The identification with political liberty and economic individualism – quite accidental, really – would almost certainly not have taken place. The third and by far the most important consequence would have been to undermine the entire Modernist movement in the 'democratic' world. 'Modern Art' would have been associated with fascism in both its Italian and German forms. In spite of the existence of a German avant-garde which was too strong for the Nazis to take, intellectuals in France, Britain and the US would have been powerfully tempted by the notion that art which 'distorted' liberal perception was dangerous and in some way anti-human, while 'soundness' must lie in dogged realism. Some people on the left would have gone on to point to Soviet art, with its 'heroic naturalism', as the true heir to the European tradition. Others would have objected to the communist propaganda which was inherent in Socialist Realism, but even they would never have made today's facile identification of Soviet with Nazi art as artistically and morally equivalent. There would have been only one 'totalitarian style': Modernism.

History as it really did happen took a heavy toll of the work of the Neue Sachlichkeit generation. Several of the very greatest of Otto Dix's works were lost in the Nazi period. But if the young British and American soldiers in Germany in 1945 had been taught that Modernism was the art of evil, then almost everything would have gone to the torch. The Nazi decision to declare war on the Modern movement was a disaster. But a decision to sanctify it would have been, in the end, far worse.

Neal Ascherson

From: Random Access. On Crisis and
its Metaphors. Edited by Pavel Büchler
and Nikos Papastergiadis,
Rivers Oram Press, London 1995.