PRINT December 1975

Art of the Third Reich: Documents of Oppression

THE ART OF FASCIST GERMANY, assembled for the first time in 30 years, and by extreme left-wingers with pedagogic intentions: the result had to be both curious and controversial. And it was. I doubt that any art exhibition in West Germany has ever aroused such publicity and hostility. The apoplectic opening was over a year ago at the Kunstverein in Frankfurt on Main, and since then, the exhibition, entitled “Art of the Third Reich; Documents of Oppression,” toured West Germany, following record-breaking attendance in Frankfurt.

The Neo-Marxist work group responsible for the event consisted of Dr. Georg Bussmann, the director of the Kunstverein, and members of the University of Frankfurt’s art history department, among them Berthold Hinz, author of the recently published Die Malerei im Deutschen Faschismus. Not only the material they selected, but the method of presentation managed to offend a remarkable number of widely diverse groups.

If the majority of visitors found the amply displayed Marxist sentiments infuriating, a vocal minority complained that the KV hadn’t specifically recommended communism as the only alternative to fascism today. There were those who felt the KV was indulging in some pretty unhealthy nostalgia, and others who felt that the art of the Third Reich had either been mistreated, or that it had remained untreated. The absence of a simultaneous indictment of social realism seems to have been a major force of frustration. This breakdown of responses can be deduced from a volume published by the KV including some 125 (!) German language reviews and a few pages of comments left by visitors on a large paper pad attached to a staircase wall specifically for that purpose. (The installation photographs included here help to indicate the show’s appearance.)

Obviously, the exhibit elicited a response it could not possibly have received in any other country, and revealed much about how West Germans react to the Nazi past and to criticism of the present. I doubt even Dr. Bussmann, who was assuredly aiming for controversy, was quite prepared for the anger this largely forgotten art would provoke.

The purpose of the exhibit was supposedly twofold. The KV had decided that the times were such that uncloseted Nazi art might find an audience, and wanted to prevent this rehabilitation by exposing the ideology of the work. Now that in itself is unusual—an exhibit specifically mounted to prevent the possibility of later ones, an exhibition whose purpose was to reject the exhibited works. The professed second reason, according to Bussmann, was to place Nazi work in the history of art, which has always ignored the 12 years when Adolf Ziegler, Werner Peiner and Arno Breker were creating the images that were to last a thousand years. But I don’t think Dr. Bussmann was ever very serious about that, since it so clearly conflicts with the first premise. Actually, the overriding motivation for the show, Bussmann said, in a short interview I had with him, was to “analyze the function of art during the Third Reich, to demonstrate the relationship between capitalism and fascism and thus to provoke a discussion of fascism, one of the basic problems of our society today.”

A stance critical of the capitalist socioeconomic structure is to be expected from the KV. A few years ago, Bussmann, considered to be one of West Germany’s most talented and disruptive directors, mounted a Käthe Kollwitz exhibition emphasizing those works critical of the capitalist system. Yet oddly enough, the first (widely publicized) protest aimed at the current exhibition even prior to the opening came not from right-wingers (who presumably differ with Bussmann concerning the basic problems of today) but from the left.

A lawyer in Wiesbaden, obviously ignorant of the KV’s political stance, organized a group “against the dissemination of Nazi art.” An imposing number of people, among them the Marxist theorist Ernst Bloch, Jean Amery and Max von der Grün, signed a petition demanding the exhibit be boycotted unless certain demands were met. These included the grotesque request that those persecuted by the Nazi regime serve as guides, and that all visitors pledge themselves to fill out a questionnaire after seeing the exhibit, which would then be interpreted by an appropriate institution. Any further publicity on the part of the KV became, of course, unnecessary.

The petitioners seemed to feel that a deplorable trend manufactured by the culture industry was now being furthered with public monies by the KV, which was seeking to distract attention from the “millions gassed, beheaded and tortured, to the artistic talents of a few official court painters.” And, of course, the exhibit was opening at a time when the accoutrements of fascism were becoming hot items on the nostalgia market. At a Munich auction, for example, people scrambled for Hermann Göring’s dinner plates. In the cinema, filmmaker Edgar Reitz was having a huge success with his Journey to Vienna, in which a blonde Elke Sommer finances a trip to Vienna during World War II through some illegal sausage-making. Using wars as a setting for comedies is something Americans are accustomed to, but to many West Germans, the time has not come for hilarious vignettes of the Hitler years, and this film, which was shown on television, was considered to be in ominous bad taste.

Nevertheless, damning an exhibit without even knowing the contents is an astonishing example of emotionalism from such venerable men. But it illustrates the hypersensitivity that characterizes many West German left-wing intellectuals. Many of them were made extremely edgy by an increased use of the so-called “radical ruling” denying employment to communists and sympathizers in all government agencies, especially the educational system. That was originally provoked by the terrorist activities of the Baader-Meinhof band and their supporters. But critics say the ruling is being used as an inquisitorial instrument, aimed at all dissidents, not only communists. Heinrich Böll’s recent “Reports on the State of the Nation’s Loyalty” satirizes this growing fear inspired by the radical, who seems to be serving as a scapegoat for the gloomy economic situation.

Once the exhibition opened, October 15, 1974, the left-wing protests seemed ill-founded, to put it mildly. Even a quick tour revealed that this show was hardly an “hommage à Hitler,” but instead displayed a deep reverence to Karl Marx, whose spirit infiltrated the catalogue and all three floors. The notorious slogan of the Marxist political scientist Max Horkheimer, “Whoever speaks of fascism cannot remain silent about capitalism,” served as greeting and motto for the event.

There, against clinically white walls, were perhaps three dozen of the anticipated monsters, looking either forlorn or pompous in a setting that included photographs, posters, and a few architectural models. The photo blow-ups were immense, the charts huge and crammed with facts, while the originals were small and completely dwarfed by their surrounding materials. All the works shown were by officially patronized artists, most of whom had at one time belonged to the Reichsregierung (National Government) and had been exhibited in one of the annual shows at the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich. (After the war, the American occupational troops gathered these questionable items at the Central Collecting Point, Munich, selected quite a few for souvenirs, damaged others, and then turned the rest (some 1,000 works) over to an embarrassed West German government, which sank the lot in two subterranean basements in the one-time Führer’s administrative building in that city.)

Yet, despite their availability, many paintings and sculptures were only seen in black and white photographs. This was, as the title clearly indicated, a documentation, illustrated with occasional works of art. The purpose, the catalogue stated, is to “demonstrate the complex interrelationship between art and the political and economic realities of the Third Reich”—art as a press release used by Nazi functionaries to disseminate their perverse ideology and to shroud the brutal realities of the time; fascism as a collaboration between the fascist executive branch and the faltering industrial concerns in fear of socialism; fascism as a recurrent possibility, whenever appropriate economic conditions manifest themselves.

The connection between high finance and fascism is hardly news, even for those not involved in system analysis. It forms a leitmotiv through the works of Berthold Brecht; and even Thomas Mann, the ultimate bourgeois, once wrote off Hitler as “an employee of capitalism.” The basis for the KV’s documentation is the theories of Reinhard Kühnl, a prolific author and well-known professor at West Germany’s Marxist-dominated Marburg University. His “Formen Bürgerlicher Herrschaft” (“Forms of Bourgeois Government”) stops little short of the official communist doctrine, which regards fascism as the last and inevitable phase of a capitalist system. The methodology in the book and the exhibition is the same. Kühnl sees history as the result of complicated interactions between various groups, institutions and industrial concerns struggling to become politically influential, so as to defend their interests (instead of seeing history shaped by particular individuals, as does Joachim Fest in his biography of Hitler). And Bussmann arranged the exhibition so that the individual artwork is never seen in isolation, but against the corporate panorama of the Third Reich.

The contents were presented by themes such as the peasant, the family, the worker, the enemy, the woman, etc. In addition, three larger sections were devoted to sculpture, architecture and the autobahn. Each group was then illuminated by juxtaposing artworks (which the Nazis purported were realistic), with the “real” reality as seen in photographs and documents. Thus Johann Schult’s idyllic In the Spring of Life, depicting two blonde women contemplating a little waterfall, is seen next to a photo of some desiccated female creatures slaving in a munitions factory—far more likely surroundings.

The documentation then further elaborated on the fascist misogyny that sharpened the normally onerous bourgeois restrictions on women. The majority of real women worked the soil and gave birth at close intervals (or were supposed to), while an elite few were pictured as reclining in goddess poses on draped chaise lounges with deep frozen expressions, awaiting the kindling embrace of a strong, if frowning, male (Class I, pure Arian blood). A nearby photo shows women of what may be Class III or IV, photographed before a mass grave prior to execution.

The other subjects were similarly presented. The pseudoreligious atmosphere of Adolf Wissel’s Kahlenberger Family or Paul Matthias Padua’s The Führer Speaks, in which a family is solemnly gathered around a radio, is shattered by the crazed look of a German family emerging from the bunker after a bombing attack in a juxtaposed photograph. “The plow,” enthused Das Bild in 1937, “is the greatest discovery of all times.” Its use, as the war progressed, could be seen in the painful photograph of some German peasants yoked to that plow.

Similarly, the invincible soldier, symbolized by Otto Engelhardt-Kyffhäuser’s painting Volunteer, was hung next to a photo of a few haggard, dazed German soldiers on their way to imprisonment. It seems that enemies were never portrayed. The Nazi esthetic rebelled against depicting either the enemy soldier or the Jew. These were relegated to posters.

Potentially the most fascinating parts of the exhibit were the areas devoted to architecture and the autobahn, but unfortunately, the material remained too sparse. Time is passing, and a few buildings erected by Nazi architects have become tourist attractions, as Hitler once envisioned (he thought American tourist income would offset the cost of his megalomaniac plans for Berlin). Not everyone visiting the Neue Pinakothek in Munich realizes the collection is housed in a part of Ludwig Troost’s Haus der Deutschen Kunst, de-Nazified after the war by dropping the “Deutsch.”

Hitler called Troost “the new Schinkel,” and the classicizing features of most of the architecture are heavy variations on early-19th-century German architecture. The Nazis emulated projects such as Friedrich Gilly’s Monument to Frederick the Great (1797) always substituting a squat heaviness for a well-proportioned gracefulness. “Art is not a fad,” Hitler stated, and his architects aimed for a stereotyped timelessness that excluded any ornamentation. Since the Nazis tended to be archaizing, they quarried expensive granite blocks rather than using more up-to-date and less costly reinforced concrete.

Troost once said, “One hasn’t seen such community projects since the early German cathedrals.” That is about right if one overlooks the ideological differences in the comparison. Yet nothing was done to ease the grave housing shortage. The regime temporarily removed people from the unemployment lists by putting them to work either on commemorative structures (such as the “Totenburgen,” which marked the advance of the German “spirit” through vanquished territory) or on expensive official buildings. As Wilhelm Alff once ironically wrote in his Der Begriff Faschismus (The Fascist Concept), “Demented ideas often seem to be the wrong solution to existing problems.”

Catalogue and exhibition properly emphasize the feudalistic layout and mentality evident in such mammoth environmental projects as Albert Speer’s Reichscomplex in Nuremberg, designed to emphasize the hierarchical political system and the anonymity of the masses. Especially in the Zeppelin Field, audiences were blocked into an anonymous geometric herd, preferably gathered at night and looking up at the eerily lit platform where Hitler agitated as dompteur. The entire complex held close to one million people. Berlin, according to a polyglot guide published in the 1930s, was to be “the pulsating heart, whose every beat fulfills the will of Adolf Hitler in the closest union between nation and its workers.” Once Speer had finished creating the city’s new look (he began with the Reichskanzlei in 1938) it was to be renamed Germania.

The autobahn is similarly interpreted by the KV work group as having mostly a propaganda value. Characterizing the network as a work of art, as the Nazis did, Bussmann et al. demonstrate how this lauded endeavor was not necessary for the people of Germany, and merely another delusion. The Nazis liked to present the autobahn as a beautification project. Slopes and natural inclines were carefully considered, and the regime claimed the country was thus made available to the nature-loving citizen. The exhibit counters paintings celebrating the building of the network, such as those of Erich Mercker, with photos of the helots working 14 hours a day with appalling pay (and often forced to invest in a Volkswagen they never saw). Data on the placards emphasize the undeniable fact that industries were the real beneficiaries, and that tanks and troops, not Volkswagens, used the roads upon completion.

Obviously, this exhibition hardly followed orthodox guidelines. More care was devoted to the framework in which art appears than to the art itself, with no pretense at impartial documentation. The KV clearly subscribes to the view that all art and all art shows are essentially political events and reflect somebody’s ideology. They were saying, “We think all art has a function, and in this case it was a highly manipulative one. You cannot separate art from its era and view it in isolation. Furthermore, you should stop associating fascism exclusively with Hitler or the mass killing of Jews and thus rule out its return—because we think everything is not well in Germany and you should take a look at some policies and politicians you are furthering, or sanctioning indirectly, by not getting involved.”

That is about what authors like Böll or Martin Walser have been saying since the late 1960s—except here the sermon was blunter and the method frequently bordering on the gross. Visitors felt themselves explicitly scolded. Nevertheless, only extremely right-wing papers thought the art should have been left in basements, saying a confrontation was unnecessary (“We always knew it was bad . . .”). Conservatives, who are usually strong supporters of continued aid to Israel, consider evocation of the Third Reich masochistic and unnecessary. (The first place a foreign statesman visits is Dachau.) For them the subject is closed. Other sources applauded the KV’s decision to air the works, but deplored the method (“Right Done Wrong” headlined the article in Die Kunst). “Art history takes a break” was the most frequently encountered criticism. “Who’s afraid of Nazi art,” mocked the critic of the influential daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He kept suffering, he relates, from the peculiar and unpleasant delusion that this was really 1945, and the exhibition was part of the de-Nazification program run by the Americans.

Visitors responded in a similar manner. “Doesn’t anyone trust the responsible burgher to make up his own mind?” queried a few, confronted by the omnipresent texts. Other Germans, admittedly in the minority and motivated either by conviction or antagonism, wrote, “Really wonderful!” Or, “They really knew how to paint!”

Seeing art in the context of the time it was produced is something done more often in Germany (I am thinking of the excellent “Aspekte der Gründerzeit” exhibit that toured through the country last year, or, more recently, the “Guernica” exhibition, which also originated in Berlin). The former, by the way, was not even remotely left-wing. Nevertheless, I think that in the case of the Nazi exhibition, as much attention should have been paid to the originals as to the socioeconomic and political circumstances of the era. For example, an analysis of the role of women during the Third Reich does illuminate a painting like Ivo Saliger’s Judgment of Paris, but a comparison with treatments by other artists in different eras would have revealed how Saliger has absurdly debased his sources. A Kunstverein might have hinted why this Judgment is a failure, while Lucas Cranach the Elder’s version in the Karlsruhe Kunsthalle, also in contemporary attire, manages to be German and splendid at the same time. Or what about the incredible variations on Renaissance depictions of reclining Venuses or Leda and the Swan? How do earlier versions compare with, for example, Padua’s uproarious Leda, which left visitors to the Haus der Deutschen Kunst bug-eyed, and caused a startled Goebbels to comment, in defense of one of his favorite artists, “We’re not prudish”?

The KV’s tendentiousness omitted considerable information and obscured problems in order to concentrate on those works which favored its own agit-prop. Actually, painting and sculpture, despite constant legislation and unceasing attention from the regime, never became the perfect propaganda instrument as did the radio under Joseph Goebbels’ supervision. Furthermore, a visit to the depots in Munich reveals that the KV tended to select only those works which fitted into the propaganda category. But, in fact, the perimeters of Nazi art are unclear.

We do know, however, what its sponsors absolutely required that it not be, and that is modern, a state of mind that Hitler called degenerate. Hildegard Brenner has already outlined the events leading up to the “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”) exhibition in 1937, in her admirable study Die Kunstpolitik des Nationalsozialismus. Already in 1929, the Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur was organized, inspired by the Götterdämmerung attitude generated by Othmar Spann, a Viennese sociologist in a well-applauded speech held at Munich University. The first destruction of modern art took place in Goethe’s Weimar, when Oskar Schlemmer’s frescoes in the Van de Velde building were painted over and 70 modern works were removed from the Schlossmuseum. The first book-burning took place simultaneously in a number of German cities three years later, and included works by Heinrich Mann, Erich Kästner and Kurt Tucholsky—a true indication of things to come. (“Whoever burns books, will soon burn people,” wrote the Jewish German poet, Heinrich Heine, a hundred years before.) In 1935, Hitler promised to continue the regime’s huge expenditures on art and architecture, in the service of National Socialism. His minister of propaganda, Goebbels, made sure the results met with the proper appreciation, by prohibiting normal art criticism and substituting the art report. The art press produced the tedious drivel of party hacks, in such magazines as Das Bild or Kunst und Volk. (It seems that only Die Kunst, with contributions from such talented art historians as Hans Beenken, P.O. Rave and Ulrich Christoffel, struggled to maintain a certain standard, and even managed muted criticism.)

The long-awaited opening of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst finally took place in 1937, as well as the simultaneous “Entartete Kunst” show, designed to revile the insanity of modern art, with painters including Nolde, Marc, Kokoschka, Kandinsky and Beckmann. That exhibit has been documented by Fritz Roh (“Entartete” Kunst: Kunstbarbarei in Dritten Reich).

But what of the official art? Even at this time, total confusion reigned. In his memoirs, Arno Breker, one of the most prominent sculptors of the Third Reich, recalls the catastrophic selection procedure for the first Nazi Haus der Kunst exhibition in Munich. Together with Adolf Ziegler, painter and president of the Reichskulturkammer for art, and the widow Troost, he selected what he considered appropriate works, only to have Hitler derail at their sight, shortly before the exhibition was to open. Heinrich Hoffmann, then the Führer’s personal photographer and art advisor, reassembled the show, using most of the rejects!

Eckart Klessmann, in his pioneering essay on Nazi art published in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit (May, 1973) further points out such absurdities as Ziegler touring Germany to confiscate works of degenerate art and also picking up a few works by his colleagues Breker, Werner Peiner and Georg Kolbe. Bruno Kroll’s “Deutsche Maler der Gegenwart” (“German Painting of the Present,” 1937) included Hans Purrmann, whose works had been shown in the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition!

Younger members of the Nazi party had briefly tried to incorporate Expressionism into the party’s esthetic realm, citing such proto-Expressionists as Matthias Grünewald. But that proved abortive. Unlike fascist Italy, where the Futurists celebrated the imperialist ventures of Mussolini, most of Germany’s modern painters found Nazism unappetizing from the start. The major and most notorious exception is, of course, Emil Nolde, who joined the party, but was punished for his “barbaric” colors and physiognomies by being prohibited from painting. Bussmann was frequently asked why he did not simultaneously present the “degenerate” art banned or destroyed by Hitler. But he thought that was didactically wrong, since in West Germany quite a few people still think Picasso is revolutionary. Consequently, many would think Hitler had been right after all.

Art furthered by the Nazis was loosely invoked by such word concepts as “Seele, Sehnsucht and Schönheit,” (soul, yearning and beauty.) Artists alluded to these values by looking backward in the history of art, so that what was passed off by the Nazis as an art revolution was actually a straight revival. After all, only about 2 percent of contemporary art was deemed to be entartet, so no major change could possibly have occurred. Instead, the old, denigrated academicians, whose status had been undermined by the various Secessions beginning in the 1890s, and who had been shunted into the periphery by the avant-garde, now reasserted themselves temporarily.

Late 19th-century artists of the Munich Academy, such as Hans Makart, Franz von Defregger, Eduard Grützner, Heinrich Bürkel and Adolf Lier, were venerated. A surprising number of artists patronized during the Nazi era were themselves aged products of that academy. For example, Fritz Erler was a contributor to the Art Nouveau magazine Jugend and had been a founding member of the audacious group Scholle. Yet, in his dotage, he produced one of the most notorious portraits of Hitler, presenting him as architect, or demiurge of the Third Reich. Raffael Schuster-Woldan painted introverted women of Titianesque coloration and Makart attire well into the 1940s, and, like Arthur Kampf, had exhibited with considerable acclaim back in the 1890s. It was probably inevitable that Munich should once again function as the artistic center of the Third Reich. Public taste here hadn’t changed much since the days of Lenbach Stuck and F. A. Kaulbach. (So much for the memory of Kandinsky and the Blue Rider!)

The Munich Academy had been an internationally acclaimed school, and it is hardly surprising that attempts were made to instill new life into the moribund academic structure, not only in that city, but throughout the Reich. The painter and tapestry designer Ferdinand Staeger presented a plan in the 1939 issue of Das Bild which would have established branches of the major academies in such varied landscapes as Essen and the Bavarian Alps, and required students to study in these different areas so that they would become proficient in painting everything from factories to meadows. Similarly, Werner Peiner, a professor of monumental painting at the Düsseldorf Academy, received permission and support from Göring to open a special atelier in Kronenberg on the Rhine, where for a few years he designed tapestries and developed a painting process based on the Van Eyck brothers, surrounded by apprentices, master students and journeymen. It seems to me that Klessmann is more convincing when he writes that “not the Nazi insignia but the desire to emulate the old masters, dominated the art between 1933 and 1945,” than, for example, Hinz, who sees “the mask of fascism” behind every cow or knitting grandmother. (The depots in Munich are filled with both.)

Peiner, like Arno Breker and Padua, is still alive and receiving commissions from private patrons and industrial concerns, which permit him to live in a luxurious castle. (The art establishment has, however, boycotted all three since the war, and none of them dares to exhibit.) Lately Breker seems to be making something of a comeback, an event severely criticized in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (July, 1975). Unlike musicians and actors of dubious pasts, who have long since been reintegrated into society, their twelve years’ involvement with the Nazis has not been forgotten, or excused, perhaps because none of them has publicly repented. Peiner still seems to remember the Third Reich with nostalgia. None of the three artists think there ever was anything that could be labeled “Nazi art.” Breker says he had and always will have a tendency to heroicize and isn’t about to apologize for it now.

Breker’s gallery, Marco, in Bonn and Paris, is sanitizing him to make him more socially presentable. Although he upheld the “noble body means noble soul” equation, showing the body in a perfectly natural state, it did not keep Breker from producing numerous small fragmentary bronzes, which exist side by side with his lifesize, coldly erotic male nudes, such as the Bereitschaft (Readiness) exhibited in the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in 1941. There is also the matter of his (professed) friendship with the aged Jewish painter, Max Liebermann, documented by a death mask and portrait bust dated 1934. Breker was one of the few Nazi artists with a cosmopolitan flair, having lived in Paris during the ’20s. His bronzes of Aristide Maillol, Jean Cocteau and Ezra Pound reveal a Rodin admirer of much more than average talents.

There were a few artists of skill amidst the general incompetence and dullness. Peiner was an excellent technician and had a marked personal style, although I do not find it very attractive. Despite an “Ordinance against Negro Culture,” he continued to let a 1935 trip to Africa influence his work, resulting in such paintings as Nubian Woman or East African Landscape. Unlike Nolde, he was sometimes criticized, but not censored because of his academic style. Karl Leipold, Friedrich Wilhelm Kalb, Wilhelm Petersen and Sepp Hilz produced inoffensive landscape and genre scenes. Joachim Utecka sculpted some roughly textured heads with a primitive quality that hardly seems to fit in with the Nazi mania for perfection of form. Thorak’s work, usually taken to be the most nauseating embodiment of the Nazi spirit, was lauded by none other than Wilhelm Bode in the 1920s. He went on to personify the brutal destructive forces of his Nazi superiors in some frightful, reptilian images. Absurdly enough, Thorak seems to have been sympathetic to the Communist Party, at least according to Albert Speer in the recently published Spandauer Tagebücher. I might add that Thorak was imprisoned by the Americans after the war, and immediately offered to sculpt Art Throwing Off the Shackles of Tyranny. I mention all this not to exonerate Nazi art, but to show that the KV’s documentation made it into a monolithic endeavor which it never was, and tended to ignore the human dimension and artistic confusion out of which it grew.

I found it disappointing and hypocritical that the KV did not take issue with the equally pandering, unctuous, centrally directed art produced in communist countries, specifically East Germany and the Soviet Union. Perhaps an exhibition on Third Reich art does not necessarily have to be a statement on all totalitarian art, but the KV should have foreseen the hostility such an omission would produce. Surely left-wing sympathies do not necessitate acceptance, tacit or outspoken, of the dreadful items produced by social realist artists in communist countries. I think this was a major pedagogical error, which made any kind of dialogue the work group might have had with its visitors almost impossible. I asked Bussmann why not even passing reference had been made to communist art, and he seemed to think (as does Hinz in his study) that such a comparison would have been used by West Germans to exculpate themselves. Like Hinz, he adamantly insists that the aims of social realist art, and the purpose to which it is put, are different, a bit of windy reasoning that has already been written off as “latter-day scholasticism” by Ruth Berenson, writing in the Sunday New York Times (October, 1974).

The visitors went ahead, nevertheless, and expanded the exhibition in their heads. Thus the open paper note pad was filled with such comments as, “You mean to say social realism is less fascistic?” Or, “I don’t need any advice from Max Horkheimer.” And of course, the inevitable “Why don’t you go to East Germany or Czechoslovakia, then social realism will become even too real for you!” The conservative daily Die Welt spoke for many when it wrote of both art styles: "All the same junk . . .” (but acceptable to the KV if produced under the right, i.e. left regime).

Theoretically, thematically and technically, there are a few minor differences between official fascist and communist art modes. For example, the technical level of much of the communist art is higher, perhaps because it had a longer time to develop. An exhibition of the celebrated (in his country) East German social realist Willi Sitte in the Hamburg Kunsthalle this spring revealed an expressionist style influenced by Lovis Corinth, who would presumably have had some difficulty in the Nazi state. Themes are different insofar as erotic images of women are largely absent in the East, and industry and the proletariat dominate, instead of the anachronistic, peasant and his plow. Nazi art shrouded reality with its bogus stereotypes of the past; social realism, no less mendacious, glorifies an oppressive daily life with the trappings of a heroic future.

Yet the sterilizing effect on the individualistic artists under a government which considers esthetic merit secondary to political motivation is the same in both cultures. I am reminded of a remarkable letter Brenner includes, which Goebbels wrote to the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1933. Furtwängler had written him, complaining about the mistreatment of fellow musicians Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, citing their undeniable talent. With chilling politeness, the minister of propaganda thanked him for his concern, but asked him to please understand that it was not enough to differentiate between good and bad art, but that art had to be of the people (“volksmässig bedingt”) and that the artist had to take a positive political stance. Now, that reads like any number of documents published with such regularity by East Germany.

The connection between asylum and atelier, the treatment of the nonconformist as outcast and madman, is also an aspect of the cultural politics of totalitarian regimes. Hitler reasoned that an artist who submitted a work to the annual Munich exhibition, and who demonstrated neither proper sentiments nor an acceptable technique, was either a swindler, and thus to be imprisoned, or a fool, and clearly ripe for the insane asylum. If the situation required it, there was always the concentration camp for reschooling.

The omission of all references to Russia was all the more detrimental to the KV, since the German press and television had covered in great detail the SS-like termination of a nonconformist art show in Moscow, with bulldozers and police, shortly before the Nazi show opened. A few months later, the Jewish patron of many of these artists, Alexander Gleser, was peremptorily asked to leave Russia, along with his paintings (later shown publicly in Austria and West Germany). I might briefly quote from an interview published in Die Zeit last March, in which Gleser remembers the following:

“Sometimes, they came at dawn, at least seven, into my apartment. They snooped around, confiscated several papers, threatened me and my family and then left again.” Once he was surrounded by KGB functionaries who beat him to the ground, and yelled “Why don’t you go to Israel, you stinking Jew!”

Obviously, the battle against the “Entartete” and abstract art is fought with the same weapons. But, of course, the KV wasn’t interested in supporting contemporary art. Bussmann writes a little vaguely in the introduction to the catalogue:

If art in the Third Reich had the mission to disguise reality and to destroy any perception of reality, one then has to ask, what is the relationship art has to reality today?

Well, if the KV work group and Marxist theoreticians are right, and the socioeconomic forces are very much the same in Germany today as they were during the Third Reich, it follows that the function of the dominating avant-garde art is also the same—to delude and to disguise. In effect, only social realism, which clearly depicts and addresses itself to the problems of the worker, is the honest art—all others are a hoax. German modernists, who struggled to establish trends broken after the Weimar Republic, were appalled.

In brief, a group of Marxists organized, with all possible venom, an exhibition of fascist art that produced a resounding controversy in a country known since the war not only for its Wirtschaftswunder, but its liberal atmosphere. But with economic difficulties, the progressive liberalism of the 1960s also seems adversely affected, as the civil rights of many dissidents are being threatened and right-wing parties show gains in elections. Consequently, the issue became not so much the human badness of the art, as the KV’s attempt to score ideological points against the wobbly centrist culture of the day by use of a past, repressive art. It seems that the life-denying character of one totalitarian regime could not be rigorously impugned without setting off violent protest in a politically inflammable atmosphere. In a more stable milieu, the perspective of Bussmann and the Frankfurt Kunstverein would have seemed either gratuitous or academically illuminating (in its Marxist didactic way.) In West Germany, the event and its career ominously reflect the tensions of a society whose polarized attitudes will be difficult to resolve.

Manuela Hoelterhoff is currently working on a study of late-19th-century German academic art.