How Arno Breker Became Hitler's Favorite Sculptor
90 percent of Arno Breker’s work was destroyed by the Allies after the end of World War Two. In 2015, one of his most famous, and lost, sculptures suddenly reappeared.
On May 3, 1945, the day after the Soviets reached central Berlin, U.S. reporter John Groth drove past the Reich Chancellery, Hitler’s seat of power, on a tour of the ravaged city. He described the scene in the New York Times, writing that the building’s “scarred walls and a hillock of muddy masonry… still smelled of battle. Empty windows gaped in the fire-scorched facade. Part of the roof had fallen in.”
Earlier in the year, Allied air forces had dropped bombs on the Chancellery, Hitler’s pride and joy. Then, in the first days of May, the Soviet army continued the bombardment on the building as they made a final push to defeat the Nazis’ futile last stand.
When the victorious Red Army finally toured their new prize, they discovered several grand sculptures, symbols of the Nazi regime, still standing despite the destructive havoc wreaked over the past months.
For decades, the fates of two of the most significant of the Chancellery sculptures, The Torchbearer and The Sword Bearer, created by Arno Breker, the man known as “Hitler’s favorite sculptor,” remained unknown.
The gauntlet of dangers they faced was high: American bombings, the deliberate destruction of 90 percent of Breker’s work by the Allies following the end of the war, and Soviet plunder. The only thing that was known for sure was that the two sculptures had not been seen since the fall of Berlin.
Then, in 2015, one suddenly reappeared.
After receiving a tip from an undercover Dutch art detective, German officials conducted a series of coordinated raids on suspected collections of Nazi art treasures pilfered after the war. They were shocked to discover The Sword Bearer still standing strong on private property outside of Kiel. Its brother bronze, The Torchbearer, however, remains in the wind, if the nude Aryan still stands at all.
Breker’s role as the star sculptor of the Nazis was a somewhat surprising turn of events, at least from the vantage point of his early life and career.
Born in 1900 into a working class German family, Breker developed an affinity for modernism during art school, the art movement that Hitler would deem “degenerate.” In fact, some of his early works would be deaccessioned from prominent German collections in the degenerate art crackdown in the early days of the Nazi regime.
During four years spent in Paris starting at the end of the 1920s, he embraced the artistic bohemian set, cavorting with such characters as Alexander Calder, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau. In 1929, he was picked up for representation by a prominent German Jewish art dealer.
“Breker, who was two years younger than I, stood out because of his all-encompassing vision, his tolerance and his open-mindedness,” wrote one of the sculptor’s contemporaries, Dominique Egret.
When the Nazis rose to power, Breker decided to return to his home country. According to Jonathan Petropoulis in his book Artists Under Hitler, Breker explained his decision as one made in hopes of helping to stymie the excesses of the new regime.
His friend Max Liebermann, who was also a leading German-Jewish Impressionist, supported this move, hoping “that more tolerant and humane types like Breker would moderate the behavior of the new leaders.”
But things did not play out as Liebermann had hoped. While the sculptor denied complicity with the Nazis to his dying day—he was officially deemed a “fellow-traveler” and fined a paltry sum that amounted to around $24—the more logical explanation for the sharp turn his career made as the Third Reich rose to power points to Breker as a shameless opportunist.
In 1933, the year before he returned to Germany, Breker visited Rome as the recipient of a high-profile fellowship. (His colleague in the fellowship, Felix Nussbaum, was later killed at Auschwitz in 1944.) There, the sculptor saw how the Italian National Fascist Party used art to promote their ideology and government.
Petropolous writes that, though Breker was “reluctant to admit it,” he realized that he would have to “alter the style of his work to reap the maximum rewards offered by the Nazi leaders… Breker’s art, therefore, changed before his political views did.”
In 1936 Breker was awarded a silver medal for two statues that he had submitted to an art competition run by the German Olympic Committee. This win caught the attention of Hitler, who almost instantly adopted Breker as the Nazis’ preferred sculptor.
Breker’s first commission from the Führer came in 1937 when he was asked to sculpt two giant statues to flank either side of the courtyard that welcomed visitors to the shiny new Reich Chancellery.
For this honored location, he sculpted The Torchbearer and The Sword Bearer, or, as Hitler named them, The Party and the The Army. The two nude bronzes are representative of Breker’s work during this time—major statuary that, while displaying his undisputed artistic talent, also carried jet stream-force whiffs of propaganda.
The bronzes are similar—two giant, athletically-built men standing in contrapposto with arms outstretched. One, holds a torch with a fire blazing; the other, a sword. In both, muscles ripple on every conceivable area of bronzed skin that muscles could ripple.
They follow in the tradition of Greek and Roman sculpture, though Breker crafted a highly exaggerated version of those ancient, well-built men. Another departure: he gave them quintessentially Aryan features. The faces of The Torchbearer and The Sword Bearer, with their chiseled jaws and short-cropped, no doubt blonde hair, look out at the viewer with an unsettling, even creepy, effect.
Frederic Spotts, author of Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, writes that Breker’s work “perverted the classical ideal of sculpture to produce caricatures of virility.”
“While Greek sculptors idealized the body and glorified sport, Breker idealized the Aryan man and glorified National Socialist ideals…[his images] perfectly reflected the Fuhrer’s belief that the step from athlete to warrior was a tiny one. These works expressed the ideals of camaraderie, discipline, heroism, will to do battle, readiness to die.”
The two Chancellery bronzes were the start of a very fruitful and close relationship between Breker and the top echelons of the government. In 1937, the sculptor officially joined the Nazi Party.
Over the course of his time serving Hitler, he was awarded with a professorship, the Golden Badge of the Nazi Party, a country house with a studio, and a steep tax cut to the tune of being required to pay only 15 percent of his annual income, in addition to other honors and monetary awards.
Breker was one of three men who personally showed an eager Hitler around Paris after the Nazis conquered the city, and Petropoulos writes that Cocteau, one of his close friends, said that “Hitler viewed the sculptor as his adopted son and ‘loved him.’”
And then D-Day came and the Allied invasion of Germany. Despite his clear complicity with the Nazi Party (though he did use his influence to help save the lives of a few of his mostly French Jewish friends), Breker failed to face serious consequences in the wake of World War II.
However, his reputation never fully recovered, and debate continue to rage today as to the place that his remaining work should hold in German institutions, much as the place of Confederate monuments continues to be argued about in the U.S.
But despite having crafted the imagery that fueled Nazi ideology, Breker lived to see most of the century that he had so profoundly helped to shape, and he continued to work during the remainder of his 91-year-long life.
He also continued to deny the extent of his involvement.
Petropoulos writes that, into the 1980s, Breker continued to face accusations about his behavior, and his response was to both claim ignorance of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and to claim victimhood in the events of WWII.
“But above all, he saw himself as an artistic genius, and this came with a corresponding ego of truly epic proportions. In a sense he saw himself as a Greek god, someone who was flawed but nonetheless endowed with special gifts,” Petropoulos writes.
In 1985, writer Michèle C. Cone visited Breker at his home. He reported in a piece for Artnet in 2006 that the sculptor tried to deny that he had ever sculpted a bust of the Führer. (He had, and Cone presented him on the spot with proof of his lie.)
Breker also showed Cone around his private garden, which he writes, was really more like a sculpture park. It featured replicas of some of his greatest hits: his bronzes from the '30s and '40s, and his work during World War II.
So far, the still-lost Torchbearer has not turned up among them.