Art can be a powerful platform from which to convey and impose icons and images of national identity and culture. In our current modernity, the continued movement of the avant-garde continues to have a mixed blessing of adoration and disdain. To observe 'art' and understand it is one thing, but to find it aesthetically pleasing is another story. However, what has changed is the ability to freely express our views about the Arts, without fear of reprisals and terror, at least for many parts of the world.
During the Third Reich, every facet of the Arts was programmed by demagogic Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers Party. Before Hitler became Nazi Fuhrer, he supported himself as an artist, selling watercolors and advertising. With propaganda director Joseph Goebbels and other members of the Nazi political machine, art, radio, film, education, and science served as platforms to deliver both overt and insidious propaganda campaigns to spread anti-Semitism, lies and dissension against other cultures; lifestyles, religions, and principles, that did not conform to the Nazi view of Germany and its citizens.
After the end of World War I, the resulting Versailles Treaty forced Germany into an economic decline. The main conditions of the treaty included downsizing Germany's military power to 100,000 soldiers, restitution of 52 billion marks in gold paid to the Allies, dispossession of territories, and demilitarization of the Rhine's left bank. As a result, many Germans were without jobs and bankruptcy was rife. As such, many German people were psychologically vulnerable and ready to find scapegoats to blame for their personal economic hardships.
Additionally, Nazi propaganda pushed the notion of Germany as ancestral lands to be nurtured and protected from non-Aryan races and mass industrialization. The German identity was rooted in the literature of classical antiquity and mythology as a race of nature loving, mystical, austere, loyal, warlike and innately superior people. Artwork commissioned by the Third Reich propagated the belief amongst German citizens that their race was superior over others. The prevalent theme used in both propaganda and official high art of the Third Reich were the ideologies of Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil). Blut und Boden is a metaphor that integrates Germanic people with the cultural history of the land. It was coined by Rudolf Darre, the Nazi Reichsminister of Agriculture, who believed that the writings of a Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus, who wrote the manuscript Germania around the year 98 AD, were anthropological studies of the German people. Darre based his belief that Germans were a superior race on this manuscript, in particular, a section translated from the original Latin version as follows:
"For myself, I concur in opinion with such as suppose the people of Germany never to have mingled by inter-marriages with other nations, but to have remained a people pure, and independent, and resembling none but themselves. Hence amongst such a mighty multitude of men, the same make and form is found in all, eyes stern and blue, yellow hair, huge bodies, but vigorous only in the first onset. Of pains and labour they are not equally patient, nor can they at all endure thrift and heat. To bear hunger and cold they are hardened by their climate and soil.”
Nazi official high art was based on neoclassical and neoromantic themes of idealized figures depicting German people working on romanticized German landscapes. Landscape paintings dominated over other subjects. Landscape and the Volt (the People) were entwined and inseparable. These idealized images of men and women supposedly exemplified the Germanic race. This official high art dominated the annual Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung, beginning in 1937 with Hitler selecting many of the exhibition pieces. Replacing avant-garde art were images of German people in rural or domestic environments, depicted performing work that related to the 'common' people. The specific images chosen for public consumption were of athletically modeled statues reminiscent of classical antiquity as an attempt to parallel Germany's ties to the neoclassical age. Other images included soldiers portrayed in heroic postures, romanticist depictions of fertile female nudes or females in demure and domestic occupations, sublime landscapes and highly unrealistic imagery of a 'gentle' war. Hitler himself served as model for many of the paintings and posters, compositions imbuing him with a god-like aura. Art genres such as Expressionism, Cubism and so on was labeled as degenerate art, destroyed and replaced by mostly 19th century realist paintings that the Nazis believed represented the true Aryan people, landscapes and way of life. Anything related to the avant-garde art movement was discouraged and German artists were censured, threatened or murdered for non-compliance.
In 1935, an arts exhibition called “Blood and Soil” opened in Munich. A newspaper critic wrote: 'The exhibition...aimed to collect healthy and good and earthbound art and to fight for a new strength in art against decadence...As preface to the exhibition stand the words of Professor Schultze-Naumburg. “Art has to grow from the blood and soil if it wants to live.'
In 1937, the Nazis stripped 16000 avant-garde works from German museums, most of which were destroyed while hundreds were sold off to foreigners. As part of their political strategy to define the aesthetics of what “Great German Art” was compared to what degenerate, non-German art was, the Nazis selected 650 of what they considered the most provocative avant-garde works in order to defame and deride such work. To close in on the comparisons between what was considered Great German Art and degenerate art, the Nazis soon after launched the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition), an equally large exhibition of Nazi-approved art. The confiscated avant-garde art collection was derisively labeled, “Entartete Kunst” (degenerate art) in exhibitions located in Munich, Austria and throughout Germany. In just over three years time, the collection was viewed by up to 3 million people.
In the early 1970s, Art Spiegelman (b. 1948) created a series of underground comic strips turned graphic novels (Pulitzer prize winning Maus and Maus II) that gave its viewers a glimpse of the horrors of the Holocaust. His parents were survivors of the concentration camps during the Holocaust and their story is recreated in these comic books. Entertaining at first, the reader is drawn into this world of innocuous pictures and text only to realize too late its actual relation and references to the events of Nazi Germany and victims of the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Particularly interesting is the use of animals in place of human characters in the story, a form of characterization that the Nazi's also used, albeit somewhat differently, in their propaganda against the Jewish people and others they considered degenerates. In Spiegelman's work the Germans are portrayed as cats, the Jewish people as mice, Americans as dogs and the French as frogs. In this work by Spiegelman (and many others by post Nazi and anti-Nazi artists) the Arts are once again utilized to perpetuate the power of stereotyping race, culture and national identity, much like what Nazi Germany did through their propaganda machine, with the difference being to educate the global community about racism, the effects of propaganda and most importantly, to serve as a reminder to never forget the Nazi's atrocities of ethnic cleansing and totalitarian government.
Images (from left to right: Sepp Hilz, Country Venus (Nazi approved art), Friedrich Casper, The Cross in the Mountains (Idealized landscape), Nazi propaganda poster, Max Pechstein, Self Portrait, 1920 (Nazi labeled degenerate art)