Traditionally artists have provided a mirror image of the societies in which they lived, often being at the forefront of social change and either propagating or protesting against the dominate political ideologies of a given period. Such was the case following the rise to power of the Nazi party (Third Reich) in pre-World War II Germany when artists both fought against and worked hand in hand with the German government to influence public opinion.
Adolph Hitler and other party leaders rejected ‘modernism’ in the arts and sought to create a world of art and literature that celebrated the purity and goodness of the German people and the soil on which they lived (Blood and Soil). While lifting up the idea of German purity, the Third Reich simultaneously aimed to show the ‘sickness’ of the modern art movements of Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Symbolism, Post-impressionism and Germany’s own Expressionism.
Hitler blamed the sickness in society, which he believed was manifested through modern art, on the Jews and other undesirables such as homosexuals. According to art historian Henry Grosshans, Hitler “saw Greek and Roman art as being uncontaminated by Jewish influences.” Therefore, the art of these Classical periods became the basis for depicting the human figure as noble and pure.
The government’s control went so far as to ban paintings and sculpture that didn’t conform to their ideals of purity, labeling these works as ‘degenerate’. This directive meant that many of Germany’s artists of international renown, such as painter Max Beckmann and sculptor Otto Freundlich, were banned from showing their works within their own country.
In a pre-internet era when major art exhibitions could influence public opinion, Third Reich approved artists such as painter Adolph Ziegler and sculptor Josef Thorak were granted important commissions which were meant to reinforce ideas of classic beauty and German purity and superiority.
The government arranged and held an exhibition entitled “Degenerate Art” in Munich in 1937 to drive home their point that the distorted figures painted in modern art were a threat to society. More degenerate art exhibitions followed in a variety of cities in both Germany and Austria.
In the end, this usurpation of the arts was part of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing campaign and a well-orchestrated attempt to use propaganda as a means of controlling German culture.
Whether or not you appreciate the work of the artists from these previous movements isn’t the point. The take away from such propaganda campaigns is that artistic expression should be encouraged and understood rather than used as a tool for government control and social manipulation.
Let us all remain vigilant that another Holocaust of such proportions will never again stain this planet.