Hitler’s Ban on Modern Art: The “Degenerate Art” Exhibit of 1937
Artistic and political freedom usually go together. “Where books are burned, people are burned,” declared the poet Heinrich Heine, almost prophetically, as if anticipating the destruction of art and literature by the Nazi regime. Indeed, regimes that restrict art tend to also restrict the freedom of speech, the press: practically all areas of society and culture. This holds as true for today’s tyrannies as it did for the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, ISIL—the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is responsible for publicized beheadings of innocent civilians, burning or stoning people to death, kidnapping, rapes and murder, has implemented a sharia school in Mosul, a city it controls in Northern Iraq, where it banned the teaching of art, music, history and literature.
During the Stalinist and post-Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, Communist states instituted the reign of Socialist Realism in culture. All artistic fields—the visual and plastic arts, music, theater, film, dance and literature—became subordinated to the goal of glorifying Communist ideology and the “workers’ revolution.” In reality, of course, this meant reducing culture to a personality cult of the tyrant in power, stifling creativity and expression.
The Nazis went a step further. To spread Nazi ideology throughout German society and culture, Hitler essentially banned most modern art, which his regime called “degenerate art” (“Entartete Kunst”), viewing it as a product of Jewish or Communist cultural corruption. Ironically, the term “Entartung,” or “degeneracy”, was coined in 1892 by the Jewish author Max Nordau. It referred to the atavistic, degenerate traits of “born criminals”. When the Nazis came to power, they used the concept of “degeneracy” to describe all aspects of culture that they considered to be contaminated by “the perverse Jewish spirit” and could corrupt the Aryan race.
By 1937, the works of Europe’s most famous modern artists—Dadaists, Post-Impressionists (including Henri Matisse and Vincent Van Gogh) Expressionists (Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall) and Abstract Expressionists (Pablo Picasso) as well as some of the world’s leading modernist writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann, were purged from museums, libraries and private collections. Over 5000 modern works of art were confiscated.
In 1937, the Nazis, under the cultural leadership of Adolf Ziegler, head of the Reich Chamber of Visual Art, and Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, created a travelling exhibit devoted to mocking so-called “degenerate art”. It was first held in Munich on July 19, 1937, then moved around to cities throughout Germany and Austria.
A large and imposing portrait of Jesus greeted the crowds. The modernist paintings were strewn around haphazardly and often left unframed, sometimes hanging only by a cord. Signs posted next to them expressed slogans intended to undermine their value, such as “Revelation of the Jewish Racial Soul,” “An Insult to German Womanhood,” “The Ideal—cretin and whore,” and “Nature as seen by sick minds.”
As Carole Strickland explains, “The object was to discredit any work that betrayed Hitler’s master race ideology; in short, anything that smacked of dangerous free-thinking. Nazi leaders considered Modernist art so threatening they prohibited children from the show and hired actors to roam the halls loudly criticizing modern art as the work of lunatics. … Price tags displayed how much public museums had paid for the works with signs “Taxpayer, you should know how your money was spent.” (The Annotated Mona Lisa, Andrew McMeel Publishing, Kansas City, 1992).
The plan to undermine modern art at the 1937 Munich “Degenerate Art” exhibit backfired. The exhibit of modernist works was, despite the heavy attack, extremely popular, attracting three million visitors. Unfortunately, in 1942 the Nazis succeeded in burning, in the gardens of the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris, countless modernist works by notable artists such as Picasso, Klee, Leger and Miro. Their hatred of modern art, however, didn’t prevent them from exploiting it for financial gain. The Nazis looted museums and private collections throughout occupied Europe as a means of enriching their regime while impoverishing European culture.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon