Art and Ideology in Hitler’s Third Reich

Before the Masked Ball by Max Beckmann, 1922. Photo: Henry Lewis, courtesy of Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

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.

Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda from 1933-1945, views the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937. Goebbels was one of Adolph Hitler’s closest allies and sought the harshest possible punishments for Jews. He promoted and fully supported the annihilation of millions of Jews and other ‘undesirables’. Photo Credit: Wiki

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.

The Degenerate

Temptation (The Temptation of St. Anthony) painted from 1936-37 by Max Beckmann, presented as a triptyche which is more closely related to early Christian paintings and alter pieces for churches. Like Hubbuch, Bechmann was dismissed by the Nazis from his position as an art professor due to the ‘degenerate’ nature of his paintings. While Beckmann stated that Tempatation was not painted as a direct reaction against the Nazi crackdown on modern art, it does exhibit his universal themes of terror, redemption, and the mysteries of eternity and fate. Photo: Henry Lewis, courtesy of the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Detail, Panel 1, Tempatation by Max Beckmann, 1936-37.

Detail, Panel 2, Tempatation by Max Beckmann, 1936-37.

Detail, Panel 3, Tempatation by Max Beckmann, 1936-37.

Ascension 1929 by sculptor Otto Freundlich, who became tragically famous for his 1912 sculpture The New Man which was used on the cover of the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition held in Munich. Nazi propaganda used slogans such as “This is the way Jews want humans to look.” Photo: Henry Lewis, courtesy of Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

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.

The Ideal

The triptych The Four Elements painted in 1937 by Adolph Ziegler depicts four ideal women of Germanic heritage. The ‘goddesses’ have come down off their pedestals so as to be more relateable to the average German woman. Photo: Henry Lewis, courtesy of Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Two People 1941 by sculptor Joseph Thorak follows the dictates of the Nazi’s love for classical sculpture, depicted here by two perfect specimens of German purity and love. Photo: Henry Lewis, courtesy of Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

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.


Categories: Culture, Politics, Visual ArtsTags: , , , , , , , , ,


  1. An interesting bit of history where politics and art collides. The samples of “Degenerate Art” (shared in your post) do, indeed, depict the degeneration of the society, as perceived by the artists. It was a degeneration that signaled the atrocities of the Third Reich.

    In the captioned painting, Zweimal Hilde (“Hilde Twice”), Karl Hubbuch, I was struck by the mouse in the bottom left. The mouse trap appears to be a book. Fascist propaganda? How apt for our times here in the USA.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi Rosaliene,

      I am currently wearing many shades of egg on my face. After researching more and checking my notes once again from the show I saw at the Alte Pinakothek Museum in Munich, I realize I MISLABELED the painting you referenced. It’s actually a Max Beckmann work entitled “Before the Masked Ball” which goes a bit further in explaining the painting’s imagery. I will never again depend solely on my photographed travel notes when writing. 🙂

      Even though some of the artists of the time, Beckmann being one example, denied that their work was a conscious reaction against the Nazis in power, it does seem that subconsciously they were channeling the fear that was prevalent in many minds of the day. Certainly their work was rife with symbolism. The Beckmann painting you referenced was endlessly interesting to me when I saw it in the museum in Munich (and still is).

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for the clarification, Henry. That explains the masks that the men are wearing. Not much enthusiasm for the ball from the participants.

        Liked by 1 person

      • From a New York Times article about Beckmann’s work:
        [With the ghoulish picture called ”The Night” (1918-19), Beckmann signaled his intention to deal with scenes of civilian life quite as if they were a continuation of the horrors of war in another venue (which, in the Germany of this period of revolution and its aftermath, they often were). This theme continued in such paintings as ”The Dream” (1921), ”Family Picture” (1920) and ”Before the Masked Ball” (1922). The individual figures and objects we observe in the works may be meticulously rendered, but the space they occupy is so constricted and distorted – so completely determined by an atmosphere of anxiety and dread – that the paintings themselves cannot be mistaken as anything but a highly subjective and critical account of the experience they encompass. These are paintings that either portend or recall us to some catastrophe of the spirit, and they are suffused with a sense of social crisis.]

        Here’s the link if interested;

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It is unfortunate but inevitable that art should be used by regimes such as the Nazi party for propaganda reasons, just like any other medium can be. In the case of art it is particularly troubling because as well as its brainwashing effect it risks destroying art itself. It’s my opinion that art should not be political for whatever reason, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The role of art is to move the emotions and broaden the range of our experience. Once it’s politicised it can’t do that.
    But some people may think differently.

    Liked by 2 people

    • In theory I agree with your point, but a lot of art is passively political simply because politics are a part of the culture from which the artist has drawn their ideas. I must admit I do like political cartoons, however, and they are a type of art. Thanks so much for adding your thoughts Marios.


  3. An extremely interesting blog post on the history of art in the period leading up to and including the Third Reich.

    What I find particularly interesting is in that Max Beckmann painting from 1922 called Before The Masked Ball is that there’s a figure in the painting who looks very much like Vladimir Putin wearing a Zorro mask.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for this article. I am reminded of my visit to Savitsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum at Nukus, Kalakalpastan , Uzbekistan.
    Opened in 1966, the museum houses a collection of over 82,000 items, ranging from antiquities from Khorezm to Karakalpak folk art, Uzbek realism and avant-guard collection and, uniquely, the second largest number of Russian avant-guard paintings in the world, the largest being in St. Petersburg. All of these artworks are by Soviet dissidents, literally saved by the fearless imagination and tireless energy of one man, Igor Savitskiy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I have a German literary journal published in Munich in 1942 — no entartete Kunst to be found, nothing that does not fit the Goebbel guidelines. Here is a photograph in the frontispiece, public viewing at the funeral of the former Akademie president.

    Art of any merit was produced in exile, the literary period 1933 to 1945 is often referred to as The Kahlschlag, something akin to scorched Earth. Art went back to square one, der Nullpunkt.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Just looking at the photo gave me chills, Bill. Other countries, especially the USA, gained enormous amounts of artistic and creative talent during this period. I often wonder if the blossoming of the arts in the 1950s and ’60s in cities such as New York and Chicago would have taken place if not for the migration of so many artists during this tragic war and its aftermath. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the photograph!


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