1 December 2008
Art as Propaganda in Nazi Germany
Having been an artist himself, Hitler understood the potential power of imagery in moving the masses. “We shall discover and encourage the artists who are able to impress upon the State of the German people the cultural stamp of the Germanic race . . . in their origin and in the picture which they present, they are the expressions of the soul and the ideals of the community” (Hitler, Party Day speech, 1935, qtd. Nazi Approved Art). It is true that, with every culture throughout history, art represents “the ideals of the community,” but it is clear that during the Third Reich, these “ideals” were controlled by the Nazi Party. Hitler transformed the role of the artist to promote Germany and glorify the nation and his own ideals. Artists who did not comply with Hitler’s ideals risked their life, and therefore, there is an absence of social realism in German art during this time. The artists of Nazi Germany commonly depicted beautiful pastoral scenes, the heroism of German soldiers, the “volk” (common folk) as Aryans in peaceful settings, and the evils of the Jewish people. These kinds of stereotypes were useful in art, in that they were extremely simplistic, and therefore easily interpreted by the masses. Even the uneducated, the people who couldn’t read, could view these kinds of paintings and sculptures and understand them, but more importantly, could be moved by them.
In the early twentieth century, there were radical changes being made in the art world. Modern movements such as Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Expressionism were not easily understood by the masses. They were not universally appreciated, and in fact, seen as “elitist” by many, or even “degenerate” by others. Max Nordau, a physician and social critic, wrote Degeneration, in which he attacks “degenerate” modern art. “Such a style of painting may be compared to the disconnected speech of a weak mind, who chatters according to the current of the association of ideas, wanders in his talk, and neither knows himself, what he wishes to arrive at, nor is able to make it clear to us” (Nordau 84). Nordau presents several case studies of artists and writers, his main point being that society is degenerating and that it is both partially caused by and reflected in modern art. Despite being Jewish, and using anti-semitism as an example of degeneration, Nordau’s “scientific” attack against modern art, and the phrase “degenerate” was recycled by the German Nationalist Socialists in order to promote their own style of art as propaganda. It is clear that the artists of the Third Reich did not “wander” in their message, and knew precisely what they wanted to make clear to the public. Hitler expressed his disgust with modern “degenerate” art, “As for the degenerate artists, I forbid them to force their so-called experiences upon the public. If they do see fields blue, they are deranged, and should go to an asylum. If they only pretend to see them blue, they are criminals, and should go to prison. I will purge the nation of them” (Hitler, qtd. Gardner 110). This is a perfect example of the way in which Hitler adjusted the intellectual level of his message in order to appeal to the masses. Yourman identifies one of the major propaganda techniques of the Nazi party as “name-calling.” “’Name calling’ is a device to make us form a judgement without examining the evidence on which it should be based. Here, the propagandist appeals to our hate and fear” (Yourman 149). Hitler calls modern artists deranged, degenerate, criminals. It seems that, during this time, modern art was not widely understood by the public, and it is for this reason that Hitler was easily able to persuade the masses into both fearing and hating this type of art, as well as accepting the more realistic and simplistic Nazi propaganda. In September of 1933, Reichskulturkammer (Reich Culture Chamber) was established. Within the chamber,...