Time for a New Look at Nazi Art

Spiegel 14 August 2019
By Ulrike Knofel

Thousands of artworks from the Nazi period lie hidden away in storage depots, far from the public eye. The U.S. also holds a number of paintings, drawings and sculptures from the Third Reich under lock and key. It is time that they be more closely examined.

The extensive property in the Spandau district of Berlin is surrounded by high fences, covered by undergrowth and includes a number of rather plain storage buildings. Two of them are used to store art and they contain hundreds of paintings, many of which were admired by Hitler. Not a few of them even belonged to him.

The paintings were put here by the German Historical Museum with a single aim: They were to be forgotten. The museum in the heart of Berlin currently looks after thousands of art objects from the Nazi era and over 900 paintings are stored in the Spandau depot. Drawings are stored at a different location.

A strange quiet surrounds this art and that silence is not necessarily a good thing. After all, silence isn't particularly helpful on the search for resolution. Despite all the research that has been conducted into the Nazi period and all of the conclusions that have been reached, art from the Third Reich remains a taboo. Many, it would seem, believe that these works contain some dark and dangerous power.

Sometimes, it is the societal debates that do not take place that are the most important. Many of the works from the period could have an important role to play in the ongoing appraisal of this country's history and a reappraisal of its art history. But Germany seems not to care that such a reappraisal is not taking place. Nor is the country particularly bothered that many artworks from the period are no longer in Germany. It is an historical blind spot.

The conventional art history approach to the Nazi era is a binary one, with resistance figures, most of whom were modernists, on the one hand, and pro-Nazi artists, who pursued more traditional views of aesthetic beauty, on the other. But things weren't that simple. There were modernists who served the Nazis, and powerful Nazis who bought and liked modernist works. Most of these works, though, are hidden away in storage depots in Germany and in the U.S. Their number and their stories are only gradually coming to light.

A Bronze Sculpture of Hitler's Head

The paintings in Spandau tend to be large and they are often dripping with pathos: submarines emerging from the waves, majestic mountain landscapes and heroic figures. There are only sporadic hints at the Nazi regime's murderous ideology, such as one painting depicting concentration camp inmates in a quarry. But that doesn't mean that such pictures and sculptures don't exist.

An additional 586 works of German art from the Nazi period are located in the U.S., stored at a military based called Fort Belvoir, a few miles from Washington D.C. These include a giant painting called "Hitler at the Front," and another called "Organization Todt." The collection of German War Art also includes a giant bronze sculpture of Hitler's head.

Part of German history is thus hidden away near the U.S. capital while another part is hidden away in Germany itself. And the connection between the two collections is sometimes rather extraordinary. In Spandau, for example, two tall, narrow panels hang on a retractable wire wall and they are clearly linked. The left one shows a miner below ground while a farmer with his animals is on the right. Both are looking straight at the viewer, almost defiantly. But the third, middle panel of the triptych by Hans Schmitz-Wiedenbrück isn't in Spandau. That section shows three soldiers representing the army, air force and navy along with a fluttering swastika. But for several decades, this central panel has been in the possession of the U.S. military.

Examining art from the Nazi period is no easy task, and one is faced with a complex, difficult to navigate riddle. After the war, the American military brought roughly 9,000 works of art to the U.S. The sent much of it back to Germany between the 1950s and 1980s, but retained a selection of especially sensitive works.

In Germany, the works returned by the U.S. were stored at various sites and at some point, they ended up in the hands of the German Historical Museum but remained the property of the Federal Republic of Germany. Now State Minister for Culture Monika Grütters has responsibility for them.

It was decided a few weeks ago that Grütters would take over legal and expert oversight of the entirety of the German state's art holdings, making her the top person responsible for art-related issues within the government. When asked about her stance on Nazi-era art being stored in the U.S., her office answered vaguely, arguing that issues related to the return of German cultural heritage could not be equated to investigations into the massive theft of largely Jewish-owned cultural heritage by the Nazis. Her office also argued that the Foreign Ministry is responsible for the German wartime art that is stored in the U.S. The commissioner for foreign art there is State Minister Michelle Müntefering. She says it would be the "wrong signal" to call for the return of the works on the basis of the Potsdam Agreement, which was signed in summer 1945.

In 1945, the U.S. army was primarily concerned with freeing the culture from National Socialist influences. Almost nobody in Germany knows the exact number of works being stored in Fort Belvoir, or the subjects of many of the paintings. It also seems that nobody is interested in exploring the question as to whether this is really the best place to store artefacts of German history. Some debates are, as previously mentioned, undesired.

Inherited Burdens

Of course, the works being shielded by the German Historical Museum and the U.S. military don't, by any means, constitute all the art created between 1933 and 1945 in the German Reich. Many of the paintings, drawings and sculptures created in and for the regime are now in the hands of museums and private collectors. Only a small number of museums (one of the first was in the central German city of Würzburg) have dared take a public inventory. Most institutions keep these sorts of inherited burdens secret -- they are simply too problematic and embarrassing.

Still, several years ago, pictures of sculptures, paintings and drawings that were presented in the annual Great German Art Exhibitions between 1937 and 1944 were uploaded into an internet database. The shows were initiated by Hitler to show off the new German art.

But the Third Reich's art history is much broader, much more contradictory than what is documented there. The relationship between art and the Nazi dictatorship has never been fully explored, and just a few months ago, the need for clarity became clearer than ever. An exhibition opened in Berlin this April about the painter Emil Nolde, an expressionist who is widely admired in Germany. The show revealed just how fanatically anti-Semitic Nolde was, and how fiercely he admired Hitler. Nolde had consistently hoped that Hitler would take note of his paintings and of his "de-Jewification" plan. UItimately, the exhibition brought down a heroic figure, but it wasn't universally well received. Several art historians, including one writing in the respected Die Zeit newspaper, defended not Nolde necessarily, but his art. They wrote that the arguments being made were moral ones and that such a thing was not permissible when it comes to art.

A ludicrous assertion. It has always been, after all, the art historians (and art critics) who put things into moral categories: here the good modernists, there the bad anti-modernists. Nolde was lifted onto a pedestal by art historians during the post-war decades not only because of his art, but also because of his alleged affinity for the resistance. And if it is now the case that his works must be viewed in complete isolation from the character of the man who painted them, should that not also hold true for the paintings by other artists from that period?

To engage in such a discussion, all of the artworks would need to be hauled out of storage and researched. Yet those works are being kept in the dark due to moral concerns.

The Americans also invoked a moral argument in their decision to retain some of the Nazi-era art, warning that it could be seen as a glorification of National Socialism. A spokesman for the U.S. Army emphasizes that there are currently no plans to send back these works.

A few months ago, Sabine Beneke took over oversight of the painting department at the German Historical Museum. And she is not ignoring the depot in Spandau. She is among those who believes these works need to be examined objectively, just as other artworks are, in an art-historical context to establish a more precise view of (Germany's) art history. The fact that these works are often denied any kind of artistic merit, she argues, reflects the experts' black-and-white thinking and says that the intellectual and social climate of the years preceding 1933 should be part of the process. Even before the Nazis, she says, there was a turn-of-the-century dispute as to whether conservative art or modern art should be considered national art.

The 'UFO Thesis'

Most art historians seem to believe the works between 1933 and 1945 fell from the sky -- that they have no backstory, and no afterlife. In her study, "Kunst für alle!" (Art for everyone!), historian Karin Hartewig uses the term "UFO thesis." And according to Hartewig, German museums have, to this day, rejected the prospect of exhibiting any art "that was not taken down, banned or confiscated during the Third Reich."

Art experts, in other words, are closing their eyes to a segment of art history. Essentially, they are adhering to the inverse of Hitler's dictates on taste from the Nuremberg Rally, in which he condemned "the entire artistic stammering of cubists, futurists, dadaists."

Of course, the cultural policies of the Allies played a fundamental role in the establishment of the postwar canon. Americans sent more than just care packages: They also transmitted their idea of what Western art is -- which is to say, the opposite of Soviet art, and thus abstract art.

The American Gregory Maertz teaches literature studies at a private New York university and has studied at Harvard and in Heidelberg, in central Germany. He has been researching Nazi art for decades, and recently published a book on the subject called "Nostalgia for the Future."

In the book, he dissects the conditions under which the U.S. army removed German art after the war. A U.S. army captain called Gordon Gilkey was given the task of removing the wartime art from circulation and he located hiding places in trains, salt mines and castles, and carried out interrogations and studio-raids, ultimately confiscating thousands of artworks. In December 1946, Gilley arranged an exhibition for members of the U.S. army in Frankfurt's Städel Museum, then catalogued and packed up the works for transport to the Pentagon, with the first shipments beginning in March 1947.

In addition to this collection of German War Art, there was a second collection of paintings that were owned by the Nazi state -- paintings whose owner was often identified as Hitler himself. They remained in Germany but were long under U.S. oversight and hidden from academics and the public. It is mostly these paintings that are now locked away in the Spandau depot.

According to Maertz, who met Gilkey personally, the U.S. Army captain ended up taking around 100 artworks for his private collection, which he later gifted to the Portland Art Museum. One of the works received from Gilkey is "Vom Bau des Atlantikwalls" ("Building a Bunker, Atlantic Wall"), by the German artist Alf Bayrle. The museum claims that it is not aware of any illegal activity by Gilkey.

Gilkey was a graphic artist himself and, after his return to the U.S., worked as a teacher, an art collector and later also as a curator at the Portland museum. Maertz also calls him an "art thief," and he also condemns the United States for never revisiting its initial order to confiscate the art. Instead, he argues, the U.S. has sought to mislead people to believe that, in contrast to the Soviet Union, America had shown respect for Germany's cultural heritage. A myth. He describes the collection that remains in the U.S. as "war trophies" and the decision to keep them from public view as a kind of "censorship."

'Nazi Modernism'

Next year, a large new military-history museum is to be opened in Fort Belvoir. It remains to be seen if those in charge will allow the public to see the Nazi collection once the museum opens its doors.

But Maertz also has another point to make, one that many view as an even greater provocation. He believes there is such a thing as "Nazi modernism," which he says the Americans, with Gilkey's help, excised from art history. The author writes that so-called Nazi art was more stylistically diverse than has been claimed, and that artistic movements like neo-impressionism, expressionism, surrealism and New Objectivity continued in parallel to the regime's conservative imagery -- and they served as a kind of packaging for racist and murderous ideology.

The cover of Maertz' book features the painting "The Standard-Bearer" by Hubert Lanzinger. It is one of the works still in the U.S. and shows Hitler on horseback wearing almost futuristic armor and carrying the swastika flag. Before 1933, Lanzinger, an Austrian, had been a moderate painter who was part of the New Objectivity movement, a background apparent in "The Standard Bearer."

Nevertheless, Maertz's claim is shocking. It seems to contradict the widely accepted view that modernism was completely banned from the Third Reich. Maertz argues there were several attempts by functionaries and artists to establish New Objectivity and other modern styles during the regime. Baldur von Schirach, best known for his role as head of the youth wing of the Nazi Party, even called for exhibitions to be held, including when he was the governor of Vienna. Rest assured that he didn't do so because he was somehow a better person, but because he believed it would enhance his own image and that of the Third Reich.

There were also overlaps between so-called degenerate art and what was celebrated by Nazis as ideal German art. Maertz names more than 60 artists whose works were removed from museum inventories by the Nazis in 1937 for being too modern but who were allowed to submit other works to Hitler's beloved Great German Art Exhibitions.

Several of these ostracized artists were recognized (and their value was boosted) when Hitler himself made purchases. There are numerous examples. In 1939, he bought Will Tschech's oil painting "Winter in der Altstadt Düsseldorf," which was part of the Great German Art Exhibition that year, just two years after a pair of works by Tschech had been confiscated from the art collections of the city of Düsseldorf.

According to Maertz' research, over 50 artists that made art acceptable to the Nazi regime had previously produced degenerate art. Indeed, he believes that the art produced under the Nazis shows most clearly the true breadth of styles during this period.

Muddled Histories

Many of the artists' backgrounds are also difficult to view one-dimensionally and they tend to contradict the UFO thesis. They had lives before and after the dictatorship.

The painter Willhelm Wessel is one example. In the 1920s, he experimented with expressionism and one of his early drawings was confiscated as degenerate art by the Nazis in 1937 from a museum in Münster. Wessel then changed his style and began painting landscapes and dutiful portraits. He later became a wartime painter. In 1943, the book "With Rommel in the Desert" was published with his illustrations and was followed in 1944 by another, similar volume.

But after 1945, his abstract paintings were so confident it seemed like he had never done anything else. As head of the Association of West German Artists in the 1950s, his influence was considerable. The names of many wartime artists -- those who painted for the army, the navy and the air force -- were forgotten once the violence came to an end, as did his. One exception was painter and author Lothar-Günther Buchheim.

But other artists were glorified, despite having similarly muddled histories -- not just Emil Nolde. One of those was the painter Christian Schad. He was one of the most important adherents of New Objectivity, a truly radical artist, in the 1920s, but also did well during the dictatorship. He later tried to relativize his early membership in the Nazi party and stopped speaking of his participation in the first Great German Art Exhibition, for which he submitted the painting "Isabell." His portrait of Kristina Söderbaum, a blonde actress and spouse of Veit Harlan, who directed propaganda films during the regime, became popular during the Nazi period after being reprinted on the cover of a magazine.

A museum dedicated to him will soon be opened in Aschaffenburg, and its curators will surely also need to be able to address this chapter of his life. Art historian Bettina Kess has been tasked with carrying out a study. About Schad, she writes that, given the sources that have come to light, "the image held by Schad himself and by the public at large of the artist as a 'great nonconformist'" should be "questioned."

For quite some time, the ugly side of beautiful art has been covered up. A thorough, scientific investigation of art from the Nazi period would complete our view of the dictatorship. After all, the dictatorship was led by a man who cared far more about paintings than he did about human life.
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