Nazi Germany Hosts the

A display of modern art confiscated by the Nazis from German museums and labeled “degenerate” foreshadowed the later purging of artists by Adolf Hitler’s regime.

Summary of Event

The Degenerate Art Exhibition was opened in Munich on July 19, 1937, by Adolf Ziegler, the president of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts, one day after Adolf Hitler had dedicated the city’s House of German Art and the first of eight official “Great German Art Exhibitions.” Speaking in the city where the Nazi movement was born and shortly before the height of his prewar success, Hitler described the House of German Art House of German Art as a temple for an eternal German art that would not welcome modern art. Ziegler’s speech, which summarized thoughts previously articulated by Hitler and his minions, condemned modern art as “the monstrous offspring of insanity, impudence, ineptitude, and sheer degeneracy.” These complementary speeches and exhibits clarified the role of art in the Third Reich; they established the parameters for what would be officially promoted and made clear what would be condemned, removed from public view, and concealed or destroyed. [kw]Nazi Germany Hosts the Degenerate Art Exhibition (July 19-Nov. 30, 1937)
[kw]Germany Hosts the Degenerate Art Exhibition, Nazi (July 19-Nov. 30, 1937)
[kw]Degenerate Art Exhibition, Nazi Germany Hosts the (July 19-Nov. 30, 1937)
[kw]Art Exhibition, Nazi Germany Hosts the Degenerate (July 19-Nov. 30, 1937)
[kw]Exhibition, Nazi Germany Hosts the Degenerate Art (July 19-Nov. 30, 1937)
Modern art
Nazi Germany;art
Degenerate Art Exhibition
[g]Germany;July 19-Nov. 30, 1937: Nazi Germany Hosts the Degenerate Art Exhibition[09540]
[c]Arts;July 19-Nov. 30, 1937: Nazi Germany Hosts the Degenerate Art Exhibition[09540]
Hitler, Adolf
[p]Hitler, Adolf;Degenerate Art Exhibition
Goebbels, Joseph
Ziegler, Adolf
Dix, Otto
Grosz, George
Kandinsky, Wassily
Nolde, Emil

Visitors to the Degenerate Art Exhibition viewed a display of more than 650 modern paintings, prints, books, and sculptures that had been hastily removed from thirty-two public museums in Germany by Ziegler, with the authorization of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. Propaganda;Nazi Germany The works were carefully displayed in the most defamatory manner possible: Some paintings were stripped of their frames, and the labels that provided information about the works, including their original purchase prices, were often erroneous and simply tacked or pasted in place. Scattered haphazardly throughout the exhibit were phrases and slogans denigrating modern art, quotations by avant-garde artists taken out of context and selected to seem threatening or ridiculous, and passages about the nature of art and its place in Nazi Germany by Hitler and other party functionaries. The exhibition appeared crowded, jumbled, and claustrophobic—an effect the organizers wished to impress on the viewer, because the event reflected a concept of modern art as both degenerate and the product of artistic incompetence. In the opinion of Hitler, the modern art that had flourished in Germany before World War I and then during the 1920’s was a symptom not only of political and cultural decline but also of racial, physical, and mental pathology.

Art confiscated for the Degenerate Art Exhibition was arranged in nine loosely themed groups. Visitors saw first Ludwig Gies’s Crucified Christ, a war memorial that had once hung in Lübeck Cathedral and that the Nazis branded a horror, and then Emil Nolde’s multipaneled altarpiece The Life of Christ, both of which purportedly mocked Christianity. Next came paintings by Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall and Ludwig Meidner. The third room housed more than seventy pieces, among them nudes by Karl Hofer, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Otto Mueller headed “An Insult to German Womanhood,” images of World War I labeled “Deliberate Sabotage of National Defense,” and portrayals of peasants by Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff that were identified as “German Farmers: A Yiddish View.” Singled out for ridicule was Dadaist art; on the so-called Dada wall, works by Kurt Schwitters and Paul Klee appeared beneath a quotation from George Grosz and against a backdrop copied from an abstract but hardly Dadaist painting by Wassily Kandinsky. Similar displays filled the remaining rooms. Prominently featured works included townscapes by Lyonel Feininger, compositions by professors and teachers of art who allegedly were corrupting German youth, etchings by Otto Dix, and miscellaneous works by Klee, Schmidt-Rottluff, George Grosz, and Max Beckmann, among others. In the lobby stood Otto Freundlich’s sculpture The New Man, New Man, The (Freundlich) which appeared on the cover of the exhibition guide.

The names of the 112 artists exhibited testify to the dynamism of modern German art during the first third of the twentieth century; the artists listed represented movements as diverse as the Bauhaus style, cubism, Dadaism, expressionism, the New Objectivity, and abstractionism. Artists represented with ten or more works, excluding those named above, included Erich Heckel, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Pechstein, and Christian Rohlfs. The selection criteria, however, remain obscure. Despite the Nazi insistence that modern art was foreign, Jewish, or left-wing in inspiration, only six artists were Jewish, and non-German artists were rare. Troublesome was the inclusion of works by the expressionist Franz Marc, who had been killed in World War I; the German Officers’ Federation protested the use of his work, and his Tower of Blue Horses was removed from the exhibit. The presence of works by Nolde, a Nazi Party member whose art had once found favor with such high officials as Goebbels, was controversial for similar reasons. The case of the sculptor Rudolf Belling was particularly ironic; Belling had two works shown in the Degenerate Art Exhibition at the same time his bronze of the boxer Max Schmeling stood in the nearby Great German Art Exhibition. Great German Art Exhibition

More than two million people visited the Degenerate Art Exhibition, making it the most popular exhibit of modern art ever; less than one-fifth as many viewers attended the Great German Art Exhibition. From February, 1938, to April, 1941, the Degenerate Art Exhibition traveled to twelve cities in Germany and Austria, usually under the patronage of local branches of the Nazi Party. Although the traveling exhibition was changed and reduced in size from the Munich showing, it also attracted large audiences, with attendance in excess of one hundred thousand in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, and Vienna, and a total of more than one million additional viewers. Added in Düsseldorf was an exhibit of “degenerate music” that excoriated jazz, so-called Jewish music, and the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Kurt Weill, to name a few. A catalog accompanied the touring exhibition, although none was available for the original in Munich. The catalog juxtaposed a programmatic statement and excerpts from Hitler’s speeches with quotations from the exhibit’s walls and photographs of exhibited works. Readers were invited, in one notorious instance, to view three drawings and guess which was by an inmate of an insane asylum and which were by a modern artist.

The brand of art favored by the Nazis was made evident at the Great German Art Exhibition. Displayed were almost nine hundred paintings and sculptures by Arno Breker, Josef Thorak, Ziegler, and other politically acceptable artists. Landscapes, portraits of Nazi officials, and images of idealized men and women, farmers and artisans, and public buildings or works predominated. The large number of male and female nudes achieved what George L. Mosse has called “beauty without sensuality.” Also shown was In the Beginning Was the Word, an image by Hermann Otto Hoyer of Hitler speaking before his earliest followers. Notable by their absence were urban scenes and any art that raised questions or stimulated thought. In brief, the Great German Art Exhibition presented idealized images of Nazi ideology, just as the Degenerate Art Exhibition summarized, again with images, not only what the Nazi regime rejected as diseased but also what it intended to purge from German cultural life.


The Degenerate Art Exhibition and the Great German Art Exhibition cannot be understood apart from Hitler’s ideas concerning art. According to his worldview, the Nazi movement stood at the forefront of a cultural revolution destined to usher in a creative new age, that of the thousand-year Reich, and the arts were to play a formative role in the revolution’s genesis. Nazi doctrine held that artistic creativity and inspiration originated in the Volkgemeinschaft, the racial community, and that the duty of the artist was to express what Hitler called the essential character of that people or community; the artist’s task was therefore not to create images for other artists to admire but rather to present an ideal for the people to emulate. Further, said Hitler, art should embody eternal values and be easily understood and appreciated by the average person. However specific their formulation by the Nazis, these ideas derived from racist concepts long in circulation and from an ongoing debate that had set in opposition so-called pure German art and modern art.

The Munich Degenerate Art Exhibition completed a series of attacks launched by Hitler and his government after 1933 on artists, teachers, collectors, museum administrators, and critics connected with avant-garde movements. Such actions had been anticipated by a 1933 report by Goebbels that had proposed a five-point program for the purge of modern art and were in keeping with the Nazi policy of Gleichschaltung, Gleichschaltung the goal of which was ideological and administrative control of all German associations, institutions, and aspects of individual life. Artists whose work was categorized as degenerate—including, for the most part, those even remotely associated with expressionism, the German defeat in World War I, the Weimar Republic, Jewishness, Marxism, or abstract art—were excluded from membership in the Reich Chamber of Culture and therefore forbidden to practice their profession. Likewise, the modern wing of the National Gallery in Berlin was closed in 1936, the same year that Goebbels banned art criticism.

Not content merely to silence modern artists and their advocates, the Nazis organized nearly a dozen exhibitions slandering modern art in the period 1933-1937, giving the shows such titles as The Chamber of Horrors and Images of Cultural Bolshevism. Indeed, the prototype for the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition may have been a Dresden exhibition of the same title organized in 1933 and shown at eight other locations, including the 1935 Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. Before long, however, ridicule gave way to a systematic purge. While the Degenerate Art Exhibition still hung in Munich, a committee appointed by Goebbels and headed by Ziegler undertook additional confiscations, and some sixteen thousand pieces of modern art by more than a thousand artists were seized and removed to Berlin for storage. A few hundred, including a self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh, were sold abroad at auctions or exchanged from 1939 to 1941. Approximately five thousand other works of art were reportedly burned at the central fire department in Berlin in March, 1939, while thousands more simply vanished.

The fate of the artists classified as degenerate by the Third Reich was similarly grim. Those who were able, including Max Bechmann, Jacob Feininger, and George Grosz, left Germany. Some committed suicide; Otto Freundlich and others died in concentration camps. Many, including Nolde, retreated into silence after having lost their teaching or other public positions. Following the end of World War II, those who survived often resumed their work, taking on teaching and administrative positions both in the East and the West.

In the long term, of course, the Nazis failed. The Thousand Year Reich lasted but twelve years, and its creators succeeded neither in imposing their ideology and their concept of art on Germany and Europe nor in purging Germany of modern art. Museum visitors today are thus able to view paintings and sculptures by the expressionists, the New Objectivists, the Surrealists, and the members of other schools attacked by the Nazis. In contrast, the officially sanctioned art of the Third Reich is all but unknown. Nevertheless, the Degenerate Art Exhibition should be not forgotten, for it is an example of what is possible when a government manipulates for its own purposes the bewilderment or the discomfort felt by many in the presence of modern art. Art;modern
Modern art
Nazi Germany;art
Degenerate Art Exhibition

Further Reading

  • Adam, Peter. Art of the Third Reich. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992. Understanding the Degenerate Art Exhibition is impossible without an understanding of the exhibit’s context, the official Nazi art discussed and reproduced in this book.
  • Barron, Stephanie, ed. Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991. Essential source; its ten essays by mostly German authors include a complete re-creation of the exhibit, photographs of works exhibited, a facsimile and translation of the 1937 catalog, and an outstanding bibliography of literature, mostly in German.
  • _______. Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1997. Barron selected twenty-three famous artists exiled from Austria and Germany in the period 1933-1945. More than three hundred images and essays from nineteen contributors are compiled in this stunning catalog.
  • Crockett, Dennis. “The Most Famous Painting of the ’Golden Twenties’? Otto Dix and the Trench Affair.” Art Journal 51 (Spring, 1992): 72-80. Solid discussion of the controversy raised during the Weimar period by a painting shown at the Degenerate Art Exhibition.
  • Dunlop, Ian. The Shock of the New: Seven Historic Exhibitions of Modern Art. New York: American Heritage, 1972. Final chapter deals with the Degenerate Art Exhibition. Extensive quotes from German documents and reviews in the German press make this a valuable source.
  • Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Carefully crafted and thorough analysis of Hitler’s rise to power and the development of his social and economic policies. Argues that Hitler’s vision of a new, “pure” Europe could only have been created by war.
  • Grosshans, Henry. Hitler and the Artists. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1983. A general account of the development of Hitler’s ideas on art and culture, with a chapter on the Degenerate Art Exhibition.
  • Hinz, Berthold. Art in the Third Reich. Translated by Robert Kimber and Rita Kimber. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979. Well-illustrated study, with chapters that treat the Great German Art Exhibition, the Degenerate Art Exhibition, and Nazi concepts of art.
  • Sax, Benjamin, and Dieter Kuntz, eds. Inside Hitler’s Germany: A Documentary History of the Third Reich. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1992. Contains a translation of Hitler’s speech opening the House of German Art.

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