Visu­al Arts

Degen­er­ate Art: The Attack on Mod­ern Art in Nazi Ger­many 1937

Olaf Peters
  • Review
By – July 1, 2015

While the term degen­er­ate art” did not orig­i­nate with the Nazi régime, it was appro­pri­at­ed by the Nazis for nefar­i­ous pur­pos­es: to rid Ger­man muse­ums of con­sid­ered Bol­she­vik, unaes­thet­ic, anti-nation­al­ist, and a stain on the so-called pure Aryan nation. The Nazi Par­ty, under the direc­tion of Joseph Goebbels act­ing on author­i­ty from Hitler, emp­tied the muse­ums as well as some pri­vate col­lec­tions of more than 5,000 works. Many of them were sold in auc­tion hous­es out­side of Ger­many in order to col­lect for­eign cur­ren­cy. The exhi­bi­tion then trav­eled through­out Ger­many until 1939.

In 1937 the orig­i­nal exhi­bi­tion, Entartete Kun­st, opened in Munich. By this time Goebbels had designed the show to include an anti­se­mit­ic theme of Jew­ish con­spir­a­cy to con­t­a­m­i­nate Ger­many through sub­ver­sive art. In addi­tion to the excel­lent col­or repro­duc­tions of some of the con­fis­cat­ed works by such well-known artists as Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, Oskar Kokosch­ka, Max Beck­mann, George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Marc Cha­gall, pho­tos of the orig­i­nal exhi­bi­tion and oth­er archival items such as posters and news­pa­per illus­tra­tions are includ­ed in the book. 

The essays of Degen­er­ate Art deal with dif­fer­ent aspects of the pol­i­tics of the art world that led to the des­ig­na­tion of degen­er­ate” and its pre- and post-Nazi his­to­ry. From Nor­dau to Hitler” by the orga­niz­ing cura­tor, Olaf Peters, iden­ti­fies the year 1910 as the year the Nazis chose as the cut-off date for the con­fis­ca­tion of works from Ger­man muse­ums, the year when avant-garde artists of the peri­od of isms” (Fau­vism, Cubism, Expres­sion­ism, Futur­ism, Dadaism) were being acquired and fre­quent­ly receiv­ing harsh reviews. They tar­get­ed the renowned Bauhaus school of archi­tec­ture and design as well.

Crazy at Any Price” traces the pathol­o­giz­ing” of Mod­ernism. Max Nor­dau, whose 1892 two-vol­ume Entar­tung (Degen­er­a­tion) was in its third print­ing in the 1930s and had influ­enced psy­chi­a­trists and eugeni­cists, pos­tu­lat­ed that art could man­i­fest the men­tal ill­ness­es of artists. The chap­ter on the screen depic­tions of Degen­er­ate Art describes films such as the infa­mous Der ewige Jude (The Wan­der­ing Jew) and Jud Suss that aim to con­vince Ger­mans that Jews were pol­lut­ing Ger­man soci­ety. The films use images that allude to prim­i­tive and sub-human char­ac­ter­is­tics to depict Jews. 

The reha­bil­i­ta­tion of degen­er­ate art,” dis­cussed in Nar­rowed Mod­ernism” by Ruth Heftig, is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing since the sub­ject is ongo­ing. Iden­ti­fy­ing and recov­er­ing miss­ing works of art,the recon­struc­tion of muse­um col­lec­tions in light of post-war divid­ed Ger­many, and changed per­cep­tions of mod­ern art are all com­pli­cat­ed issues that con­tin­ue to intrigue schol­ars and art his­to­ri­ans as well as impact inter­na­tion­al law.

A beau­ti­ful­ly pro­duced book, Degen­er­ate Art is rec­om­mend­ed for an under­stand­ing of how the Third Reich method­i­cal­ly manip­u­lat­ed the Ger­man pub­lic to accept and endorse their malev­o­lent poli­cies. Check­list of plates, bib­li­og­ra­phy, index.

Relat­ed Content:

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions