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Nazi art

Jochen Kürten / hw
June 3, 2013

It's still a highly sensitive issue in Germany: What to do with art that was commissioned by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. More German museums are beginning to confront their own role during the period.

Ferdinand Spiegel (1879-1950) "Arbeitskameraden,“ c. 1940
Image: CTW/Andreas Bestle

Should Nazi art be exhibited? For a long time in post-war Germany, the answer was a clear and unequivocal no.

Many people didn't want to deal with the propagandistic art of a murderous regime because it reminded them of their own complicity. Others didn't want it shown because they themselves had been victims of the Holocaust.

Another argument for not publicly displaying Nazi art was that is was pure propaganda with no artistic value whatsoever.

Emotionally charged issue

The result was that National Socialist art wasn't dealt with during the 1950s and 60s. Then, by the end of the 1960s, more people began to call for an open - and above all, scholarly - handling of such works.

Exhibitions in Frankfurt, Munich, Essen, and Berlin provided a critical examination of Nazi art. Later, state museums began to investigate how their own regional institutions had behaved between 1933 and 1945 - often resulting in emotionally charged debates.

Friedrich Roland (Bedrich) Watzka's
Clear examples of Nazi propaganda include Friedrich Roland (Bedrich) Watzka's "Fire Free" (c. 1942)Image: CTW/Andreas Bestle

Such debates ultimately crystallized around one question: Should this type of art be exhibited or locked away in depots?

Currently, a new attitude towards Nazi art in Germany can be observed in the city of Würzburg in south-eastern Germany.

Over the past few weeks, around 90 works of art purchased by the city during the Nazi dictatorship have been on show as part of an exhibition titled "Tradition and Propaganda - a Review" at the Museum im Kulturspeicher.

"Now there is a generation that is taking responsibility for an objective, sober handling of the subject. It's a generational shift and it can be applied to the whole issue of National Socialism in general," curator Bettina Kess told DW.

It's no coincidence that the Bavarian city is choosing to deal with its past now. No other German community purchased, collected and exhibited as much art during the Third Reich as Würzburg did.

It is, Kess explained, "on the one hand a piece of regional history, on the other a sign of societal change far beyond the examination of art."

Playing the victim

Würzburg was almost completely destroyed during one night of bombing on March 16, 1945 and the event, for obvious reasons, had a lasting impact on the local community's psyche.

"For a long time, people viewed themselves as the victims of the Allied attack and it's only been in the past few years that people have begun to re-examine how they think about that day," Kess said. "People also began to question the wider context of the event. The city can no longer define itself by playing the victim."

Konigstrasse in Berlin pictured after an Allied bombing campaign in September 1945
Many German cities, including Berlin (pictured here in 1945), were destroyed by Allied bombingImage: bpk/Herbert Hensky

The city leaders, Kess and her fellow campaigners refer to German historian Norbert Frei, who several years ago began calling for a new handling of the subject.

"For most of us, the Hitler era is not a past we experienced, but history: History, not memory," wrote Frei in his 2009 book "1945 und wir" ("1945 and Us").

He argued that not only a willingness to remember, but also to know, was necessary and he criticized the instrumentalization of the German culture of remembrance as part of the search for a political identity.

Look first, judge later

Frei is in favor of a differentiated, critical handling of Germany's National Socialist past as opposed the mere demonization of the Nazis.

And that's how the exhibition can be interpreted: People should first see what Nazi art and culture encompassed before passing judgment.

A similar debate has also been raging on whether or not to allow Nazi propaganda films to be shown. Art is especially revealing in this context since it isn't a direct form of propaganda.

Philipp Franck's
Harmless idyll or something more sinister? Philipp Franck's "Spring in the Park" (1943)Image: CTW/Andreas Bestle

The ideological intention of sculptures depicting menacing German soldiers in steel helmets, pictures of German women carrying children and idyllic rural scenery is clear.

But other artworks are more complex. The exhibition in Würzburg includes many paintings of dulcet landscapes, mountain scenery and sylvan solitude.

Forging new perspectives

That is exactly the point of the exhibition, Kess said. Namely, "that many artworks were produced during the period that appear harmless at first glance. Initially they are completely innocuous; they depict primitive, rural idylls - unpopulated idylls."

The works present an ideal world that, during the 1940s, no longer existed. They need to be viewed in their proper historical context if they are to be properly evaluated.

Bettina Kess
"A generational shift has occured concerning methods of approaching National Socialism," says Bettina KessImage: DW/J. Kürten

This new treatment of National Socialist art and the role that museums, public collections, cities and communities played in the field during the third Reich, is not only evident in Würzburg.

From June 13-15, Bettina Kess will be taking part in a national conference in Berlin on the role of German museums under National Socialism. It could be the beginning of a much wider debate.

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