TO Photograph from 1940 showing three conquering Nazis in Paris with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop. Within a few years, one of these men, Adolf Hitler, died by his own hand; another, Albert Speer, was writing his memoirs in Spandau prison, having eluded a death sentence at the Nuremberg trials. But the third Arno breker, he was alive and free, making sculptures in the new West Germany that in their bombast and iconography echoed those he had made during the Third Reich.
Breker typified the thesis of a remarkable new exhibition in Berlin, that Hitler’s favorite artists and sculptors survived the Third Reich and filled the public spaces of the new Federal Republic of Germany with works of art hardly different from those they had produced between 1933 and 1945.
In 1957, for example, Breker was commissioned to make a sculpture installed outside the Wilhelm-Dörpfeld-Gymnasium, a school in Wuppertal. The result was a larger-than-life bronze of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of war and wisdom, wearing a helmet and ready to throw a spear. “The iconography is the same as in the Nazi era,” says the exhibition’s curator, Wolfgang Brauneis.
Breker had been praised by the leaders of the Third Reich. In 1944, he was on a list of 378 “Gottbegnadeten” or “divinely gifted” artists whom Hitler and Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels exempted from military service. In 1936, Hitler appointed Breker an official state sculptor, giving him a large studio and 43 assistants. He was commissioned to produce two athletic sculptures for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Three other sculptures, The Party, The Army and Striding Horses, were prominently displayed at the entrance to Speer’s New Reich Chancellery in Berlin.
From 1937 to 1944, Breker was among hundreds of German artists whose work was shown at the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Munich, an exhibition designed to show what the National Socialists considered the right kind of art. Much of it praised German sacrifice in WWI or neoclassical heroic sculptures like Breker’s Prometheus.
Goebbels juxtaposed this supposedly great art with its opposite. He ordered another exhibition of the so-called “Degenerate art”(Degenerate art) at the Institute of Archeology in Munich. It collected 650 paintings, sculptures, and prints by 112 primarily German and often Jewish artists, including Georg Grosz, Emile Nolde, Otto Dix, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee.
After the war, it might have been thought that Breker’s status as an image maker for the Nazis would have made him persona non grata in the new German republic. Rather, he benefited from a network of old Nazis: his Pallas Athene in Wuppertal was made possible through the intercession of a “divinely gifted” fellow architect. Friedrich Hetzelt.
Despite being fired as a professor of visual arts in Berlin after being appointed a Nazi traveling companion in 1948, Breker prospered professionally, designing sculptures for the Dusseldorf city hall. He also made busts of political leaders, including Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic. It is true that when the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1981 organized a Breker retrospective, there were protests by anti-Nazi activists. However, four years later, his posthumous reputation was reinforced when the Schloss Nörvenich it was handed over to an Arno Breker Museum that can still be visited today.
Breker was not an unusual case. The Deutsches Historiches Museum exhibition includes more than 300 works of art (tapestries, murals, sculptures) made by Nazi artists or fellow travelers after 1945. Among them are works by Hermann Kaspar to whom Speer commissioned the design of mosaics, frescoes, floors, friezes and wood inlays for the New Reich Chancellery. Hitler was most captivated by the inlay of the oversized desk in the Führer’s study, which, Speer recalled in his memoirs, depicted the mask of Mars, the god of war, behind which a sword was crossed with a spear. “Well, well,” Hitler reportedly told Speer. “When the diplomats sitting across from me at this table see it, they will learn to be afraid.”
After the war, Kaspar received numerous state commissions, including the tapestry of the national coat of arms in the Senate Hall of the Bavarian state parliament. However, what is most surprising is that Kaspar finished the work that he had started under the Third Reich. He began his monumental wall mosaic for the Congress Hall of the German Museum in Munich in 1935, finally completing it in 1955.
Kaspar’s postwar success confirms an observation made by the great German Jewish philosopher Max Horkheimer when he returned from American exile to the University of Frankfurt in the late 1940s. friendly in the middle and enough to make you throw up, “he wrote. “All these people sit there like they did before the Third Reich. As if nothing had happened … they are performing a Phantom Sonata that leaves Strindberg standing. “
Brauneis agrees with this assessment: “In West Germany and Austria, if not East Germany, many of the most successful artists were Nazis.” The ghost sonata continued as if the Holocaust hadn’t happened. The Brauneis exhibition aims to bring to light a forgotten chapter in German history.
The official version, after all, is that West Germany was not a haven for the Nazis and that after 1945 a radical new aesthetic emerged. In fact, a parallel exhibition in the museum tells the story of Documents, the contemporary art show that takes place in Kassel every five years. When Federal President Theodor Heuss inaugurated the first Documenta in 1955, artists who had flourished in the Nazi era were not allowed to exhibit there, as they were deemed unsuitable for the modernist and anti-Nazi self-image of the young republic.
Brauneis argues that the hidden history it reveals undermines that flattering image. “The truth is that these ‘divinely gifted’ artists had close ties to the political-cultural program of the Federal Republic.”
To consider Willy meller. He had created sculptures for the Berlin Olympic stadium and others for the Nazis’ vacation spot in Prora. After the war, Meller prospered professionally, making sculptures for the German postal service, a federal eagle for the Palais Schaumburg in Bonn, then the official residence of the Federal Chancellor. Meller even sculpted a work called The Mourning Woman for the Oberhausen Memorial Hall for the Victims of National Socialism, which opened in 1962. “When The Mourning Woman was unveiled,” says Brauneis, “no one seemed to notice that an artist ‘endowed with divinity’ had been commissioned to make a sculpture for a center dedicated to recording Nazi crimes. “
In fact, Brauneis points out that when there were objections in the press or among art critics to publicly commissioned art in West Germany, their complaints rarely had anything to do with the Nazi credentials of the artists. Rather, what brought the critics, the press, and the public together was hostility towards modern art in the public sphere.
It is as if the grim dialectic instituted by Goebbels in Munich in 1937 – on the one hand the heroic neoclassical German art sanctioned by the Nazis, and on the other the modern art made by “degenerate” Jews and foreigners who often end up being burned by the Nazi officials, was still developing in the first decades of West German existence.
Dissenting voices finally emerged. But what is especially surprising is how much of the postwar work of these Nazi artists survives, barely noticed, in the public spaces of Germany. Raphael Gross, president of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, recalls that when he lived in Frankfurt he passed a sculpture every day on his way to work in the city’s Rothschild park. “Until recently, I did not know that it had been commissioned during the Third Reich and installed after the war.”
The park, named after the Rothschild family who had bought the property in 1837, was seized by the Nazis and their palace was destroyed in an RAF bombing in 1944. Today, the park includes a statue called Der Ring der Statuen depicting seven nude allegorical figures by Georg Kolbe, commissioned in 1941 but erected in 1954.
How strange that a park that only after the war returned to the Jewish name that the Nazis had erased could today display a sculpture of one of Hitler’s favorite artists. In 1939, Kolbe created a bust with the portrait of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, which was given to Hitler as a birthday present. Kolbe, to be fair, was one of the few Third Reich artists to show his work at both the Degenerate Art show in Munich and the Nazi-sanctioned Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung in the city.
What should be the destination of these sculptures, tapestries and murals made by Nazis and fellow travelers? Should they be destroyed, removed from public view, or just contextualized with helpful tags? The first option, I suggest to Gross and Brauneis, should not be ruled out. After all, there is a rich history of destruction of public art. In 2003, a weightlifter struck the giant statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad with a mallet. During the so-called fall of Lenin in 2014, some of the 5,500 Lenin statues were toppled in Ukraine. When the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was dumped on the Bristol Dock last year, historian David Olusoga wrote in The Guardian: “[T]his was not an attack on history. This is history. It is one of those rare historical moments whose arrival means that things can never go back to the way they were. “
Gross and Brauneis believe that the issue is less clear in the German case. “We have to go on a case-by-case basis,” says Gross. “There can be no general rule.” Brauneis maintains that in some cases the explanatory notes are sufficient. “Sometimes instead of destroying the past, we have to learn about it and then live with it, even if that is uncomfortable.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism