Nazi leaders used all kinds of propaganda—in newspapers and posters, on the radio and in films—to win support for their ideology and policies. The arts, too, became a tool for expressing Nazi ideas about national identity and racial purity, about who belonged in the “national community” and who was a dangerous enemy. In the worlds of music, painting, and sculpture, Nazis celebrated what they perceived as “authentic” German culture and tried to eliminate what Joseph Goebbels and others referred to as “degenerate” art. 

A letter to a painter in 1937 from the president of the National Chamber of Fine Arts revealed the consequences for an artist of being labeled “degenerate”:

This painting, Working Maidens by Leopold Schmutzler, was showcased by the Nazis at the 1940 Great German Art Exhibition in Munich.

In connection with the task, entrusted to me by the Führer, of eradicating the works of degenerate art from our museums, no fewer than 608 paintings of yours had to be seized. A number of these paintings were displayed at the exhibits of Degenerate Art in Munich, Dortmund, and Berlin.

This fact could leave no doubt in your mind that your paintings did not contribute to the advancement of German culture in its responsibility toward people and nation.

Although you must also have been aware of the policy-setting speech of the Führer at the opening of the Great German Art Exhibit in Munich, the recent paintings of yours, which you have now submitted to us, indicate that even at this date, you are still far removed from the cultural foundations of the National Socialist state. 

On the basis of these facts, I am unable to grant that you possess the necessary reliability for belonging to my Chamber. On the basis of Paragraph 10 of the first Executive Order implementing the Law Concerning the National Chambers of Culture of November 1, 1933 (Official Gazette, I, 797) I hereby expel you from the National Chamber of Fine Arts and forbid you, effective immediately, any activity—professional or amateur—in the field of graphic arts.

Membership Book No. M 756 issued in your name is no longer valid, and you are requested to send it back to me by return mail.1

This display from a 1937 "degenerate art" exhibit is entitled "German Peasants—From a Jewish Perspective.” It includes paintings by German Expressionist artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

This display from a 1937 "degenerate art" exhibit is entitled "German Peasants—From a Jewish Perspective.” It includes paintings by German Expressionist artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

The two art exhibitions referred to in the letter were sponsored by the Nazis in 1937. The first featured works labeled as “degenerate.” The second showed “true German art.” The more popular of the two was the exhibit of “degenerate art.” It traveled from Berlin to 12 other cities between 1937 and 1941 and attracted more than 3 million visitors. The exhibition carefully arranged art the Nazis considered “degenerate” alongside drawings done by people described as “insane” or deranged” and photographs of men and women who were physically deformed. In doing so, the exhibition claimed it was merely highlighting the “diseased, Jewish-Bolshevist, inferior” character of the artwork. In a building nearby, the public could see the opposite of this art in the Great German Art Exhibition. Much of it featured idyllic landscapes and happy blonde “Aryan peasants.”

In 1938, the Nazis arranged a similar exhibition showing Entartete Musik—“degenerate music.” It targeted popular music, including jazz and swing, as well as works by Jewish composers. The show included photographs, caricatures, musical scores, negative reviews of performances, and quotations from Hitler as well as special booths that allowed visitors to actually hear the music of such “degenerate composers” as Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weill, and Ernst Toch. To the Nazis’ dismay, so many visitors mobbed the booth that played music from Weill’s The Threepenny Opera that it had to be closed.

The Nazis eventually destroyed many of the works of “degenerate” art. Some were sold to foreign museums.

Citations

  • 1 : Quoted in Joachim Remak, ed., The Nazi Years: A Documentary History (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1969), 66–67.

    Connection Questions

    1. What does the term “degenerate” mean? What did Nazi officials mean by “degenerate art”? What kind of art was given this label? Why was such art thought to be threatening?
    2. Many Germans attended the “degenerate art” exhibits. Why do you think they went? Do you think that everyone who attended agreed with the Nazis’ opinion of the art that was displayed?
    3. What is the role of art in forming a community? Is art ever dangerous?
    4. What criteria are used to decide what kinds of art and music are “acceptable” for the public today? Who decides? How does art play a role in opening up or shutting down discourse in a society?

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