Ostracised, Persecuted, Destroyed – “Degenerate Art” in National Socialism

By Lena Hennewig (Research Assistant)

Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Paul Gauguin, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Käthe Kollwitz, Pablo Picasso – many important artists who are indispensable in the art and cultural history of Germany, Europe and the world were ostracised and persecuted by the National Socialist regime as "degenerate". They were banned from artistic work, ostracised, removed from office, expelled from Germany and Europe. Their works of art were confiscated, sold, painted over, or destroyed.

Franz Marc, one of the most famous and successful painters of the 20th century, was ostracised as a “degenerate” by the National Socialists because of his Expressionist art. Franz Marc: Blaues Pferdchen, Kinderbild (Little Blue Horse, Children's Painting) (1912), oil on canvas, 58 x 73 cm, Saarlandmuseum (Saarland Museum), Stiftung Saarländischer Kulturbesitz ©Bildarchiv Saarlandmuseum (Saarland Cultural Heritage Foundation ©Image Library Saarland Museum) (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

The reasons why artistic products were defamed as “degenerate” were manifold: on the one hand, it was stylistic or substantive aspects that the National Socialists intended to eliminate. On the other hand, the origin, religion, and political sentiment of the artists played a central role in National Socialist cultural policy. Numerous modern styles were counted among the art movements identified as "un-German", such as Expressionism and Impressionism, Dadaism, Cubism and Surrealism.

Works that were taken to be too pessimistic or too pacific were also ostracised. They contradicted the National Socialist notions of academically monumental, naturalistic art. International influences were to be banned from the "German-Aryan" art of Nazi Germany. Instead, the regime-compliant artist had to orient himself to the German art of the 19th century.

Among other things, this is how National Socialist (cultural) policy imagined "German art": monumental, representational, national: Hans Toepper: Der Nibelungenring XII - Walhalls Ende (Götterdämmerung) (Valhalla's End [Twilight of the Gods]) picture postcard (stamped 1941), Historische Bildpostkarten - Universität Osnabrück (Historical picture postcards - University of Osnabrück (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Within National Socialist party politics, however, there was not always agreement on what and how “German art” should be: Expressionism had initially been recognised by Alfred Rosenberg, the leading ideologue of the NSDAP, as a legitimate and pioneering form of German art. In the end, it was declared and persecuted as "non-German". 

The Persecution of “Un-German” Art

However, there seemed to be a broad consensus on the question of how to deal with "un-German art": the persecution of artists and works of art that did not correspond to the National Socialist ideal of art and beauty, which did not correspond to the national socialists' view of the world, began before 1933 with the increase in political power of the NSDAP in numerous States of the Weimar Republic and was to last until the end of the Nazi state. Shortly after the NSDAP took part in a state government in Thuringia for the first time in 1930, a mural by Oskar Schlemmer in the Weimarer Werkstattgebäude des Bauhauses (Weimar Bauhaus workshop building) was declared “un-German” and painted over at the behest of the Nazi Education Minister Wilhelm Frick. The Weimar Bauhaus was closed shortly thereafter, and numerous modern works were removed from the Weimarer Schlossmuseum (Weimar Castle Museum). 

Wassily Kandinsky, one of the most famous and successful painters of the 20th century, was ostracised as “degenerate” by the National Socialists because of his expressionist-abstract art. Wassily Kandinsky: Der blaue Bogen (The Blue Bow) (1938), oil painting, 26.5 x 48.5 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel © Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (Basel Art Museum © Image Gallery Photo Marburg (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugang)

With the beginning of the National Socialist dictatorship in 1933, the first wave of artists' persecution, launched by the NSDAP in Weimar, continued to pick up speed: in addition to the burning of books by the Nationalsozialistischen Deutschen Studentenbundes (National Socialist German Student Union) (NSDStB) on 10 May 1933 on what is now Berlin's Bebelplatz and in 21 other German cities, and the forfeiture of "degenerate" music, from this year onwards there was a ban on the purchase of works by "non-Aryan" artists, as well as a ban on the employment of selected modern artists. In addition, a number of museum and university employees who had supported modern art in their work were dismissed without notice and replaced by comrades of the NSDAP. For example, Ludwig Justi, director of the Berliner Nationalgalerie (Berlin National Gallery) since 1909, was removed from office in 1933 and replaced by Alois Schardt, who in turn had to vacate his seat after barely half a year. He was succeeded by Eberhard Hanfstaengl, an art historian who was initially classified as faithful to the ideology, but then turned out to be too moderate for the National Socialist party leadership. 

Art's "Chamber of Horrors": National Socialist Propaganda Exhibitions 

From 1933 onwards, the first defamatory art exhibitions took place in various German cities: the exhibitions, which ran under various titles such as “Kulturbolschewistische Bilder” ("Cultural Bolshevistic Paintings") (Mannheim), “Kunst, die nicht aus unserer Seele kam” ("Art that Didn't Come from Our Soul") (Chemnitz) or “Schreckenskammer” ("Chamber of Horrors") (Halle an der Saale), showed the modern works of art removed from museums and galleries in an initial “purge”. These served as a cautionary tale for the supposed cultural decline of Germany and Europe. 

However, the propagandistic art exhibitions should not only discredit modern art and its creators. The Weimar Republic and its (cultural) policy was to also be publicly condemned and the still young Nazi state thereby politically strengthened and stabilised. 

Introduction by the Lord Mayor of Dresden for the exhibition ("Entartete Kunst") “Degenerate Art” in the atrium of the City Hall in Dresden (1933), Deutsche Fotothek © slub / Deutsche Fotothek (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugang)

Under the title "Degenerate Art", a defamatory art exhibition, which was opened in September 1933, for the first time traded as "un-German" identified works of the Dresden art collections. The Dresden exhibition was regarded as particularly successful and attracted many visitors, including Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring and other high-ranking functionaries of the NSDAP. Adolf Hitler also took a look at the Dresden exhibits, but he did so only after the exhibition had ended, when the works had already been stored.

The crowds of visitors were enormous, not least because of this the Dresden exhibition "Degenerate Art" was considered a great success: Scene from the documentary film "Zeitdokumente: Ausstellung 'Entartete Kunst' im Lichthof des Dresdner Rathauses": Besucher der Ausstellung "Spiegelbilder des Verfalls in der Kunst" vor dem Gemälde (Der Schützengraben" ("Contemporary Documents: Degenerate Art' exhibition in the Atrium of Dresden Town Hall": Visitors to the Exhibition "Reflections of Decay in Art" in front of the painting "The Trench") by Otto Dix, 23 September - 18 October 1933, Deutsche Fotothek © SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugang)

The Dresden exhibition was considered successful not only because of the high number of visitors. It was also perceived as particularly exemplary in terms of curatorial content by the National Socialist regime: for example, the deliberately chaotic hanging of the works caused an aesthetic aversion and overwhelming demand on the part of the visitors – feelings which the Nazi regime certainly liked to see associated with modern art and the Weimar Republic. To carry on the slander of artistic activity associated with the success of the exhibition, the propaganda show was sent through the German Reich by order of Adolf Hitler as a travelling exhibition. 

The Munich Exhibition of "Entartete Kunst" in 1937

A second wave of Nazi persecution followed from 1936 onwards: they imposed a general ban on modern art and closed the world's first public collection of modern art with the Neue Abteilung der Berliner Nationalgalerie im Kronprinzenpalais (New Department of the Berlin National Gallery in the Palace of the Crown Prince). In 1937 another, larger and still very present in (art) historiography, defamatory exhibition of the Reich propaganda office took place. Under the title "Entartete Kunst" taken from the Dresden exhibition, more than 700 "alien" works by 120 artists from 32 German museums were exposed to the mockery of politics, the press and the population in the Munich Hofgarten-Arkaden. More than two million visitors came.

Otto Freundlich's "Großer Kopf" ("Big Head") was mocked as one of the protagonists of the Nazi German art destruction on the front line: exhibition guide "Entartete Kunst", Munich, 19.7.-30.9.1937 (extended until 30.11.1937); Berlin, Berlinische Galerie (Berlin Gallery), Photo: Anja Elisabeth Witte © Berlinische Galerie (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugang)

Not only the title of the exhibition was borrowed from the Dresden show: Many of the Dresden works were also part of the Munich exhibition. The staging of the exhibits was adapted, and the surrounding propaganda continued. The Munich exhibition was also a touring exhibition, which was held in 21 cities until 1941. 

At the same time, the "Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung" ("Great German Art Exhibition") was also held in Munich, which was intended to show the National Socialist (cultural) ideals and convey them to the public. Carefully curated and clearly hung, regime-compliant historical and landscape paintings were shown, which were to stand in the greatest possible contrast to the "Entartete Kunst" in the neighboring building. However, the interest of the visitors was quite low compared to the attendance figures of the "Entartete Kunst" show: "only" 420,000 people came to celebrate the art that conformed to the regime. 

The "Verfallskunst" ("decadent art") exhibited in the Munich Hofgarten Arcades included works from the Dresden exhibition, which were supplemented by other confiscated works of art. In the run-up to the Munich exhibition, thousands of works of art had been removed and confiscated from German museums in a national “purge”. It was not until 1938, one year later, that the corresponding legal basis was created with the "Law on the Confiscation of Products of Degenerate Art".

Reactions, Consequences and Decisions

But how did the artists, defamed as "degenerate" and abused for propaganda purposes of the NSDAP, react to these restrictions of their work and their lives? 

A thorn in the side of the National Socialists, both stylistically and in terms of content: Max Beckmann: Die Synagoge (The Synagogue) (1919), painting, 83 x 140 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie (Frankfurt (Main)) (Städel Museum) © Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugang)

Numerous artists persecuted by the National Socialists left Germany and went into exile. Max Beckmann, one of the most important (and at the same time one of the most hated) visual artists of the 20th century, left Germany in 1937 and went to Amsterdam, where he remained until the end of the Second World War. In 1947, he emigrated to the United States and lived there until his death. In Nazi Germany, he had previously lost his professorship at the Städelschule (Städel School) in Frankfurt, 650 of his works were confiscated as part of the national cleansing campaign, 21 of which were exhibited publicly and prominently in the Munich "Degenerate Art" show.

Necessity is the mother of invention: the neighbours at the table as the subject of painting, simple cardboard as the painting surface: Oskar Schlemmer: window painting I (1942) oil, watercolour, colour pencil on cardboard, Basel Museum of Art © Foto Archive Foto Marburg (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugang)

ther artists remained in Germany despite the prohibition of work and persecution and went into the so-called "inner emigration". The term describes the attitude of regime-critical artists who were banned from working or whose works were defamed as "degenerate" and who nevertheless could not flee Germany for a variety of reasons. The Bauhaus master Oskar Schlemmer, whose works were among the first to be destroyed by the National Socialists, officially worked in a Wuppertal paint factory after being banned from his profession - but he continued to paint in private. In his so-called "window paintings", he depicted his neighbours, whom he observed from his home, and thus further developed his artistic profile. Schlemmer had previously tried to explain and defend himself and his art in various correspondence with NSDAP functionaries and sympathisers, but had been unsuccessful. 

Some artists adapted their works to Nazi ideas in order to escape persecution and a professional ban: Rudolf Schlichter, previously known as a communist Dada artist, adapted to the aesthetics and way of thinking propagated by the National Socialists and became friends with nationalist pioneers such as the writer Ernst Jünger. This adaptation to the Nazi ideology later shamed him himself, so that he reinterpreted parts of his work: The warrior, who embodied his criticism of the liberal Weimar Republic, became a warrior who criticized the Nazi regime. The painter Emil Bartoschek, on the other hand, only worked externally in accordance with the regime to conceal and finance his actual artistic activity.

A warrior walks towards the abyss – first interpreted by the artist himself as the personification of the Weimar Republic, then later as the embodiment of the Nazi state: Rudolf Schlichter: Blinde Macht (Blind Power) (1932/1937), oil on canvas, 179 x 100 cm, collection VEBA, photo: Kai-Annett Becker © Berlinische Galerie (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugang)

Some dissident artists continued to position themselves against National Socialism and joined the resistance: The Jewish-Polish painter Jankel Adler had publicly positioned himself against National Socialist politics during the Nazi party's election campaign for the Reichstag elections in March 1933 and left Germany after the Nazis took power. He first settled in Paris and used his time in exile to fight the Nazi regime in Germany. The artist couple Alexandra Povòrina and Friedrich Ahlers-Hestermann were forced to leave their home in Cologne and set up again in Berlin after, among other things, refusing to hang a swastika flag from their house.

This work was on Kirchner's easel when he put an end to his life: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Schafherde (Flock of Sheep)(1938), oil on canvas, 101 x 120 cm, Brücke-Museum Berlin © Brücke-Museum (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, one of the most important representatives of German Expressionism, took his own life in 1938, after his works had been assessed as "degenerate" a year earlier. In research literature, his suicide is attributed both to Kirchner's disappointment at the defamation of his works and to his addiction to morphine. 

The artists' dealings with the defamation of their works, with employment bans and with financial hardships and fears of death are as diverse as their artistic legacy. Their fates, the expropriation, seizure, sale, and destruction of works of art occupy politics and jurisprudence as well as art history to this day: legitimate owners of art defamed as "degenerate" must be determined, political procedural foundations formed, gaps in the work of ostracised artists want to be scientifically closed. Various databases were developed with the aim of completing the list of works of art stolen, destroyed or lost by the National Socialists. Provenance researchers are working in numerous museums and cultural institutions to clarify the ownership and origin of works of art of all kinds. A virtual exhibition on provenance research accompanies the researchers of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and provides information about their important work – including in the context of “Degenerate Art”. 

21,000 works of "degenerate art" were removed from German collections by the Nazi regime, the whereabouts of only 4,000 have been clarified. Most of them are revered today as masterpieces of their time.



Scholarly Sources

Thamer, Hans-Ulrich: Geschichte und Propaganda. Kulturhistorische Ausstellungen in der NS-Zeit, in:
Geschichte und Gesellschaft, Jg. 24., H. 3, Geschichtsbilder und Geschichtspolitik (Jul. – Sep., 1998), S. 349–381, online unter: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40185848.

Levi, Neil: “Judge for Yourselves!”-The “Degenerate Art” Exhibition as Political Spectacle, in: October, Vol. 85, 1998, S. 41-64, online unter: https://www.jstor.org/stable/779182.

Zuschlag, Christoph: Neues Rathaus Dresden. Die Ausstellung „Entartete Kunst“ 1933, in: Hermann, Konstantin (Hrsg.): Führerschule, Thingplatz, „Judenhaus“: Orte und Gebäude der nationalsozialistischen Diktatur in Sachsen, Dresden 2014, S. 154158, online unter: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/6001/1/Zuschlag_Neues_Rathaus_Dresden_2014.pdf.









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