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The Long Legacy of Nazi Art

In the 1940s, Hitler and Goebbels compiled a list of artists they considered 'divinely gifted' with the power to envision Germany's future. Today, the work of those artists remains more prevalent than we might think.

Adolf Hitler, accompanied by Joseph Goebbels, at the 1938 Nazi Art Exhibition, during the 'Day of German Art' celebrations at Munich. Credit: Keystone / Getty Images

In the late 1940s, as Europe underwent a long period of economic and political recovery, the Allied forces pursued restitution for millions of artworks looted by the Nazis. Many artists, gallerists, and collectors perished in the Holocaust, leaving the future of German art uncertain. While Allied cultural workers tracked down artworks hoarded in salt mines and records of ownership, many of the Third Reich’s most beloved artists not only were absolved from association but actively continued their careers with little interruption.

The formation of East and West Germany concretised the ideological split between communism and capitalism. Operation Paperclip, the secret United States intelligence programme to import Nazi scientists, ushered in a new era of soft conflict with the Eastern Bloc. This divide, symbolised in the Berlin Wall, crossed further into aesthetics when the newly established Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) worked with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to position Modernism as the antithesis to Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union. While many Nazi artists were well-known in the public eye, others who served in Hitler’s army withheld this information and attained stable administrative careers in Modernist institutions; their troubled past has only recently become public knowledge.

At the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) in Berlin, two exhibitions approach what Frances Stonor Saunders once called the ‘Cultural Cold War’ from both sides of Modern Art’s best kept secret. ‘Divinely Gifted’: National Socialism’s Favoured Artists in the Federal Republic examines the Nazi-approved art that embodied Hitler’s aesthetic ideals and granted their creators immunity from service during the Second World War. Working in a Neoclassical style throughout the war, many of these painters and sculptors abruptly defected to West Germany or Austria, where much of their work remains on display.

In an adjacent gallery, documenta: Politics and Art looks at one of Europe’s most prestigious group exhibitions, which has defined contemporary art trends for nearly seventy years. The long-running documenta has brought together artists from around the world since 1955, emphasising stylistic diversity within the capitalist art market. While documenta eventually became a globe-spanning survey, shocking revelations about its first curators upended public perceptions of its history, calling into question how deep Nazi ties continue to run.

Installation of the sculpture of the ‘Mourning Woman’ by Willy Meller. Oberhausen, 1962 Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Streifen_1_013 © Doris Elisabeth und Hermann Bischoff

These exhibitions address the lingering legacy of Nazism across a different kind of ideological divide. While Hitler and propagandist Joseph Goebbels presented concurrent exhibitions to shift public opinion around ‘great’ and ‘degenerate’ art, these shows reveal how Modernism became a tool used for the suppression of both communists and artists of colour. The Western assimilation of Nazi artists and officials, a sort of ‘Cultural Operation Paperclip’, implicates major art institutions currently reckoning with histories of racism, exposing the continued influence of white supremacy in the industry.

The Great Art Purge

For a brief period in the Weimar Republic, Modern Art was a source of national pride. The 1918 abdication of Wilhelm II ended artistic suppression against German artists who were critical of war and poverty. The rise of Expressionism and New Objectivity in the 1920s, exemplified in painting and film, was met with hostility as the Nazi Party pursued political power. While artists explored this newfound ability to work in an unregulated cultural environment, Hitler sought a return to Classical Greek and Roman aesthetics, appealing to the German masses for a state-sanctioned art that was anti-elitist and racially pure.

With Goebbels’s help, Hitler waged ideological warfare against Jewish, queer, and communist artists who experimented with themes of love and death under the recently fallen German Empire – including artists who served in the First World War. Hitler and Goebbels sought a return to realism rooted in nostalgia that not only glorified fallen troops but opposed the diversity flourishing under Weimar. To drive their point home, they began to label art that deviated from this tradition ‘degenerate’.

Crowds wait to enter Munich’s ‘Degenerate Art Exhibition’, 1937.

In 1937, Hitler and Goebbels organised two art exhibitions in Munich that expounded their official views on national art using works seized from Germany’s largest museums and galleries. The Degenerate Art Exhibition brought together six hundred paintings by more than a hundred artists who, in Hitler’s words, posed an insult to ‘German feeling’. Many of the artists included were Jewish, including Paul Klee and George Grosz, or held communist and anti-war views, such as Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. Across the Institute of Archaeology, Hitler and Goebbels intentionally curated the works in a haphazard arrangement with inflammatory informational cards to disorient and shock the audience.

In the nearby Haus der Kunst, the Third Reich leaders simultaneously hosted the Great German Art Exhibition, which featured nine hundred artworks epitomising the National Socialist spirit, including blonde nudes, idealised soldiers, and pastoral landscapes. Many of the participating artists were inspired by the work of Traditionalist architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg, whose 1932 pamphlet The Struggle for Art rejected Modernism and urged the Nazi Party to influence politics through culture. For Hitler, an amateur painter whose art was dismissed by the German establishment, this was an opportunity to seize control over an industry that snubbed him and convince the German masses that Modernism was a clandestine plot against them.

By the end of its run, the Degenerate show had attracted more than two million visitors, three-and-a-half times more than its counterpart, solidifying Nazi cultural values as Hitler escalated the war. By September 1944, he and Goebbels had enlisted artists into a cultural offensive against the Allied countries. Together, they drafted the Gottbegnadeten-Liste of artists they believed were ‘divinely gifted’ with the ability to envision Germany’s ideal future, which was devoid of Modernist degeneracy and the people who supported it. The four hundred ‘indispensable’ painters, sculptors, actors, and writers represented Hitler’s Aryan ideal, and they worked with the government to install public art throughout the country.

‘The Memorial of the Victims of 20 July 1944’ by Richard Scheibe is being erected in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock in Berlin. Berlin, 1953 © DHM/Photographer: Liselotte Orgel-Köhne

‘Divinely gifted’ artists worked in prominent national academies and received state commissions to build up Germany’s cultural infrastructure. Two brothers on the list, Arno and Hans Breker, created sculptures of Greek gods for government buildings and public squares. Another sculptor, Willy Meller, contributed his work to Berlin’s Olympic stadium and the Prora holiday resort. Hermann Kaspar’s mosaics and frescoes adorned the New Reich Chancellery, commissioned by minister of armaments Albert Speer. Hitler claimed that an inlay Kaspar installed in his desk, depicting the god of war Mars, would instill fear in the diplomats who met with him. Hitler and Goebbels did not live to see their own defeat, but these artists—who were treated as precious commodities—faced abrupt dismissal from their respective institutions as Allied forces invaded Germany.

After the War

While the Breker brothers became celebrities for their art, Arno was also one of two men, along with Speer, flanking Hitler in the infamous Eiffel Tower photograph. His status as a ‘fellow traveller’ became grounds for firing from the Academy of Fine Arts, where Arno taught for nearly a decade. That same year, however, Hans—who changed his last name to Van Breek—was awarded the title ‘Professor for Life’ from the University of Architecture and Fine Arts. Both brothers continued to receive commissions as the Allied forces mapped out Germany’s postwar future, with the US Army even helping Hans install a memorial to the Storm Artillery in Karlstadt.

Throughout the ’50s, ‘divinely gifted’ artists reintegrated into the industry and received steady public art assignments. Arno’s 1957 ‘Pallas Athene’ sculpture, which still stands in Wuppertal, revived a central Nazi motif, but its design departed from his style in the 1940s. He received this commission through fellow ‘divinely gifted’ artist Friedrich Hetzelt, who designed the building nearby. Richard Scheibe installed his ‘Memorial to German Resistance’ (1944) in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock, and Meller’s ‘Mourning Woman’ (1961) sculpture appeared outside the Oberhausen Memorial Hall. Tapestry artist Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger relocated to Vienna and contributed frescos and murals to Austrian cultural institutions, including the ‘Iron Curtain’ at the state opera and a large-scale wall painting at the city cinema.

Members of the US Army attending the installation of the ‘Memorial for the Storm Artillery’ by Hans Breker. Karlstadt, 1958 © Archiv Garnisonsgeschichte Jüterborg e. V.

While some works caused controversy—such as Kaspar’s ‘Lady Musica’ (1969), which was gifted from the state of Bavaria to Nuremberg’s Meistersingerhalle—many went unquestioned. One reason was that anti-Modernist sentiment never really died in West Germany. Even though the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ originated in the German art magazine The Storm, Richard Eichler’s anti-abstraction book Experts, Artists, Charlatans still became a best-seller by 1960. This was the political climate of the early documenta exhibitions in Munich, which officially brought Modern Art back to Germany. Founded by artist Arnold Bode in 1955, the Kassel-based exhibition was marketed as an antidote to the continued popularity of Traditionalist and Neoclassical art, welcoming contributions from abstract artists working in Cubism, Fauvism, and Futurism.

The first documenta re-introduced celebrity painters like Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky, focusing exclusively on Europe. Gradually, it became a forward-thinking survey of the art world at large. The Fridericianum hosted documenta every five years to establish a West German cultural identity devoid of Third Reich influence. Over time, the show has welcomed Kinetic and Pop Art as well as Art Brut and graphic design across the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Some artists became repeat performers, such as Joseph Beuys, while artists of the Institutional Critique movement introduced critical art to European audiences.

Unveiling of Hermann Kaspar’s ‘Lady Musica’ in the Nuremberg Meistersingerhalle. Nuremberg, 12 January 1970 © Stadtarchiv Nürnberg, E 55 Nr. 176

Early documenta programming aligned with Cold War narratives, positioning Modernism as a thoroughly Western artform with financial and political support from the US and Britain. Paintings and sculptures by German artists like Emy Roeder and Oskar Schlemmer have appeared with mixed-media works by Andy Warhol and Hans Haacke. Curators initially avoided artists from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), but this changed after Chancellor Willy Brandt enacted his ‘détente’ foreign policy to make peace with the Eastern Bloc. Curiously, it was US and GDR artists like Beryl Korot and Werner Tübke who addressed the Holocaust with conceptual works on 1970s tourism of concentration camps and surrealist sentencings of Nazi officials, respectively.

Federal Republic president Theodor Heuss declared that Nazi-associated artists were barred from exhibiting in documenta, as their work was incompatible with West Germany’s national identity. In reality, the first three documenta exhibitions were partially organised by former Nazi Party members from the Sturmabteilung (SA) and Schutzstaffel (SS). This revelation only emerged in 2019 after researchers found that Werner Haftmann, a historian and former director of the New National Gallery in Berlin, had lied about his service in the SA. Coincidentally, these early shows omitted contributions from women and artists of colour, including communist and queer artists.

At documenta 8 in 1987, feminist art collective Guerrilla Girls used their platform to send a message, distributing informational cards that questioned why the show was ninety-five percent white and eighty-three percent men; clearly, they were onto something. President Heuss may have said that no Nazis were permitted in documenta, but he never publicly explained why no Jewish artists who perished in the Holocaust were included either (Otto Freundlich’s name was included on an early preparatory list but later crossed out). Just two months earlier, however, Heuss allowed Hermann Kaspar to complete a wall mosaic he began in 1935 at the German Museum—the first official Nazi commission, which was delayed by the war.

Regressive Art, New Critiques

Goebbels is famously misquoted as saying that the word ‘culture’ made him reach for his gun, but the sentiment, lifted from Hanns Johst’s play Schlageter, remains relevant. Art was not just an idea to the Nazis; it was a weapon. The Federal Republic recovered from the Nazi period not by seeking justice but by absorbing their cultural milieu for their own ideological warfare against Russia. It seems like no ordinary coincidence, therefore, that the city of Kassel which hosts documenta was located near the Federal Republic’s border with East Germany.

To this day, more than 250 works by ‘divinely gifted’ artists remain on display in Germany and Austria around public squares, zoos, parks, schools, and theatres. The institutional acceptance of former Nazis further proves that white supremacy pervades the highest rungs of European culture and that Western art museums have always adjusted their practices to avoid accountability. By welcoming Nazi collaborators, West German, Austrian, and even American institutions assisted in diminishing the controversy, allowing these artists and curators to repair their public image—much like disgraced defense contractors who restore reputations by artwashing their wealth.

Guerrilla Girls, ‘Why in 1987 is documenta 95% white and 83% male?’ (1987). documenta 8, 1987 © Courtesy of Guerrilla Girls

The concept of ‘degenerate’ culture manifests today in the far right’s regressive contempt for racial justice and queer visibility, emboldening fascistic tendencies even among those not aligned with Nazi ideology. Art critics noted that many white attendees at the 1937 Degenerate exhibition, even those not supportive of the Nazi Party, were just as likely to fall for the propaganda. In the Boston Globe, A. I. Philpot wrote that ‘there are probably plenty of people—art lovers—in Boston who will side with Hitler in this particular purge.’ Is it any surprise, then, that last year’s protests called out the continued suppression of marginalised voices in major museums? Rather than recycle culture war talking points, we may consider that the problem lies within the foundations of cultural centres controlled largely by white capitalists with a common interest.

Germany and Austria remain hotbeds of neo-Nazi political discontent. As such, there is still work to be done in amending this legacy. Given the British aristocracy’s long history of fascist sympathies, as well as the recent prominence of far-right parties in Hungary, Italy, and Poland, it seems bizarre that government officials are still shrugging off these matters as tensions continue to rise. But it’s not complicated—Nazi art belongs in the dustbin of history.