The Degenerate Art Exhibit at the Munich Haus der Kunst
By Jennifer McAllister
 

The Degenerate Art exhibit opened by the National Socialists on July 19, 1937 (Entartete Kunst). It was a collection of over 650 paintings, sculptures, prints and books from 32 public museums. According to Stephanie Barron "The works were assembled for the purpose of clarifying for the German public by defamation and derision exactly what type of modern art was unacceptable to the Reich, and thus ‘un-German’". From 1937 until 1940 the exhibit was viewed by over four million people throughout Germany and Austria.

In 1937 Joseph Goebbels confiscated over 16,000 works which were considered "degenerate". Much of the works were sold to foreign art buyers to make money for the Reich. The Nazis condemned most pre-1933 art, rejecting Germany’s artistic heritage. Surprisingly only six of the "degenerate" artists were Jewish. (Barron 9)

Barron states that "in 1979 Berthold Hinz produced evidence that Einstein’s Die Junst des 20 Jahrhunderts (The Art of the Twentieth Century) was in fact used as a guide by many of the National Socialists in defining who and what was modern, and consequently ‘un-German’ and to be vilified."

In November of 1933 Goebbels created the ReichsKammerce (Reich Chambers) for film, muic , radio, broadcasting, press, theater and fine arts. This gave microscipic attention to the cultural details of German life. Procedures were established to decide who and what were acceptable. Many of the movements such as Cubism, Expressionism, and Dada were misunderstood by the German people, suffering from economic collapse. The demoralized nation viewed these art forms as intellectual, and highly elitest linking them to the poor condition of the country. This also linked these artists to the "supposed international conspiracy of Communists and Jews." Many artists were Socialists, making their art easily identifiable as anti-German.

"The avant-garde artist was equated to the insane, who in turn was synonymous with the Jew: the ninteenth-century founders of German psychiatry felt that the Jew was inherently degenerate and more susceptible than the non-Jew to insanity. As Sander Gilman has pointed out, the classifications of "degenerate" and "healthy" appeared for the first time in the late nineteenth century, by the late 1930’s they were fairly standard in discussions about the avant-garde and the traditional."

The roots for the Munich exhibition can be seen in 1933. The Deutscher Kunstberich issued a five point manifesto describing "what German artists could expect from the new government." These included:

-All works of a cosmopolitan or Bolshevist nature should be removed from German museums and collections, but first they should be exhibited to the public, who should be informed of the details of their acquisition and then burned.

-All museum directors who "wasted" public monies by purchasing "un-German" art should be fired immediately.

-No artist with Marxist or Bolshevist connections should be mentioned henceforth.

-No boxlike buildings should be built.

-All public sculptures not "approved" by the German public should be immediately removed.

Hitler used the attack on art to further German anti-Semitic feelings. Avant-garde works were charged with "degneracy", confiscated "to purify German culture".

At the opening of the Haus der Kunst Hitler announced "From now on we are going to wage a merciless war of destruction against the last remaining elements of cultural disintegration….Should there be someone among [the artists] who still believes in his higher destiny- well now, he has had four years’ time to prove himself. The four years are sufficient for us, too, to reach a definite judgment. From now one- of that you can be certain- all those mutually supporting and thereby sustaining cliques of chatterers, dilettantes, and art forgers will be picked up and liquidated. For all we care, those prehistoric Stone-Age culture-barbarians and art-stutterers can return tot he caves of their ancestors and there can apply their primitive international scratchings."

"Degnerate art" was defined as art that "insult German feeling or destroy or confuse natural form, or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill."

The seizure of the artworks was finally legalized in May 1938 in a retroactive law which stated "products of degenerate art that have been secured in mueums or in collections open to the public before this law went into effect…maybe appropriated by the Reich without compensation."

Those artworks not put on display were either sent to a warehouse in Berlin or sent for sale in other countries. At an auction at the Fischer Gallery 125 painting and sculptures were sold in the summer of 1939. The auction grossed over 500,000 Swiss francs (around $115,000).

Discarded as "degnerate" German expressionism has found its place once again in the art world. Works tossed aside by the Germans have been bought up by connoiseurs. In 1955 Jan Ahlers purchased an Auguste Macke work for $1,100. Today the painting is valued at $400,000. Ownership rights are also in dispute, creating a new crisis on "degenerate art".

Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg maintained the most power in German culture. Much of the control of the arts and culture came through other ministries. Kunst politik was controlled by too many offices and too many conflicting personalities. Goebbels wanted to create and head a Ministry of Culture. Disliked by President Hindenburg he could not rise above a Ministerialrat position. He partioned off his responsibilities as head of the Nazi Party Propaganda Leadership to other leaders. Goebbels pushed for the creation of the RMVP. He attained money to expand his ministry and increase his number of employees. He also "proved a shrewd administrator. He brought in young, ambitious, and comparatively well educated men, and not Party hacks."

Before 1937 there was no definitive "anti-German" art. Different Party leaders , or factions supported different styles of art. Goebbels was a fan of modern art. While the volkisch saw modern art as "un-German". Hitler criticized both factions and did not come in support of either groups until much later. On September 22, 1933 Goebbels announced the creation of the RKK (Reichskulturkammer) of which he would be president. Goebbels interlinked the RKK and the RMVP. He appointed party members to positions in both groups. Goebbles also gave some powers to the volkisch faction. He named Eugen Horig, a conservative, president of the RkdbK.

Alfred Rosenberg was the leader of the volkisch faction, or the KfdK. The platform of the volkisch "included the idealization of the German peasant, the rejection of all non-traditional aesthetic styles, and a propensity towards racism based on the supposition that artistic expression and ‘blood’ are inextricably linked." Rosenberg, as head of the KfdK, was not as strong as Goebbles- delegating much work to others. However he did receive strong support from Hitler. To compete with Goebbels state cultural organization, Hitler created a party organization, the DBFU, and named Rosenbert the head of the organization.