New History

The Modern Artists the Nazis Favored

The popular narrative is that Hitler and his Nazi regime thought all modern art was "degenerate." But a new book says that may not be quite true.

Even at a seven-decade remove from the atrocities committed by the Nazis, there is something tremendously uncomfortable about attempts to complicate the narrative of their all-encompassing evil.

One of the more generally accepted storylines is that the Nazis were art barbarians who drove into exile, killed, stifled, or coopted great artists, and who had a black-and-white approach to what constituted worthwhile art, most famously demonstrated by the Degenerate Art Exhibition and the Great German Art Exhibition.

In Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany, a new book from Yale University Press by Jonathan Petropoulos, that narrative is put to serious scrutiny. Through the stories of ten iconic artists, Petropoulos captures the incongruity and inconsistency of the official Nazi responses to art.

The book examines the careers of Walter Gropius, Paul Hindemith, Gottfried Benn, Ernst Barlach, Emil Nolde, Richard Strauss, Gustaf Gründgens, Leni Riefenstahl, Anro Breker, and Albert Speer. All were associated with modernism, an art movement that the Nazis considered decadent and influenced by non-German ideals, and all sought to continue their art in Germany even after the Nazis took power. Artists Under Hitler is an examination of how the Nazis handled each of these artists’ cases, but also a fascinating look into why they so desperately wanted to remain in a Germany run by the Nazis, and why, given their work in the Weimar years, they believed they would be the exceptions allowed to stay.

The first five artists tried to continue working under the Nazi regime, but failed in their efforts. The latter five managed to not only continue to create under the regime, but in many ways thrived by adapting to what the Nazis were looking for. Even the five who the Nazis turned on, however, were complicit with the regime in some fashion. Strauss, Nolde, and Barlach would sign an August 1934 petition supporting Hitler as the next head of state. For architects, the opportunities the Nazi regime would offer in terms of grand public buildings was enticing, and for visual artists, the Nazi Party’s emphasis on propaganda and private consumption of art would also be lucrative. Some were also sympathetic to some of the regime’s aims—particularly its nationalism. Nolde was an anti-Semite and member of the Danish Nazi Party. Benn, Petropoulos says, thought Hitler would be a positive force.

In the stories shared by Petropoulos, what really stands out, however, is the shocking level of personal involvement by the top leaders of Germany in minute decisions about the lives of artists. While Hitler’s interest in art as a failed artist is well known, one would think that his top lieutenants like Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and others would have more than enough on their hands to worry about the latest music from Strauss.

Expressionist artists like Emil Nolde and his supporters, for instance, were kept on edge as they awaited an outright decision from Hitler about whether expressionism was Modernist trash or acceptable art. When he first saw that the planned entries to the Great German Art Exhibition contained expressionist works, Hitler apparently went into a rage and declared, “I will not tolerate unfinished paintings.” When Henriette von Schirach, a one-time close friend of Hitler’s, would approach him about the work of Franz Marc (who was already dead), Hitler reproached her saying, “So if he could draw properly, why didn’t he?”

Architects like Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe not only sought accommodation, but pursued architectural projects that would promote the Nazi regime both externally and internally. Mies competed for the commission of the German Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair of 1935, but when Hitler saw his submission, “he reacted violently; he smashed the model, knocking it off his desk.”

In the case of Paul Hindemith, when friends lobbied Hitler to allow Hindemith to work, one reported back to him that, “It is the Führer’s opinion that H. is backed by merely a small circle of followers … and that it would not make any sense to alter the general direction of this cultural policy because of such a small clique.” It represented, once again says Petropoulos, a time when “the fate of a modernist cultural figure was effectively settled by Hitler personally.”

Hitler’s meddling with art could also help artists. For instance, he could “be slightly more understanding with regard to Jewish heritage and associations” for artists. In addition, Petropoulos contends, he “was certainly more understanding about artists’ politics and their sexual orientation.” Sculptor Josef Thorak would be forgiven for previous left-wing views, and actor Gustaf Gründgens was permitted to continue his work even though his homosexuality was not exactly a secret. In the case of Richard Strauss, Hitler would intervene on his behalf to allow a Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig, work on his opera Die Schweigsame Frau. But it would also be Hitler who ordered Strauss’s resignation after he intercepted a letter from Strauss to Zweig claiming he only cared about music, and that, “for me there are only two categories of people: those who have talent and those who don’t.”

Other Nazi leaders would get intimately involved in the lives of the artists as well. Hermann Göring, “served as Gründgens’s chief patron.” Cultural indoctrination was such an important focus of the regime, and art was seen as one of the best mediums for it. In outlining what could perhaps be seen as the Nazi’s leniency with certain artist, Göring once noted, “It is always easier over time to make a decent National Socialist out of an artist than to make a great artists out of a minor Party member.” Göring, of course, would amass an astounding collection of artwork himself, both purchased and stolen.

When the writer Gottfried Benn, who often wrote about dreams, sex, myths, and drugs, was attacked by the Nazi artist Wolfgang Willrich, none other than Heinrich Himmler would come to his defense, reprimanding Willrich and declaring that he “was well acquainted with the case of Benn.” Himmler then told Willrich “it would be more prudent for him ‘to continue painting decent pictures’ than to pry into people’s pasts.” Himmler would also invite Nolde and his wife to Munich as “guests of honor” for the 10-year anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.

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In the case of Ernst Barlach, who dealt with themes of pacifism and used Expressionist elements in his art, not to mention had Jewish dealers, opposition to his work was slowed by support from Joseph Goebbels. According to Petropoulos, “the presence of Barlach’s work in [Goebbels] office constituted a ringing endorsement.” Because of Goebbels’s support, “his opponents had to tread more carefully than they did with many other modernist artists.”

Goebbels, in fact, would be seen as the leader most sympathetic to the modernists. Nolde, for instance, considered it significant and favorable that “Goebbels had his watercolors in his home in 1933” and took this to mean that he “was struggling to find a policy regarding his art.” Unbeknownst to Nolde, Petropoulos reports that at the same time, Goebbels wrote in his journal: “Is Nolde a Bolshevik or a painter? Theme for a dissertation.”

Goebbels was also instrumental in the initial success Strauss had under the Nazis. “Goebbels was anxious to co-ops the nation’s cultural luminaries, and Strauss was at the top of his list in the world of music,” Petropoulos writes. He thus appointed Strauss to the post of president of the Reich Chamber of Music in 1933.

It was also Goebbels who visited Felix Nussbaum (a Jewish painter who would be captured during the war and murdered in Auschwitz) and Arno Breker in Italy and asked “the artists to return to Germany where a great future was awaiting them.” When Breker did return, and altered his style for the Nazis, “Hitler, Goebbels, and others expressed relief that there was finally an artist who could credibly represent their regime.” His work was more monumental, more violent, and promoted the Aryan struggle.

Artists Under Hitler successfully manages to add some grey to the generally black-and-white conversation about Nazis and art. Not only did the Nazi leaders have a complicated relationship to art and artists, but the book also demonstrates that many of the country’s leading artists would try to remain in Germany and seek accommodation with a regime they would later denigrate. Those who did succeed managed to do so largely based on personal support from top leaders like Hitler, Göring, Himmler, and Goebbels.

While issues of art sometimes bubble to the surface in the American political conversation—Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989 for his homoerotic images or the trashing on Capitol Hill that Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial proposal has received—it is hard to imagine President Obama or any of the former 20th-century presidents, or any of their top military and political advisors focusing so much of their time on whether dissonant sounds in music are acceptable, or how realistic painting should be.