Tackling the taboo of Nazi art
Perhaps the oddest exhibit in the whole history of art is the one that opened on July 19, 1937, in Munich, Germany.
Certainly it remains the most legendary, an event often mentioned when censorship is the subject.
Few people alive can claim to have seen it, but now the German Historical Museum is bringing it ( or a large part of it) back to life.
It was a collection of paintings intended to demonstrate the ugliness and chaos of modern art. Titled Degenerate Art, it was the beginning of the Nazi cultural policy. Later, music, film and education would be dealt with. The Nazis believed that if they showed recent art to be corrupt they would be part way to debasing all of fashionable culture.
To prepare the exhibition, a team of Nazi experts toured the museums of Germany. They identified 112 artists whose work they considered degenerate.
Among the collected paintings and prints, their choices included Picasso, Matisse and Chagall.
When Degenerate Art opened, the German press fell into line with the Nazis, announcing that the exhibition contained Trainloads of Dirt. Admittance was free and the audience was huge.
A scribe named Fritz Kaiser ( not otherwise noted in the annals of art criticism) wrote wall texts telling the public how to respond to what they were seeing. After Munich, the exhibition moved to Berlin and then to half a dozen other cities.
And now? In 2019, the German Historical Museum in the core of Berlin is planning an exhibition that will trace the effects of Nazi art on the post- Nazi era that followed. Commenting on this project, Ulrike Knöpfel in Der Spiegel wrote: “Despite all the research that has been conducted into the Nazi period and all of the conclusions that have been reached, art from the Third Reich remains a taboo. Many, it would seem, believe
that these works contain some dark and dangerous power.”
The Nazis claimed that their decisions, far from degrading the arts, were in fact part of the defence of what they considered “real” culture. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, declared at a Nazi party congress in 1935 that “Bolshevism is the declaration of war by Jewish- led international subhumans against culture itself.”
The Nazis described the Jews as Untermenschen ( subhumans), the most notorious example being a 1942 SS publication with the title “Der Untermensch,” which contains an anti-semitic tirade. In the pamphlet “The SS as an Anti- Bolshevist Fighting Organization,” Heinrich Himmler wrote in 1936: “We shall take care that never again in Germany, the heart of Europe, will the Jewish- Bolshevistic revolution of subhumans be able to be kindled either from within or through emissaries from without.” The Nazis hoped that the power of the Third Reich would cling to the German people. Even after Germany was defeated at Stalingrad, Goebbels kept insisting that the propaganda he had directed would continue to guide the people.
In 1938, the Reich Music Festival in Dusseldorf included performances of Hindemith, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, all of them damned as deplorable. It was modern, it was intellectual, and above all it was Jewish — all bad. These composers violated “our Aryan tone order,” as one Nazi hack wrote, putting a racial brand on the ancient traditions of music.
Goebbels himself closed the festival by declaring that music, the most German of arts, was in danger of being swept away by “the pathological symptoms of musical, Jewish, intellectualism.”
Michael H. Kater of York University has gathered the crucial facts of that era in his richly detailed new book, Culture in Nazi Germany ( Yale). He shows no affection for Nazi opinion but he treats all of the disputants fairly. At the end of this sad, tragic story, he predicts that it will “take decades of cleansing and reconstruction to prepare the ground for a complete cultural rebirth.” That much- needed process is still under way.