NAZI Cultural Revolution: The Arts

NAZI revolution
Figure 1.--

The NAZI Revolution like the Communist Revolution in the Soviet Union was far more than just a political revolution. Both the NAZIs and Communists were determined to fundamentally change society from the ground up. One of his goals which he did not dweal on was major changes in Germany's impressive cultural landscape. For the NAZIs, this involved introducing a racial lens on culture. Art, along with architecture, literature, movie music and films were all requited to reflect NAZI ideology and values. Both the NAZIs and Communists predictably agreed that the primary purpose of culture was to promote their world view--the Communist proletarian revolution and the NAZI racial revolution. Art was a special target in part because Hitler saw himself to be an art expert. As a young man in Vienna, he aspired to be an artist. He decided that there were basically two forms of art –- un-German degenerate art (especially modern art produced by artists like Pablo Picasso) and classical realistic art. Hitler saw clasical realism as the ideal art form and could depict all that was good about NAZI Germany and the Aryan German Volk. The Weimar wra had a vibrant cultural life and thiswas especialy true in the art world. Germany artists embrace modern forms: expressionism, Dada, cubism, and impressionism. The focal point of German art was the Bauhaus where artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and George Grosz all worked. Art was important enough for Hitler that he even addressedit in Min Kmpf, a decaded before seizing power, "This art is the sick production of crazy people. Pity the people who are no longer able to control this sickness.” [Hitler] Heespecially objcted to Dada and cubism. He insisted that these modern art forms were the outgrowth of Jewish-Bolshevism. He connected Communismwith the Jews. He claimed that they were observable in the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic in the chaoic period after World War I. And once in control of the German state, Hitler had the power to enforce his tastes on the German people and German artits.

German Artists

When we think of art, France is often center place. Ther Germans, however, have a very impressive artisic heritage as well. German art streaches from some of earliest known works of figurative art to the rich artistic output of the Weimar Republic. Of course, Germany was only unified a few decades before the 19th century. Thus before the 19th century German art involved the artisictic effort of many different states. And because Germany boundarie changes over time, you have the added compiction of Germans living outside the borders of Germany and ethnically non-Germans working wghin German states. And this is even not considering the added conmplication of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Munich was a hot spot of European art giving rise to the Munich chool. We have looked at German artists apart of out HBC website. HBC has so far acquired only limited information on German artists who have painted interesting works illustrating boys' fashions. One of the most important was Winterhalter, a favorite of Queen Victoria. His portraits, however did not concentrate on Germans. We have also noted a few images that are not attributed to specific artists, but are dated. With the German artists, nationality can be complicated. There were a large number of German states with the Holy Roman Empire and klater the German Confederation. There were also German speakers living outside Germany oproper, especially in Switzerland. Before the 19th century, some of these artists may have looked in themselves as Germans. Ther was also Austria which after the Ausrtro-Prussian War (1866) was exccluded by Bismarck from Geramny, but where many which historically has been an essential part of Germany.

Adolf Hitler

Art was a special target for Goebbels and his cultural campaign in part because Hitler saw himself to be an art expert. As a young man in Vienna, he aspired to be an artist. He decided that there were basically two forms of art –- un-German degenerate art (especially modern art produced by artists like Pablo Picasso) and classical realistic art. Hitler saw clasical realism as the ideal art form and could depict all that was good about NAZI Germany and the Aryan German Volk. Weimar Germany had a vibrant cultural life and this was especialy true in the art world. Germany artists embrace modern forms: expressionism, Dada, cubism, and impressionism. The focal point of German art was the Bauhaus where artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and George Grosz all worked. Paul Klee was an imprtant Swiss-German painter influenced by expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. Wassily (Wassilyevich) Kandinsky was an influential Russian painter and art theorist. He is credited with painting one of the first purely abstract works. George Grosz was a German artist known especially for his caricatural drawings and paintings of Berlin life, offending the NAZIs. Art was important enough for Hitler that he even addressed it a decade before seizing power, "This art is the sick production of crazy people. Pity the people who are no longer able to control this sickness.” [Hitler, Mein Kampf.] He especially objcted to Dada and cubism. He insisted that these modern art forms were the outgrowth of Jewish-Bolshevism. He connected Communis with the Jews. He claimed that they were observable in the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic in h chaoic period after World War I. Hitler's preferences were toward relaism and he especially liked romantic works. He insisted that a finished picture should never display anguish, distress or pain. This of course would exclude many of the most notable works of the Renaissance. He wanted realistic and particularly appreciated heroic pieces. Hitler had the idea that artists should use color in a way that 'was different to those perceived in Nature by the normal eye.' And he thought tht the duty of a German artist was to honorably depict 'the true German spirit'. He especially liked pintings of genre artists like Franz von Defregger and Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller -- Austrian who painting charming scenes of traditional Austrian rural life. Once appointed Chancelor and able to create paolice state, Hitler had the power to enforce his tastes on the German people and German artits (1933). Hitler defined true art as linked closely with a country's life, with health, and with the Aryan race. "We shall discover and encourage the artists who are able to impress upon the State of the German people the cultural stamp of the Germanic race . . . in their origin and in the picture which they present they are the expressions of the soul and the ideals of the community." [Hitler, "Party Day".]

The Enabling Act (March 1933)

Presiudent Hindenerg appointed Hitler Chancelloe (January 1933). He took several steps aimed at establishing a police state. The key step ws after the Reichstag Fire, the passage of the Enabling Act. Hitler appeared before the Reichstag to 'temporarily' delegate its authority to him so that he would have the needed power to deal with the crisis. He denouncing opponents as traitors and shouted, “Germany will be free, but not through you!” The NAZIs still had only 288 seats, still short of a majority. But with many Communist (DKP) deputies arrested, many in Dachau, the opposution was fatally weakened. SA Stormtroopers lined the entrance to the Reichstag. The vote was foreordained, 441 for and 84 against. This gave Hitler the required two-thirds majority to suspend the Weimar Constitution. It essential made Hitler what he had always wanted, the dictator of Germany. He now had no legislative or constitutional constraints. Thus decress from the Reich Chancellor had the force of law. The only constraint was that they needed President Hindenburg's signature. The Enabling Act are primarily discussed in terms of seizing political power. But it also gave Hitler the ability to launch a cultural revolution.

Visual Arts


Hitler's first step in the cultural arena was the creation of the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture) and he put Joseph Goebbels in charge. The Chamber which becamne an apendage of the Propaganda Ministry was organized into seven sections are artistic spheres: fine arts, music, theatre, literature, press, radio and film. Each section was tasked with bringing that area in compliance with Gleichschaltung And to propagate NAZI ideology and values among the German people. Artists had to have Government approval to work. Some 42,000 artists received that approval. They had to join the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts. There was no choice involved here. The Enabling Act gave Hitler and Government agencies to issue regulatuins that had the forice of law. Violation could have very serious consequences The rules of Artists were not allowed to criticize the NAZI Party or its leaders, any thing that could suggest that they were “politically unreliable”. Jews and Communists were automactically placed in this category. It meant expulsion from the Chamber and the loss of the ability to pursue their artistic work. If expelled they were prohibited from painting, to teaching (an important source of income for many artists), and exhibiting their work. Their work could be seized and destroyed. This did not just mean the right to display or sell art. They could not even have paints, brushes, abd canvasses in their homes. Art dealers were given a list of approved artists and artists who had been banned for “political unreliability”. Gestapo agents made surprise unannounced visits to art dealers and studios to ensure that they were doing all that was required of them – painting as the state required them to paint. Supressed artists were also visited by the Gestapo to ensure that they were not painting.

Individual Artists

German artists basically had three alternatives: exile, inner emigration, or accomodation. Many artists chose exile as working under such conditions was intolerable for them. This included some of the most important of the Weimar artits. Paul Klee left for Switzerland. Wassily Kandinsky went to Paris. Oskar Kokoschka left for England. Grosz emigrated to the United States of America. They had all been identified as 'purveyors of non-German art'. Most German artists rejected exile and chose instead accomodation. This included not only artists, but also architects, composers and nusicins, film directors and actors, painters, writers, and others. It is of course easy to condemn today. How we would have acted in similar circumstances is a very different matter. One gets the impression today, that Hollywood's embrace of PC thought is party the deire to allign themselves with the cuurents most condusive for their career. One author asks the question, "What are we to make of those cultural figures, many with significant international reputations, who tried to find accommodation with the Nazi regime?” [Petropoulos] The author explains how individuals variously dealt with the NAZIs dictates on art, especially their opposition to modern art. It is nor entirely true that all modern artists were anti-NAZI and all NAZIs anti-modernist. A brave few took the very dangerous alternative of using their art to oppose the NAZIs. This proved impossible in Germany, but was conducted in exile from other countries. Max Beckmann in the occupied Netherlands painted allegories of NAZI brutality. Felix Nussbaum, a Jew hiding in Belgium, painted works depicting the suffering of the Jewish people, although not fully understanding what happened after transport. John Heartfeld (Helmut Herzfelde) attempt to resist in Berlin, but had to go into exile in Prague. He produced photo images depicting NAZI depravity and incompetence. [Keel] Many of these countries during the War were occupied by the Germans putting the artists in mortal jepoardy.

Degenerate Art

Only months after becoming Chancellor, Just months into his Chancellorship, Hitler ordered a display of 'degenerate art' (entartete kunst) which Goebbels organized for him at Karlsruhe. It was not only for propaganda purposes, but to serve as an thinly veiled warning to the German art community as to what was no longer t acceptable. The Exibition was followed by the closure of the Bauhaus Design School. Many of the teachers at this world-famed institute were Jewish or Russian which Hitler saw as Bolshevik connections. The NAZIs also closed the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation). Hitler gave particular atention to his artistic campaign. He spoke out against degenerate art at the 1934 NAZI Party Nuremberg rally. Hitler next created a Tribunal made up of four fervent NAZI artists who were given the assignment of touring German galleries and museums and removing 'decadent art'. They proved to be very through. They removed 12,890 pieces of art including sculptures which they labeled degenerate or decadent. One of members of the Tribunal, Count von Baudissen, clearly expressed his artistic mindset, "The most perfect shape … it is the steel helmet.” The offending pieces were put on display in Munich (March 31, 1936). The display included pieces by Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Located nearby in Munich was an exhibition of 900 pieces of approved Germanic art -- the Greater German Art Exhibition.

Art Competitions

Hitler and Goebels not only supressed the art that they did not like, but organized hundreds of officially sanctioned competitions to encourage German artists to promote the development of 'acceptable' methods of painting. And there were substantial monetary rewards for the winners.


The besk known NAZI sculptor was Arno Breker. Like many NAZI artists, he refused to face the consequences his NAZI era work after the War.


We do not know a great deal about NAZI music yet. A CIH reader has provided some information. "Many of the great German Wagnerian singers were Jewish and continued to perform during the early days of the Nazi regime. Many performed in the presence of Hitler. At one of the Bayreuth Festivals Hitler ordered Winnifred Wagner to get rid of Freidrich Schorr, a Jew who portrayed Wotan, head of the Nordic Gods. To her credit, she stood up to Hitler, saying that Schorr was irreplaceable. Even one of the Nazi newspapers lamented the fact that Schorr, a Jew was the greatest Wotan of the era. Eventually Schorr and many other Jewish singers fled the country. Many other non Jewish opera singers such as Lauritz Melchior and conductors such as Bruno Walther left Germany due to their opposition to Hitler. Kirsten Flagstad, one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos, a Norwegian, went home during the War to be with her husband, a prominent industriallist. He had business dealings with the Nazis and after the War was considered a collaborator. Flagstad was invited to perform in Bayreuth during the War but refused. After the war she was not invited to sing at the Metropolitan Opera until 1951 even though she did not sing for the Nazis." Many other producers and directors would have like to stand up to the NAZIs. But they would have been fired or even arrested. and of course they had their families to cinsider. Winnifred Wagner was different. Short of treason, there was no ay that Hitler would have taken any serious action against her. Rather Hitler publicized his association with the Wagner fmily part of establihing his cultural credetias. No other individuals in the art world were in the same position as the Wagner family. Paul Hindemith and Richasrd Strauss were two promimant compposers who struggled to continue working during the NAZI era. [Petropoulos]


The NAZis began attacking literaturn with books burnings before any of the other arts with the books burnings orchtratd by Goebbels (May 1933). Some authors fled Germany after the NAZIs sized power because they had been outspokingly anti-NAZI. Other left Germany because theycould no longer work, both Jews and anti-NAZIs. Others stayed in Germany and sought accomodation with the regime. Gottfried Benn was one of the authors who stayed and attempted to write.


Gustaf Gründgens was one of Germany's most famous actors who went along with the NAZI current. He became close to both Goebbels and Göring. Amazingly the Soviets allowed him to have a post-War career because he used his presige and NAZI-connections to assista a number of actors persecuted by the authorities. Perhaps themost famous NAZI film maker was Leni Reifensthl, a rare female in the NAZI ferment. She made the most poweful NAZI movies. Unlike Germany as a whole, however, she proved unable after the War to come to terms with her NAZI past.


Of all the arts, Hitler took the greates interest in architecture. This was because he wanted to leave his mark on Germany in stone, cement, and steel. This was not unlike other leaders in history beginning even before the pharoahs and the pyramids. And this was how Hitler came in contact with Albert Speer--a young, unknown largely apolitical Architect. And the relationship developed, Hitler and Speer would spend hours together discussing a vission to rebuild Berlin with a series of massive new buildings. Hitler had a penchnt fot gianyosm. Experts looking at the sale models of their creations rotinely describe them asterile and lacking of a human dimension. Germany's most famous architect was Walter Gropius who like other creative spirits struggled to carry on when confronted with public attacks.

Totalitarianism: Left and Right Manifestations

The Left today would like to think that they are the anbthesis of NAZI totalitarianism. In fact, Soviet Communism and Germam NAZIism were virtually mirror images. There were some differences, most notably Hirler' racial obssesion. In almost all other aspects, the supression of individual liberties, concentration camps, extra-judicial murder, massive military spending, aggression, control of the media, using culture to promote ideology, and much more the two regimes were virtually indestinguishable. It is not accident that World War II began with an alliance between Hitler and Stalin anbd the German SS and Soviet NKVD began killing notable Polish intectuals, including artisals and other national cultural figures. At their core both the NAZIs and Soviets believed that the individual was the servant of the state. The real different system ijs liberal democracy in which the state is the servant of the people. Art and culture in general are just one of the similarities between the NAZIs and the Communists. They both believed that the purpose of culture was to promoteir totalitarian ideology. For both Hitler and Stalin, culture was one more weapon in thekir well-stockd arsenal.

Lingering modernity

Germany was one of the great creative fonts of Western civilization. And although the NAZIs sought to absolutely control German culture and had the powers of a ferocious state aparatus at its disposl to do so. It not only promoted approved styles, but did all it could to prevent modernest works from bring created. It was not entirly possible to eradicate modernity in a mere 12 years. The strength of German culture was just too strong. Disagreements between the NAZI elire (especially Rosenberg anf Gobbels) provided some room for maneuver. [Petropoulos]

World War II Plunder

The NAZis began plundering art soon after they seized power. The first major actions was the seizure of the art oened privately by Jews in Germany. World War II and the initial German victories gave Hitler and other NAZI officials a much wider opportunity to plunder art from the great museums of Europe as well as peronal collections and art dealers. This included the art owned by Jews, but not limited to them. Some 5,000 works of art by the great artistic masters (artists like lRubens, Goya, and Rembrandt) were boxed up shipped sent back to Berlin. Here Göring was especially active, often taking time off from war work to pursue hus hobby. It is interesting how the NAZIs who claimed that German was the center of human creatibity and culture so coveted the work of foreign artist. Most of the art looted from foreign museums went into the private collections of Hitler, Göring, and other top NAZIs rather than German art museums. At the enbd of the war, American troops found a huge art cache in Merkers Salt Mine used by the Reuchbank. Along with the art was the gold rings and tooth fillings of Jews murdered in the death camps.


Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf.

Hitler, Adolf. "Party Day speech", 1935.

Keel, Erich. "Artists against the Third Reich," Smithsonian Association Course (October 28, 2015).

Petropoulos, Jonathan. Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany (2014). 424p.


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Created: 6:13 PM 8/1/2015
Last updated: 5:26 AM 10/4/2015