Nazi Germany’s radical views on German racial superiority extended into all spheres of society, including the cultural sphere. This zealotry led the Nazi government to attempt to create a new culture, including a new aesthetic that aimed to instill Nazi values on the population. This aesthetic affected many aspects of the cultural sphere, including what styles of art were accepted, what art was allowed to convey, who was allowed to create art, and what artistic styles were primarily influential. The Nazi aesthetic primarily drew from the classical age in both sculpture and architecture, while paintings were more heavily influenced by traditional German art. These restrictions and inspirations show that the Nazi aesthetic was no more than a vehicle for the values of the Nazi state. The aesthetic was created by Nazi political beliefs and values and served as a conduit for these beliefs and values. It outlined artistic criteria, conscious of political considerations, that in turn helped further Nazi political and racial goals, by impressing Nazi values on the population through positive or negative means, extolling the authority of the government, and excluding “undesirables.”
The first step in creating the Nazi aesthetic was deciding what aspects of art would be “good” and therefore encouraged, and what aspects of art would be considered “degenerate” and therefore banned. These decisions resulted in the creation of an aesthetic that conveyed nothing but what the regime wanted its people to consume. What made art “good” was an amalgamation of a multitude of factors including what style of art it was, who was depicted in it, what themes and messages the art conveyed, what influences were present, and who created it. These factors in the Nazi aesthetic manifested themselves as preconditions for public display. Art in the Nazi aesthetic was forced to comply with these criteria limiting the styles and themes present in the Nazi aesthetic. These criteria came in both positive and negative forms, all of which were intended to help impress Nazi values on the masses. Nazi values and racial theory primarily inspired the development of these criteria.
The Nazi aesthetic and its qualifying criteria helped to build the Volksgemeinschaft by removing class barriers in art. The first set of criteria dealt with the visual aspects of art, specifically paintings and sculptures, which the Nazis encouraged artists to show the strength, heroism, and superiority of the German people.
The first impactful criterion was that abstract art was not permitted. In a speech at the opening of the House of German Art, Hitler stated that art that “cannot be understood on their own, but rather require a pompous user manual” would no longer be accepted in Nazi Germany. Rather, art would have to be understood by the average person so that it may have “the most joyful and heartfelt approval of the healthy, broad masses of the people,” an important requirement of Nazi art. This rejection of the abstract resulted in the effective elimination of a number of painting styles in Nazi Germany, including “cubism, dadaism, futurism, and impressionism.” These criteria, which aimed to eliminate abstract art, reflect an important Nazi value in national unity. A conscious goal of the Nazi regime was to encourage the masses of the population to appreciate “German” art, by increasing its accessibility. A collateral effect of this policy was to making art-appreciation less of an elitist pursuit. This prohibition of abstract art furthered the Nazi goal of creating a Volk where there was an equality of opportunity to enjoy all the pleasures of life regardless of class, including the formerly snobbish pleasures of painting and sculpture, assuming the person was deemed racially valuable. The shift to more clear, traditional and figurative art both advanced the nationalist goal and perpetrated the Nazi perception of the world while it simultaneously removed social barriers to art appreciation.
The Nazi aesthetic helped to build the Volksgemeinschaft in a second way as well. The Nazi aesthetic served to “spiritually [indoctrinate]” the nation by to promoting a specific type of nationalism, one that claimed that the nation transcended class. The elimination of abstract art in Nazi Germany made way for the resurgence of traditional, figurative art. Traditional art gave Nazi Germany a vehicle by which they could spread belief in a romanticized vision of historical German life. Traditionalism was an important aspect of Nazi art since the Nazis attempted to depict an idealized, older way of German life that had been destroyed by the degenerate modernism that the Nazi state despised. The Nazi aesthetic in art impressed the value of traditionalism on the German populace by encouraging artists to paint alpine folk scenes that instilled a nostalgic sense of pride and nationalism through simple rural values like hard work.
Leopold Schmutzler’s painting “Working Maidens” (above) exemplified how art could evoke a sense of national unity and traditionalism. This painting portrayed women working in rural Germany while another woman plays an accordion. This painting is straightforward in both visuals and message, making it easy for the average viewer to consume and comprehend. Painted with similarities to the realism style of art of the 1800s, the painting is supposed to inspire feelings of national pride and a longing for past simplicity. It aims to do this by romanticizing traditional aspects of German folk life. The painting depicts an alpine scene, where women dressed in traditional German dresses, called dirndls, both work and celebrate joyfully, accompanied by music from an accordion a traditional German instrument.
Another criterion of the Nazi aesthetic was that Nazi art could not propagate what they called “cultural Bolshevism” in any way but rather had to promote Nazi ideological goals. The Nazis vehemently opposed communism in all forms and used propaganda, including the Nazi aesthetic, to impose this tenet on the population (Waddington 575-576). Cultural Bolshevism in the Nazis’ view constitutes (ironically) art rooted-in-politics, specifically in socialist or communist beliefs. Ernst Kirchner was an artist who was despised by the Nazi party and often used an example of cultural Bolshevism. When the Nazis seized power Kirchner’s art was targeted for removal and used in the Degenerate Art Exhibit of 1937 in Munich. Many of Kirchner’s works of art were culturally Bolshevik in nature, such as his two paintings (below) and “Bauernmahlzeit” (above). This painting exemplifies the concern of Cultural Bolshevism with class warfare and the suffering of the lower classes at the hands of the upper classes and the bourgeoisie. In Bauernmahlzeit these themes manifest themselves in the family of workers as they eat a meal in poverty. Bolshevist art commonly portrayed these themes with portrayals of the lower classes and supposedly inferior races as moral ideals. Kirchner’s painting “Bathers at Mortziburg” shows a number of bathers, both male and female, frolicking nude in and next to a river. The nudity of the figures is a clear rejection of traditionalism while their apparent joy argues that this rejection must be moral.
The Nazi aesthetic did not permit such themes and visual representations and the Nazi aesthetic purged Bolshevist art from public forums. A strict criterion of the Nazi aesthetic was that art could absolutely not reflect any Bolshevik values. The reaction of the Nazi aesthetic against Bolshevik themes in art resulted in a new direction for art in the Nazi state. While still politically rooted, art in the Nazi state portrayed vastly different themes. The Nazi aesthetic replaced communist themes of class warfare and suffering of the lower classes with fascist themes of militarism and national unity, specifically national devotion to the state and military heroics. So too were diverse portrayals of the downtrodden and lower classes replaced with portrayals of the Nazi ideal. This ideal was a German figure that was “radiant, proud” and most importantly possessed physical “strength and health”. (For its part, Soviet art adapted this Nazi icon of proud, physical strength in later years in the form of the noble and victorious soldier.) These qualities and values -strength, health, devotion to the state — were of the utmost importance to the Nazi state, especially in view of the looming military conflicts towards which the Nazis were building (Caplan 168) The inevitability of war caused the Nazi state to emphasize physical fitness for the male population to create “the next generation of… the German army”.
Richard Rudolph’s Kameraden exemplified the Nazi reaction against cultural Bolshevism in art because it is clearly fascist in nature, containing the many values that Nazi art valued including militarism and nationalism. Rudolph consciously incorporated fascist aesthetics into his work, in a way that extols sacrifice and devotion to one’s fellow countrymen. The battleground setting also parallels the political struggle against the communists.
Kameraden depicted a wounded German soldier being carried to safety by two comrades, a German soldier on the left and an Italian soldier on the right. The militaristic scene depicted soldiers acting with valor to save a comrade in defense of the homeland, clearly intending to inspire nationalism. The scene of valor also attempted to inspire loyalty in the nation, serving as a template for how soldiers should act in battle and glorifying those who not only enter into the military but fight with exceptional courage and commitment.
The struggle of a glorious German nation against the degenerate Bolsheviks found expression in other public works of art. The Nazi aesthetic demanded imagery that suggested the supremacy of the German race and political system over other races and political systems. These themes of Nazi artistic propaganda that illustrate the Nazi reaction against cultural Bolshevism are present in the sculpture, pictured below, in the Olympic stadium in Berlin sculpted by Josef Thorak.
This untitled sculpture tightly adheres to the many criteria of the Nazi aesthetic and therefore contains the visual and thematic aspects of the Nazi aesthetic. The sculpture depicts a man, modeled after German boxer Max Schmeling, in an athletic pose. This sculpture depicts the Nazi ideals of masculinity and virility. It does this by depicting an extremely athletic, in-shape fighter. The static image idolized the idealized athletic form as a goal for the rest of the nation. The figure furthers the Nazi state’s anti-Bolshevist stance as it depicts a Nazi ideal of a strong and vigorous German man, in contrast to the degraded figures often portrayed in Bolshevik art, suffering as victims of class oppression.
The Nazi aesthetic clearly displayed classical influences in its architecture as well as art. Nazi architecture was heavily influenced by the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, which manifested itself in many aspects of architecture from structural design to decoration. The prominence of columns, which were frequently fluted and topped with stylized capitals, clearly reflects the classical influence in the Nazi aesthetic (Hartt 146-147). In addition, Nazi architecture frequently contained friezes and cornices, prominent features of ancient Mediterranean architecture (Gardner 120-121). The Nazis prominently display classical aspects of architecture in the Nazi honor temples. The Nazis constructed these memorials in honor of the early National Socialists who died in the Beer Hall Putsch. The square, fluted columns with capitals on top borrow from famous classical buildings of antiquity, such as the Parthenon.
Other Nazi buildings also reflect classical architecture, including influences from the Roman Empire. The Fuhrerbau, the Nazi headquarters in Munich, contained a number of classical and Roman architectural facets. The porticos at the entrances of the building replicate uniquely classical aspects, most notably present in the Temple of Mars Ultor in Rome. The windows and decorations of the building suggest a Roman past. The arched windows stacked directly on top of each other, floor by floor, call to mind similarities with Roman architecture. Roman architecture often centered around domes and arches, the latter of which frequently was incorporated buildings across the Empire, such as the Church of St. Simon in modern-day Syria. The stacking of arches on top of each other was also distinctly Roman, most famously incorporated into the Colosseum in Rome.
These visual allusions to the ancient architectures of Greece and Rome are a deliberate attempt by the Nazis to compare the power of modern Germany to the imperial power of Rome or Alexander. Just as the Romans spread their empire across much of Europe through a formidable army, the Nazis also hoped to build a vast military to dominate the continent. No symbol of this affinity between the ancient Roman empire and the Nazi state is more direct than the Nazi use of the eagle decoration. This motif overtly links Nazi Germany to Rome and its legions which literally carried an eagle on their standards, thus “link[ing] the legacies and lineages so as to justify their claims of authority and identity.” By incorporating the eagle into the Nazi aesthetic, the Nazis leveraged the symbolism of the Imperial Eagles into the Nazi aesthetic and state. The Roman Aquila, or Eagle, was a prominent military symbol in ancient Rome that was appropriated first by the Holy Roman Empire, then by later European Governments, including Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany appropriated the symbol of the eagle as a way to claim a militant history and emphasize military prowess. Nevertheless, even the classical influences on the Nazi aesthetic were not free from political considerations. By incorporating classical architectural aspects and symbols into the Nazi aesthetic, the Nazi Government was attempting to legitimize the state’s claims to a classical lineage. The desire for such a classical lineage derived from the militant nature of Nazi Germany and its self-aggrandizing racial and cultural beliefs. The Nazi state consciously sought validation for its program of ethnic and racial superiority by appropriating symbols of enduring strength and stability. Moreover, since the word fascism derives from the fasces carried as a symbol of Roman power, the use of Roman statuary and architecture suggested a permanence that the young Nazi state did not actually possess. These emphases on race and military kept Rome as the ideal to which the Nazi state was to strive. The Nazi aesthetic was therefore used as a means to tie the history and lineage of Nazi Germany to that of Rome and fulfill this agenda.
Racial theory was critically important in relation to determining who could create art and who could not. As discussed by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, and Wilhelm Furtwangler, the conductor of the Berlin State Opera, a major concern for the Nazi Government was who was creating art in the Nazi state. For the Nazis, while purging the artistic community of undesired individuals was important, true artistry was second in importance to race. According to the government “Art must not only be good, it must also appear to be connected with the people” meaning that only an artist who can truly connect with the people should be able to create art. For Nazis, only German art created by a German could connect with the people or Volk. Under the pretense of concern for the state of art, the Nazi government was able to use the Nazi aesthetic to drive “undesirables” farther to the outskirts of society thus furthering the Nazi racial policy. In the circular reasoning of Nazi worldview, racially superior Germans were the natural masters of the world. Degenerate art, particularly art by racial or political inferiors like Slavs and Bolsheviks, could only serve to detract or diminish from the Germanic ideals. Thus, only the racially pure could promote the Nazi Aesthetic by producing art.
The Nazi aesthetic was an art style born of the beliefs and values of the Nazi state. Serving as a vehicle that the Nazi state could use to accomplish political goals, such as impressing values of duty and sacrifice on the population, excluding undesirables, or promoting state authority, the values that drove the Nazi aesthetic were primarily political rather than artistic. This imperative caused art to become homogenous and heavy-handed in its visual and thematic aspects, as artists attempted to meet the strict criteria laid out by the Nazi Government.
For Further Reading
Waddington, Lorna L. “The Anti-Komintern and Nazi Anti-Bolshevik Propaganda in the 1930s.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 42, no. 4, 2007, pp. 573–594., doi:10.1177/0022009407081488. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30036470?seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents
Pinthus, Kurt. “Culture Inside Nazi Germany.” The American Scholar, vol. 9, no. 4, 1940, pp. 483–498. Jstore, www.jstor.org/stable/41204497?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
Roseneld, Gavriel D. “Architecture and the Memory of Nazism in Postwar Munich.” German Politics and Society, vol. 16, no. 4, 1998, doi:10.3167/104503098782487059. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23737287?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Starr, Joshua. “Jewish Cultural Property under Nazi Control.” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan. 1950, pp. 27–48. Jstore, www.jstor.org/stable/4464855?read-now=1&seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents.
Carsten Strathausen (1999) Nazi aesthetics, Culture, Theory and Critique, 42:1, 5-19, DOI: 10.1080/14735789909391486
Edwards, Catharine. Roman Presences: Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=v8iW8C7eE3YC&oi=fnd&pg=PA221&dq=nazi germany and rome&ots=Ajzva48qEe&sig=muwAnrXmJy3Fo7F8tUJrWHuKyMc#v=onepage&q=nazi germany and rome&f=false.
Petropoulos, Jonathan. The Faustian Bargain: the Art World in Nazi Germany. Penguin, 2001, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=FyXoCwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=Nazi art&ots=rTuM75RIYc&sig=_Wpw_YJ-Pqhjn9qC6zZ9W8haI1c#v=onepage&q=Nazi art&f=false.
CAPLAN, JANE. NAZI GERMANY: a Very Short Introduction. OXFORD UNIV PRESS, 2019.
Stratigakos, Despina. Hitler at Home. Yale University Press, 2017.
GHDI – Document, germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=1577.
“Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression.” Avalon Project – Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/2030-ps.asp.
GHDI – Document, germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=1578.
GHDI – Document, germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=1574.