The recently disclosed discovery, in a Munich apartment, of about 1,400 works of 20th-century European art looted by the Nazis has brought to light the first hints of a morally and politically complex story bound for the best-seller lists. It has also revived persistent myths and misconceptions about the Nazis’ attitude to modern art and especially toward those works they exhibited under the rubric of “Degenerate Art”—how they felt about it, why they disapproved of it, and what they did with the works they seized from museums and galleries.
The Nazi exhibition, “Degenerate Art,” opened in the summer of 1937, as part of the celebration of the fourth anniversary of Hitler’s ascent to power, four years being the amount of time he had told the German people he would need to bring about the rebirth of the nation. “Degenerate Art” was there to remind the people of what Hitler had saved them from. It was presented as a counterexhibition to the first showing of “Great German Art,” which had opened on July 18, 1937, in a new building designed by the neoclassical architect Paul Ludwig Troost. “Degenerate Art,” which displayed more than 600 works of modernist art that had been seized from museums throughout Germany, opened the next day in the city’s Archaeological Institute. Where else to show works destined for the dustbin of history?
Yet it was the modernist art that people came to see. The Munich exhibition of “Degenerate Art” was reportedly visited by over two million people, far more than went to see “Great German Art.” Evidently the exhibition’s popularity did not overly concern the Nazis. In his diaries, Goebbels records the rapidly rising attendance figures for “Degenerate Art” and remarks, “Great success!” Indeed, the show was taken on the road, making stops in Berlin, Leipzig, Düsseldorf, Salzburg, and elsewhere until 1941.
Perhaps the most tenacious fantasy about the story of modernist art under the Nazis is that these works can somehow stand for human lives. “They keep coming back,” says the art critic Michael Kimmelman, “these works lost to the Nazis.” Many of us want to believe that we can see in the fate of these paintings, drawings, and sculptures an important parallel to, or even anticipation of, the fate of the Nazis’ victims, particularly European Jews.
But the fate of modernist art under the Nazis is not an allegory, metaphor, or foreshadowing of the fate of the Jews, and it is worthwhile to try to understand why. These works are not survivors of a Nazi program of death and destruction. They exist because the Nazis did not try to destroy them in the first place. (As the story of how the works came to be in that apartment in Munich reminds us, the Nazis tried to sell them.) Nazi attitudes toward modernist art were far more ambivalent and far more calculating than we tend to believe.
The fate of certain branches of modernist art was hardly a fait accompli when the Nazis took power. While Hitler certainly disapproved of modernism in the arts, and one of his chief ideologues, Alfred Rosenberg, led campaigns against modernist art, in the early years of the Nazi regime, art journals, prominent student organizations, and public exhibitions promoted German Expressionism as an appropriately “National Socialist revolutionary art.” Goebbels was known to appreciate such Expressionists as Emil Nolde and Ernst Barlach. The Nazi architect Albert Speer decorated his home with works by Nolde.
Yet none of that enthusiasm would save Nolde, who had himself joined the Nazi Party in the early 1920s, from being the artist with the most works on display in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition. More than a curious fact, Nolde’s story shows that there were conflicting views among the Nazi leadership toward modernist art in a way that there was not—could not be—about, say, the Weimar Republic, Communism, or the Jews.
Nolde’s story also reminds us that most of the modernist works the Nazis seized did not appear in the notorious exhibition. Works by Picasso and Matisse were found in the Gurlitt apartment but not on the walls of “Degenerate Art.” In Munich visitors saw an exhibition predominantly concerned to display German artists: Nolde, Barlach, Kirchner, Dix, Grosz.
The point of the exhibition was to present visitors with reflections of themselves, to show Germans what had become of their art and culture under the purported influence of Jewish art dealers, museum directors, and, not least, critics. (In 1936, Goebbels had banned art criticism itself for its putatively Jewish perversion of proper artistic judgment.)
In short, the works on display were meant to show the German people that they had been “Jewified”—contaminated by a mobile, contagious Jewish spirit that had polluted their thinking, their perceptions, their political and cultural institutions—and that the Nazi regime had saved them from this Jewification. The Nazis did not destroy these works of art, because they did not believe the art presented a mortal threat to the integrity and strength of the German Volk. If they had, they would not have exhibited it to millions of Germans in the first place. In addition to presenting object lessons about the influence of Judeo-Bolshevism, these works of art were understood to be valuable commodities, the destruction of which would serve no useful end.
Those Jews who did write about these works, who did own them, promote them, or purchase them on behalf of German cultural institutions, were, of course, not so fortunate.
That these works have been discovered in such fine condition is rightly a cause to celebrate. But their survival is also a significant fact. We deceive ourselves about both the power of modernist art and what it meant to the Nazis if we think, almost 75 years to the day after Kristallnacht, that in this recovered art we are seeing anything like the return of the dead, however dearly we might wish it were so.
Neil Levi is an associate professor of English at Drew University. He is the author of Modernist Form and the Myth of Jewification, published this month by Fordham University Press.