They called it: “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art), and this term made a lot of artists being defined as “Not good for the Nazi image.” But why did Hitler hate modern art so much, and why did he need to abolish everything that wasn’t realistic enough?
Where Does Degenerate Art Find Its Origin?
In his criticism of Aesthetics, he compared the spiritual symbolism of the Symbolists to French literature to insanity. Blaming it on Impressionism, he condemned new society while speaking up for traditionalism.
While Nordau was Jewish and a leading proponent of Nazism in the early years of the Third Reich, his idea of artistic degeneracy would be used to reinforce their calls for Aryan racial purity.
Why Did Hitler Hate Modern Art?
Hitler was known for his extreme ideas. One of them is that modern art was trash. To illustrate what he meant with this, the Nazis held two art exhibitions.
First, the Great German Art Exhibition showed what Hitler wanted the art to be in his “Third Reich.” This exhibition showed many works with blonde women and soldiers on the battlefields like he wanted Germany to be.
A second exhibition called the Entartete Kunst Exhibitionshowed what he didn’t want to be considered proper art. This was mostly abstract, modern, and really non-representational for the German nation.
These theories were intended to expose the philosophical, monetary, ethnic, and spiritual purposes of this revolution.
Before Hitler was a politician, he was an artist himself, but his paintings were not considered “Modern” or “Abstract” enough. Hitler mostly painted realistic landscapes and buildings.
The Big Purge of Art
The moment Hitler rose to power, it went quite fast with a so-called “purge” of art. Books were burned, paintings were shredded, artists were removed from their positions like teaching or curating. Especially Jewish art was forbidden to even speak about.
Most roles or positions were filled with people of the Nazi party. In September of 1933, Joseph Goebbels became minister of Propaganda. Who had to supervise all the art that was produced in Germany.
Goebbels insisted on having a cultural chamber that curated all art shown in cultural and public institutions. Later on, he decided that only the chamber members would be allowed to produce art meant for the public eye.
In 1935, that chamber had around 100.000 members that were allowed to produce this art.
Although they dismissed everything modern, they still discussed Expressionism. Goebbels and some of his partners believed that some represented the spirit of the Nordic lands.
“We National Socialists are not unmodern; we are the carrier of a new modernity, not only in politics and in social matters, but also in art and intellectual matters.”
— Joseph Goebbels
But at the end of 1934, Hitler declared that there was no space for experimentation in his “Reich”.
This dictate by Hitler caused a lot of artists to be uncertain whether they were accepted or not. Many artists still fought for their “being” as a recognized artists but around 1937, they pretty much surrendered and lost hope.
What Happened to the Degenerate Artists?
The people who didn’t fit into the Nazi image of artists were a threat to the state, and many went into exile. They fled to several countries such as The United Kingdom, Switzerland, and The Netherlands.
There were also a lot of artists that stayed in Germany. They went into internal exile and mostly stayed in the countryside.
These artists, known as Degenerate artists, were also forbidden to visit universities or other cultural institutions.
As stated in “Why Did Hitler Hate Modern Art?” the Nazis held an exhibition. Interestingly, after this event, Nazi politician and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring took 14 pieces by several artists and auctioned them in Switzerland, for example, right before the great purge of the remaining artworks.
This collection of works contained paintings from famous artists like Van Gogh, Dali, Picasso, and Miro.
The estimated amount of paintings that were burned in March 1939 lays around 4,000. Not even mentioning the number of books that were burned and the unknown amount of work.
After the fall of the Third Reich and the fall of Berlin, Soviet-era paintings were buried underground. We’re not sure how many of these are now extant in the Hermitage Saint Petersburg.