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Why Hitler stole paintings - and hid in one

Sarah Hucal, Berlin
November 19, 2015

Hitler hated non-traditional art so much that he confiscated thousands of works. Artists were shamed, modern pieces burned or sold for cash. A Berlin exhibition examines what Hitler did to art and why it matters.

Die Schwarzen Jahre. Geschichten einer Sammlung. 1933 – 1945, 21. November 2015 - 31. Juli 2016
Image: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

When it opened in 1919, the Kronprinzenpalais, the modern art wing of Berlin's National Gallery, could hardly have been more cutting-edge. It seemed as if the German capital would continue to be a hotbed for contemporary works. Few could have known that its success, like the Weimar Republic itself, would be short-lived.

When Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist regime came into power in 1933, the former painter, twice rejected from Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts, pledged to do away with modern art, a genre he despised. Artists were forced to conform or flee as the Nazis spread their reign of terror over the continent.

Yet many modern artworks from this period remain, and have a story to tell. Starting Saturday (21.11.2015), over 60 works will be on display in Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof museum in the exhibition "The Black Years: Histories of a Collection: 1933-1945," while the New National Gallery, the collection's permanent home, undergoes renovations.

"I think it's the obligation of our museum to go into the collection and to have a kind of open discussion about it," curator Dieter Scholz told DW.

An artistic statement against fascism

Meant to evoke destruction and mourning, the exhibition's title draws on inspiration from Karl Hofer's repainted piece, "The Black Rooms (Version II)" (1943). The original, painted in 1928, was destroyed in an Allied bombing, prompting the determined artist to create a second version.

"It's a statement against fascism," said Scholz. "Hofer says, 'I don't accept that it's been destroyed because of the Nazi dictatorship.'" Hofer was head of the Berlin Art Academy, and like many of his peers, was removed from his post when Hitler came to power in 1933.

Two nearly identical self-portraits of Hofer are also on display. The original, painted in 1935 was confiscated from the gallery in the initial raid on art the Nazi's considered to be entartet, or "degenerate," a term applied to all modern works, from expressionist to surrealist.

"Hitler hated every kind of art which was against the traditional norm," said art historian Meike Hoffmann at the "degenerate art" research center at Berlin's Freie Universität.

According to the historian, the development of a wide variety of styles during the period symbolized individualism and democracy, which were at odds with the regime's conformist mentality.

Nazis confiscated some 16,000 works

The portrait was one of 500 artworks that the regime confiscated from the National Gallery at the direction of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, ironically an erstwhile writer of expressionist literature.

Along with approximately 600 works, it became part of the "degenerate" art exhibition put on by the regime in Munich in 1937. Attended by 2 million people, many of whom, according to Scholz, were likely forced to visit, the show featured pieces by well-known 20th-century artists, such as Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinski and Marc Chagall. The works hung askew with racial slurs and Nazi rhetoric scrawled on the walls.

All in all, 16,000 "degenerate" artworks were confiscated. Those considered to be of value were sold at auction. Hofer's original portrait was sold to an American collector and returned to the museum only last year.

People were replaced with landscapes

At the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets in 1999, museums were urged to re-examine their collections for art that may have been looted or confiscated during this period. It's a discussion that has been present in German museums in recent years, said Scholz, adding that some works have still not been given back to their rightful heirs. "I thought it would be a good time to make a statement by bringing these works together."

But by the end of 1933, the museum had removed most paintings depicting people in favor of neutral still lifes and landscapes. Otto Dix fell from glory after the Weimar Republic and was frequently targeted by the regime. He managed to sell landscapes during this period, yet continued to paint his controversial war paintings in secrecy.

"Flanders" features near-death soldiers slumped in trenches, the kind of anti-patriotic work the Nazis detested. "It's not the image of a heroic soldier in war," said Scholz. "In my eyes it is a direct critique."

In 1937, the museum stopped collecting works from living artists altogether. For this reason, the collection did not include any portraits of Hitler, or so it was thought, until Scholz and his colleagues made a curious discovery.

Hitler discovered under the paint

Erwin Hahs, who was persecuted by the Nazis, was commissioned to paint a portrait of the dictator for a school in Stendal. He painted Hitler in front of smoldering red-hued ruins, and the piece was rejected by the administration. Hahs reused the canvas, painting a nude and giving it the title "Great Requiem."

Tipped off by a letter from the artist's widow while preparing for the exhibition, the curators x-rayed the painting and found the hidden Hitler underneath.

"Exhibitions of works from this time are important for their ability to raise questions about the past," said Hoffmann. "There is so much we don't know about the period of the Third Reich, and we still have a lot of research to do to prevent the same from happening in the future."