For some people, Hitler’s takeover of power in Germany in February and March 1933 demanded critical decisions. Thomas Mann was abroad when Hitler was appointed chancellor on January 30 and refused to return home. Others, such as the journalist and cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer, sensed a noose tightening around their necks in those first months of 1933 and felt forced to flee, in some cases for their lives, to Paris, or Prague, or London. “The whole of the Kurfürstendamm is emptying out in Paris,” noted Harry Kessler in his diary in late June 1933. But some, like the artist Emil Nolde, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, the doctor-poet Gottfried Benn, and the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, had high hopes for the new regime. They looked on it as the embodiment of energy, youth, and self-assertion. That the Nazi hierarchy might respond favourably to experimental approaches in the arts seemed possible in those early days. “Northern Expressionism” was touted by its supporters as a continuation of the Gothic and Romantic in German art. Even Ludwig Justi, in charge of the National Gallery until the summer of 1933, was hopeful initially that the patriotic urge in National Socialism would lead to the reaffirmation of order and stability.
In the general turmoil and upheaval, what was clear was that art and aesthetics as a whole were to be important considerations in the running of the state. In many respects the Third Reich was all about beauty and joy: the re-creation of a strong Germany whose ethos would radiate throughout the world. A popular slogan announced “Der deutsche Alltag soll schön sein”—the German everyday should be beautiful. The workplace would be clean and bright, the body strong and healthy. From this vantage point the racism of Hitler and National Socialism was not an end in itself but a means. Strength through joy, beauty through racial honing: those were the goals.
But the question remained, what was beauty for Hitler and the Nazis? Joseph Goebbels, the new minister of “enlightenment” and “propaganda,” had always had a predilection for the modern. In his novel Michael, his hero is a miner but also a would-be wordsmith who frequents literary and artistic circles. Full of Nietzschean impulses, he seeks solution to the nation’s and the world’s ills not in politics but in spirituality. At one point Michael comments, “We today are all Expressionists. We are people who want to shape the world from within ourselves….Expressionist world-feeling is explosive.” In his diary he writes, “Politics destroys character.” Van Gogh is often on his mind: “I hit on Van Gogh again….It’s not the painter I see, it’s the human being, the God-seeker. I bought with my wages his moving letters to his brother Theo. The man is greater than the artist.” Some of the subsequent passages sound as if they have been influenced directly by Van Gogh’s letters.
The novel had frequent reprintings after its first publication in 1929. None of these passages was altered. The critics were as far apart in their judgment of the book’s merits as the politicians in their platforms. The respected and widely read Paul Fechter wanted in 1931 to nominate the book for the Kleist Prize, one of the highest literary honours in the land.
The architect Albert Speer decorated Goebbels’s private residence in 1933 and hung a few watercolours by Emil Nolde, taken from the National Gallery, on the walls. According to Speer, Goebbels and his wife were “delighted” with the paintings. The Secessionist painter Leo von König, who had been a witness in the Wacker trial, made portraits of Goebbels, his wife, Magda, and their daughters. Until 1935–36 Goebbels, though aware of Hitler’s disapproval, continued to sponsor modern art. He served on the official committee for the March 1934 Berlin exhibition of Italian Futurist art; Gottfried Benn and F.T. Marinetti spoke at the opening. His ministry supported a Munich exhibition, Berliner Kunst 1935, which featured works by Ernst Barlach. Goebbels visited the exhibition and even purchased some pieces with ministry funds. Many artists, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde, continued to believe that the Reich might in the end support modernist inclinations openly.
Vincent van Gogh, while condemned by some, was still celebrated by others as a Germanic artist. In 1934 the critic Wilhelm Schramm saw in Van Gogh “a representation of the grandly barbaric,” a spirit National Socialism was bringing to fruition. The following year a new biography of Van Gogh, by Heinz Wagenitz, credited the Dutchman with freeing German art from the chokehold of French Impressionism.
But in late 1935 the mood began to shift. In September Hitler came out with a stinging condemnation of modern art in his speech to the Nuremberg party rally, and after that Goebbels backed off from his support of the modern. Gallery and museum directors removed blatantly modern items from showrooms.
In 1936–37 much of the modern art in state collections was liquidated. Some of the most prominent items were displayed in the notorious exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) that opened in Munich in July 1937 and then toured the country. That exhibition was a huge success, shattering attendance records for an art exhibit in Germany. More than two million people saw the show in Munich, with attendance averaging around twenty thousand a day, and some three million in other parts of the Reich. The question arises about the motives of the audience. How many came to scoff, as the organizers intended? And how many came out of interest in this art, or even genuine admiration? By comparison, the exhibition of officially sanctioned art, which opened in the newly built House of German Art in Munich a day before the Degenerate Art exhibit, drew a total of just over 400,000 visitors during a four-month run, or some 3,200 a day. For every person who saw the “German” art in Munich, more than six were drawn to see the “degenerate” show.
The Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin, with its modern collection, closed its doors on July 5, 1937. When Eberhard Hanfstaengl refused to cooperate in the Degenerate Art action, he was dismissed on July 26. The National Gallery lost a total of 435 works from its collection. Subsequently, Goebbels and his Propaganda Ministry made arrangements for the sale of the purged art. Renowned dealers were engaged to sell these items abroad in return for foreign currency or traditional art. The Amsterdam banker Franz König bought Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet and the Berlin National Gallery’s version of the Jardin de Daubigny.
On June 30, 1939, a public auction was held at the Hotel National in Lucerne arranged by the Galerie Fischer. Theodor Fischer, the owner, had worked in the Cassirer gallery in Berlin in the 1920s. Nazi officials had put considerable effort into publicizing the event, displaying for ten days in May the 125 pieces to be auctioned. Prominent work by Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, and Lyonel Feininger, among others, was available. Included in the auction was a Van Gogh Self-Portrait. Van Gogh had created this personal memento, with its background of pale veronese green, for Paul Gauguin in September 1888. Hugo von Tschudi had acquired the painting in 1906, and it had moved with him to Munich, where since 1919 it had resided in the New State Gallery until it was confiscated by the Nazis.
At the Galerie Fischer, little went as expected. The auction was a terrible disappointment for its owner. Thirty-eight lots remained unsold, including Picasso’s Head of Woman and The Absinthe Drinker. But the Van Gogh sold. It was purchased by the New York dealer and editor of Art News, Alfred M. Frankfurter, on behalf of his client Maurice Wertheim. Wertheim had made his money in investment banking, had acquired the venerable journal The Nation, and would eventually head the American Jewish Committee during the war. His daughter, Barbara, born 1912, was to become the celebrated popular historian Barbara Tuchman. Wertheim paid 175,000 Swiss francs (almost $40,000) for the painting, considerably more than had been expected.
The modern art that remained in Germany in private hands was enjoyed surreptitiously among the trusted. During the war much art, like everything else, was destroyed by bombing raids and other misfortune, though remarkable amounts of cultural treasures, from artwork to books, were saved through timely evacuation. Museums emptied, and many private collections were dispersed. The occupying armies were not particularly interested in art, though the Red Army was known to use art canvases for street signs.
Despite Hitler’s antipathy toward modern manifestations in visual art, his own gigantesque artwork, the Third Reich, had distinctly modernist features. Fire, wind, and cleansing were powerful motifs in Nazism, as they were in the Fascism of Mussolini. Il Duce was genuinely enamoured of F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist associations of technology, speed, and war with hygiene and purification. He set about destroying the old centre of Rome, for instance, in order to open the city to “sun and light.” The Third Reich’s fascination with fire was inescapable: torchlight parades, book burnings, incineration of art, and eventually the cremation of human beings. Once the war began, Goebbels said that Hitler was “deeply impressed by photos of London burning,” but the idea of New York consumed by fire really excited him—“skyscrapers being turned into gigantic burning torches, collapsing upon one another, the glow of the exploding city illuminating the dark sky.”
Excerpted fromSolar Dance by Modris Eksteins. Copyright © 2012 by Modris Eksteins. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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