Art of Suppression: Confronting the Nazi Past in Histories of the Visual and Performing Arts

Art of Suppression: Confronting the Nazi Past in Histories of the Visual and Performing Arts

by Pamela M. Potter

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This provocative study asks why we have held on to vivid images of the Nazis’ total control of the visual and performing arts, even though research has shown that many artists and their works thrived under Hitler. To answer this question, Pamela M. Potter investigates how historians since 1945 have written about music, art, architecture, theater, film, and dance in Nazi Germany and how their accounts have been colored by politics of the Cold War, the fall of communism, and the wish to preserve the idea that true art and politics cannot mix. Potter maintains that although the persecution of Jewish artists and other “enemies of the state” was a high priority for the Third Reich, removing them from German cultural life did not eradicate their artistic legacies. Art of Suppression examines the cultural histories of Nazi Germany to help us understand how the circumstances of exile, the Allied occupation, the Cold War, and the complex meanings of modernism have sustained a distorted and problematic characterization of cultural life during the Third Reich.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520957961
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/28/2016
Series: Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism , #50
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 408
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Pamela M. Potter is Professor of German at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the End of Hitler’s Reich, and coeditor of Music and German National Identity.

Read an Excerpt

Art of Suppression

Confronting the Nazi Past in Histories of the Visual and Performing Arts

By Pamela M. Potter


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95796-1


Visual and Performing Arts in Nazi Germany

What Is Known and What Is Believed

What do we know about the visual and performing arts in Nazi Germany? According to Wikipedia, "art of the Third Reich" was "the officially approved art produced in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. Upon becoming dictator in 1933, Adolf Hitler gave his personal artistic preference the force of law to a degree rarely known before. Only in Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, where Socialist Realism had become the mandatory style, had a state shown such concern with regulation of the arts." With regard to music, the History Learning Site reports that "the policy of 'Gleichschaltung' (coordination) meant that music had to conform to the Nazi ideal," and that "Hitler, along with art, films and architecture, played a major part in what was musically tolerated and what was not." The official site of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum further reinforces this narrative: "Goebbels began the synchronization of culture, by which the arts were brought in line with Nazi goals," and he "supervised and regulated all facets of German culture. ... Nazi aesthetics emphasized the propagandistic value of art and glorified the peasantry, the 'Aryan,' and the heroism of war. ... This ideology stood in stark contrast to modern, innovative art, such as abstract painting, [which was] denounced as 'Degenerate Art,' as well as 'art bolshevism' and 'culture bolshevism.'" In a nutshell, a common view of the arts and culture in the Third Reich holds that Hitler, with Propaganda Minister Goebbels at his side, controlled all manifestations of artistic creation and established rigid guidelines, according to their own personal tastes, of what was acceptable or unacceptable. They stamped out all forms of modernism and debased the arts, à la Stalin, to mere tools of ideology and propaganda.

If this had been the case, then the arts might stand out as some of the most carefully monitored and rigidly managed spheres of Nazi society. We have learned from decades of intensive research and debate that the Third Reich was not a monolithic totalitarian dictatorship; instead, it evolved out of something more decentralized, improvised, and polycratic. We have come to understand that Hitlers role in actual policy-making was far less decisive than it was previously believed to be. We have further learned of his aversion to associating his name with unpopular measures that would dilute his demagogic powers of persuasion. We also know that, instead of an aggressive enforcement of conformity to rigid ideological principles, there was a constant give and take in Nazi society. Public opinion was closely monitored, and the information was sometimes used to determine whether to pull back or conceal certain policies and actions to avoid risking revolt, such as in the case of the euthanasia program. Especially in the cultural arena, the intensity of anti-Jewish and anti-communist campaigns lessened after the first wave of targeted attacks against prominent celebrities, and any explicit restrictions on artistic production and taste failed to become high priorities on the Nazi agenda. To the contrary, many of the highest-ranking Nazi officials aspired to be seen as arts connoisseurs and patrons, if not artists, and they exhibited a wide variety of opinions on what constituted culture.

Research conducted since the early 1960s has contributed to a composite picture showing that art, architecture, music, theater, dance, and film were operating under far fewer constraints than current popular conceptions convey, although the most favorable working conditions were reserved for those artists who had managed to elude political, religious, or ethnic victimization and exclusion. The earliest explorations of art policy in the Third Reich revealed a lack of central authority in Nazi cultural policy; the persistence of modern art (in some cases with the ardent support of Nazi organizations); and an absence of any definitive architectural style or aesthetic. In the 1970s, dissertations and theses looking at the performing arts in Germany showed how very little changed in day-to-day theater operations after the Nazis assumed power, how government control of the film industry was neither invented by the Nazis nor particularly invasive or detrimental to film production, and how music censorship was virtually impossible to carry out. Investigations also revealed that the administrative body credited with the "synchronization," or Gleichschaltung, of the arts, the Reich Culture Chambers (Reichskulturkammer), was not a Nazi innovation but rather something that grew out of years of lobbying by creative artists for professional and economic security. Further research has continued to amass evidence to destabilize the notions that oppressive arts policies constrained all facets of Nazi cultural life. Such evidence, however, still tends to be ignored by the mainstream and even in academic circles, where scholars may still look for the stamp of Hitler's personal taste and for signs of the Nazi elimination of the avant-garde. Nazi Germany: Confronting the Myths, published in 2015, successfully outlines and dismisses many myths about Nazi Germany, but it nevertheless singles out the Reich Culture Chambers as the epicenter of cultural Gleichschaltung and reaffirms Hitler's power over dictating artistic tastes. The catalog of the 2014 exhibition Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937 at the Neue Galerie in New York reasserts that the National Socialists "produced mediocre, politically motivated art and aesthetic irrelevancies" and "undermined the conditions of real art and destroyed artistic modernism."

The purpose of this book is to understand why certain assumptions about the Nazis' manipulation of the visual and performing arts have remained so compelling, even as mounting evidence continues to erode their credibility. Drawing on an extensive bibliography consisting primarily of Anglophone and West German histories of the arts published from the end of World War II to the present, this study offers a critical historiography of art, architecture, music, theater, film, and dance in the Third Reich. (It does not, however, include a study of literature, as explained below.) As a historiography, rather than a history, this book does not seek to draw on archival research to advance any new interpretations of what really happened to the arts in Nazi Germany. Instead, it uses as its primary sources existing histories of the arts, analyzing their genesis, development, interactions, tensions, and contradictions over the past seven decades. It considers how the circumstances of exile, the Allied occupation of Germany, the Cold War, and the complex meanings of modernism have profoundly influenced the characterization of cultural life in the Third Reich. Above all, it seeks to explain how the forces of global politics, intellectual traditions, and moral imperatives have at various points hindered progress toward a deeper understanding of the role of the arts and media in Germany in relation to their roles in other modern industrial nations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The ultimate goal of this work is to provide insights into the ways future endeavors may move in new directions, through changes in scope and approach and through a reformulation of the questions typically posed up to now.

As my title, Art of Suppression, suggests, there is a cognitive dissonance between a belief in the Nazis' wholesale suppression of creativity and evidence of more favorable conditions existing for artists than what we have been led to believe. Rather than trying to sustain a notion of such Nazi suppression, I suggest we look at the evidence supporting a postwar suppression of inconvenient truths about artistic productivity during the Third Reich, artists who enjoyed flourishing careers under Hitler, and similarities between "Nazi culture" and our own culture. Despite all the complications of this latter suppression, the Western world relied on it to come to terms with one of the most troubling puzzles of recent history: how Germany, the "land of poets and thinkers," could have committed the atrocities of the Holocaust. As the West continued to revere and emulate so many of Germany's artistic achievements even during the Nazi period, it was easier to come to terms with the harsh reality of modern Germany committing the brutalities of war and genocide if those twelve years between 1933 and 1945 could be isolated as a historical aberration that had little to do with the Germany of Goethe and Beethoven. In addition to the diachronic isolation of the Nazi years — an era that was bookended by the exuberance of 1920s Weimar culture and the postwar renaissance after 1945 — a synchronic isolation maintained a clear barrier between "Nazi culture" and the culture of Germany's adversaries by sustaining these assumptions about the Nazis' destructive motives to dominate and degrade the arts. This mode of thinking not only skirted the obvious surface similarities among the artistic styles and techniques employed in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the industrialized world but also kept at arm's length any comparative analyses of public relations and mass communication that may have been common to all these systems in the 1930s and beyond.

Before actually launching into the historiographic investigation that will take up most of this book, I will use the remainder of this introductory chapter to highlight the main features of the cognitive dissonance between what is believed and what is known about the arts in Nazi Germany. First, I look at what has come to symbolize Nazi culture, and then I offer a synthesis of research that has challenged many of these first impressions about Nazi control of the arts. I employ the term "nazification" to represent a consensus that credits National Socialism with effectively micromanaging all artistic activity (what I refer to as "structural nazification") and with establishing and enforcing artistic guidelines (what I call "aesthetic nazification"). I then offer general considerations that could assist in resolving this cognitive dissonance. For one thing, it is important to distinguish between the Nazis' concrete goal of identifying and removing "undesirable" individuals or groups from society and the far more abstract goal of identifying and removing "undesirable" artistic trends. In other words, the exclusion of certain people (Jews, communists, and others) may have been carried out with shocking thoroughness, but it did not necessarily lead to the eradication of their artistic influences. We also have to keep in mind that the Nazis' boastful and violent claims of "purifying" German culture cannot be taken literally. These claims must be weighed against the known penchant at the time for bold rhetoric, ostentatious public displays, and manipulation of mass media. At the same time, that such messages were greeted at first with enthusiasm by those in the arts professions requires us to consider other factors that distinguish the German situation, such as the timeliness of Nazi promises to ensure order, unity, and international recognition for Germany in the wake of the disorder, disunity, and disgrace that followed the country's defeat in World War I. Finally, a historiography of the visual and performing arts needs to keep in mind the disciplinary particulars and priorities of the fields involved, as well as the insularity and lack of communication among historical disciplines as a whole.


Despite the contradictions inherent in assumptions about Nazi control of the arts, it is easy to imagine how one could have arrived at such an understanding in the first place. Neoclassical edifices, including stadiums, party grounds, and cultic open-air theaters designed explicitly for party ritual and pageantry, were built to last for a thousand years and stood as constant reminders after the war of the hubris of Nazi leadership. Hitler's passions for art, architecture, and music (at least the music of Wagner) were well-known, lending support to the idea that he took an active role in steering all cultural policy and artistic production and, with the help of Goebbels, erected a powerful administrative structure to ensure conformity. Paintings and sculptures that filled Nazi Germany's newly consecrated museums employed realistic styles and favored subjects that seemed to bolster ideals of racial purity and militarism. Above all, the thousands of individuals compelled to leave Germany despite their artistic and intellectual gifts, not to mention those whose lives were lost to the Nazis' murderous campaign of intolerance, provide the most harrowing reminder of the zeal with which National Socialism identified, pursued, and eliminated its perceived cultural adversaries.

When we think of "Nazi culture," some of the most enduring symbols coming to mind will include Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens), the brilliant piece of film propaganda about the 1934 Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg, and her equally compelling cinematography for the filming of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; the sleek and imposing neoclassicism of the Berlin Olympic stadium, adorned with its heroic, muscle-bound statuary; Albert Speer's party rally grounds at Nuremberg; and Paul Ludwig Troost's monumental House of German Art in Munich (renamed after the war as House of Art, see fig. 1). If we wish to find out more, we will soon discover, for instance, that Hitler laid the cornerstone for Troost's art museum amidst a pompous procession of the history of "German" art that borrowed shamelessly from antiquity, and that the museum's grand opening in 1937 with the inaugural Great German Art Exhibition featured a collection of paintings and sculptures selected for their "truly German" quality (fig. 2). One year later, it was music's turn in the spotlight with the debut of the Reich Music Days (Reichsmusiktage), a convocation of music organizations from around the country, which Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels opened with a speech on the "ten commandments" for German music. For a brief period of time, the Propaganda Ministry also financed the building of numerous open-air theaters designed for specially commissioned theater pieces (Thingspiele) that fused hypernationalist (völkisch) myth with such common themes as the martyrdom of Nazi heroes and the injustices of World War I.

But even more shocking than these celebrations of "true German arts" were the public assaults on those who were considered to be enemies of German culture. Following the book burnings of May 1933, the public defamation and expulsions of many famous artists and intellectuals, and the closure of the progressive Bauhaus design school, two alarming events in 1937 and 1938 attacking "un-German" arts seemed to provide blueprints for Nazi aesthetics. The first was the 1937 exhibition Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst), which opened alongside the Great German Art Exhibition and the boisterous celebrations surrounding it. It featured a mocking display of modernist art that had been confiscated as part of the Degenerate Art Action and presented the works as creations by charlatans, racial inferiors, and the mentally deranged, all of whom had supposedly ruled the art world of the 1920s under the short-lived Weimar Republic (fig. 3). The second event was an exhibition on Degenerate Music (Entartete Musik), held during the Reich Music Days that took place one year later, in 1938. The exhibition vilified jazz, atonality, and the alleged Bolshevik and Jewish domination of German musical taste during the Weimar years.

By this time, the Nazi government had established a complex bureaucracy of state and party administration that spread its tentacles into the arts. The Ministry of People's Enlightenment and Propaganda (Reichsministerium fur Volksaufklarung und Propaganda), established in March 1933 and headed by Goebbels, had divisions for art, film, and music. It also oversaw the Reich Culture Chambers, which brought together all arts professions and industries into one central union, requiring all those engaged in arts-related fields to petition for membership to one of its seven chambers (which included separate chambers for art, music, film, and theater) in order to secure employment. Other state and party organizations also exerted their influence on the arts, such as the German Workers' Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, or DAF); the Education Ministry; and the Rosenberg Bureau, the notorious party agency under the leadership of Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, which was charged with ensuring ideological conformity in cultural and intellectual spheres of activity. The mere existence of so many overlapping structures that each claimed influence over the arts gave the strong impression that Hitler, Goebbels, and a few select others galvanized their resources to ensure that all facets of the arts could be closely monitored and directed. The multitude of bureaucracies also suggested clues for understanding the meaning of Gleichschaltung, the elusive term used at the time to describe a wide variety of acts of reorganization after the Nazi seizure of power.


Excerpted from Art of Suppression by Pamela M. Potter. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, xi,
List of Abbreviations, xiii,
Acknowledgments, xv,
1. Visual and Performing Arts in Nazi Germany: What Is Known and What Is Believed, 1,
2. The Exile Experience, 48,
3. Occupation, Cold War, and the Zero Hour, 89,
4. Totalitarianism, Intentionalism, and Fascism in Cold War Cultural Histories, 130,
5. Modernism and the Isolation of Nazi Culture, 175,
6. Cultural Histories after the Cold War, 215,
Notes, 253,
Works Cited, 319,
Index, 369,

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