Entartete Kunst- Degenerate Art in the Third Reich

With the growth of German nationalism from the end of the 1920s, the term “Entartete Kunst” was increasingly present in the art propaganda of the National Socialist Party and applied to everything that did not conform to Nazi goals. It became the central concept of their art policy, being used in the battle against ‘foreign infiltration’ of art. Citing petit-bourgeois artistic taste as ‘popular sentiment’ the Nazis had instigated a wide campaign of defamation within all the arts.

Paul Klee's 'Dream City', pronounced degenerate under the Third Reich.

It was directed against avant-garde tendencies, both national and international, which had developed from the late 19th century.

By 1930, the Minister for Culture and Education, von Thüringen Frick, had already proclaimed his program ‘Against Negro culture— for German national traditions,’ aimed particularly at the Expressionists, and he ordered the removal of 70 paintings from the permanent exhibition of the Schlossmuseum at Weimar. Also in 1930, Hildebrand Gurlitt, the museum director in Zwickau, was dismissed for promoting such artists as Emil Nolde, Heinrich Zille, Ernst Barlach, Otto Dix and others.

In March 1933 Bettina Feistel- Rohmeder, director of the Deutsche Kunstkorrespondenz, called for the removal from the museums of all works revealing ‘cosmopolitan and Bolshevik aspects.’
The purpose of this propaganda was the bringing-in-to-line of the arts within a Nazi state. Art’s only task was to illustrate the ideas of National Socialism and the glorification of the State.

Feistel-Rohmeder demanded the seizure of ‘degenerate works of art.’ Museum directors were either forced out of office or relieved of their duties following the first of defamatory exhibitions of 1933. The Law for the Restoration of Civil Service with Tenure, passed on April 7, 1933, facilitated the dismissal of directors for ‘the promotion of degenerate art’. In October 1936, the ‘temporary’ closure of the modern wing in the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin was ordered, though intended to be final. All these actions were arranged and coordinated by the Reich Ministry of the Interior for Information and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels, in conjunction with the Gestapo.

A crowd gathers outside one of the 1937 exhibitions.

In 1937, under the newly elected President of the Reichskammer für Bildende Künste, Professor Adolf Ziegler, a commission was set up to select works for a planned exhibition of EntarteteKunst upon orders from Goebbels.

One day after Hitler opened the first Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung in the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (now the Haus der Kunst),in Munich, the Entartete Kunst exhibition in the Archeologisches Institut in Munich began (July 19, 1937). The skillfully anti-aesthetic hanging and the defamatory commentary on the works did not fail to achieve propagandistic success. In a reduced form, this exhibition toured to Leipzig, Berlin and Düsseldorf (1938), and to Chemnitz, Frankfurt am Main and Vienna (1939).

By August 1937 the wide-scale confiscation of all works of art in museums designated degenerate’ had already begun. According to records, a total of 15,997 works of fine art were confiscated from 101 German museums. This action was justified by the Law on the Confiscation of Products of Degenerate Art, passed belatedly on May 31, 1938. Works affected were those of classical modernity, works by artists of Jewish descent and works of social criticism. Only a few were retained and hidden through the brave maneuvering of individual members of museum staff.

Hitler and Goebbels at the Exhibition

The artists themselves, assuming they had not already left Germany, were forbidden to paint or exhibit. In addition to confiscation, the destruction of murals and architectural monuments, among others, took place. In May 1938, Goebbels instigated the establishment of the Kommission zur Verwertung der Beschlagnahmten Werke Entarteter Kunst. Confiscated works were stored in depots and from there, sold to interested parties abroad (the Nazis hoped for a source of revenue for foreign currency, which was needed for the rearmament program), and sometimes exchanged (Hermann Goering made exchanges with older works of art for his private collection).

In 1939, 125 works were put up for auction in Lucerne, including works by van Gogh, Gauguin, Franz Marc, Macke, Klee, Kokoschka and Lehmbruck. The end of the Aktion entartete Kunst was signalled by the burning of 4829 art works in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Brigade.


By Anita Kühnel
New York Museum of Modern Art

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