How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art
Before he was a dictator, Adolf Hitler was a painter. The "Führer" categorized works of art according to his personal taste. Works he hated were branded "degenerate art" and removed from museums.
Modern artworks whose style, artist or subject did not meet with the approval of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists were labeled "degenerate art." From 1937, the Nazis confiscated such works from German museums. In a traveling exhibition, "degenerate art" was held up for public ridicule. Here we see Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Hitler at the original exhibition in Munich.
Hitler had an affinity for Romanticism and 19th century painting and preferred peaceful country scenes. His private collection included works by Cranach, Tintoretto and Bordone. Like his role models Ludwig I. of Bavaria and Frederick the Great, Hitler wanted to manage his own art exhibition at retirement, to be shown in the city of Linz on the River Danube in the "Führer Museum."
The National Socialists were not the first to persecute avant-garde artists, but they took it a step further by banning their works from museums. In 1937, the authorities had over 20,000 art works removed from 101 state-owned German museums. Anything that the Nazis didn't consider edifying to the German people was carted off.
Hitler's national style
Abstract art had no place in Hitler's "national style," as grew clear when the "Great German Art Exhibition" put traditional landscape, historical and nude paintings by artists including Fritz Erler, Hermann Gradl and Franz Xaver Stahl on display in Munich on July 18, 1937. The closer the depicted subject to the actual model was, the more beautiful it was in the eyes of the Führer.
What was considered degenerate
Even those in Hitler's inner circle were highly unsure which artists he approved of. The 1937 "Great German Art Exhibition" and the simultaneous "Degerate Art" exhibition in Munich's Court Garden Arcades brought some clarity. Unwelcome were creative artists of the modern period including Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Pechstein.
Degenerate art on tour
In the "Degerate Art" exhibition, 650 confiscated artworks from 32 German museums were on display, the exhibits equated with sketches by mentally handicapped persons and shown together with photos of crippled persons. The intention: to provoke revulsion and aversion among visitors. Over two million visitors saw the exhibition on its tour of various cities.
The "Degenerate Artworks Confiscation Law" of May 31, 1938 retroactively legalized their unremunerated acquisition by the state. The law remained valid in the postwar years, the allies determining that it had simply been a redistribution of state property. Unlike stolen artworks, pieces that the Nazis labled "degenerate" and had removed from museums can be freely traded today.
The "degenerate art" trade
The confiscated art was taken to storage facilities in Berlin and at Schönhausen Palace. Many works were sold by Hitler's four art merchants: Bernhard A. Böhmer, Karl Buchholz, Hildebrand Gurlitt and Ferdinand Möller. On March 20, 1939 the Berlin fire department burned approximately 5,000 unsold artifacts, calling it an "exercise."
Art hub Switzerland
125 works were earmarked for an auction in Switzerland. A commission charged by Hermann Göring and others with liquefying the "degenerate" art products estimated the minimum bidding prices and commissioned the Fischer Gallery in Lucerne to carry out the auction. Taking place on June 30, 1939, it met with eager interest worldwide.
Much "degenerate art" in the Gurlitt collection
Over 21,000 works of "degenerate art" were confiscated. Estimates on the number subsequently sold differ; sources estimate 6,000 to 10,000. Others were destroyed or disappeared. Hundreds of artworks believed lost turned up in Cornelius Gurlitt's collection — and reignited the discussion.