Hitler’s Silver Hammer: Inside the Rise of the Nazis’ ‘Church’ for Art

In her hotly anticipated new book Hitler’s Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich, Mary M. Lane examines the fanatical efforts that the German chancellor and onetime artist made to bend contemporary art to his will—and enlist aesthetics to further his ideological agenda. One early, infamous component of that plan was planned weeks after Hitler took power in 1933 and subsequently deployed in Munich in 1937, when the Nazi government put on twin shows, the Great German Art Exhibition, which aimed to codify an “Aryan ideal,” and the Degenerate Art Exhibition. In the excerpt below, Lane delves deeply into those displays, describing how they were greeted by the public, their design, and their effects, which have lingered on into the present, as many works in the Degenerate show remain unaccounted for. Hitler’s Last Hostages is due out September 10 from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2019.

Adolf Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, vehemently disliked discussing weather in general conversation. For the 35-year-old, it was a pedestrian topic that offered scant room for wit. Yet, on October 15, 1933, he noted with relief that the sunny skies boded well for a major political relations event: that day, only nine months after ascending to power, Hitler was preparing to lay the cornerstone of Munich’s House of German Art.

The building was to replace the Glaspalast, a striking iron-and-glass exhibition space that had burned down on June 6, 1931, victim to an unknown arsonist. The fire destroyed 3,000 artworks, including a masterpiece by Caspar David Friedrich, whom Hitler and many Germans revered for his nineteenth-century paintings glorifying nature’s mystical power and, within it, the dominant position of men. Friedrich’s lost work, portraying the crumbling ruins of an ancient Catholic cloister, now seemed to be a metaphor for Hitler’s broader plans for the House of German Art: state-controlled culture would be Germany’s spiritual compass.

“We ourselves will become a Church,” summarized Hitler.

Goebbels planned for the House of German Art to displace the financial and cultural influence within Germany of artists like George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and Käthe Kollwitz. In doing so, the nexus of the art world would shift from independent individuals to government controlled ministries financed by corporate sponsors and taxpayers. Goebbels assembled a revolutionary package of incentives: a fundraiser at which famous entertainers performed, tax rebates for donations, and a well-designed English-German promotional book. Eager to ingratiate themselves with the new regime, the heads of Bosch, Opel, Siemens, and Krupp contributed copious funds.

At the commencement of the museum’s construction, Hitler exclaimed, “May a new German art blossom from the flame that destroyed the old Glaspalast on 6 June 1931, and may the new house offer a sanctuary for centuries!” before grasping a commemorative silver hammer to tap three times on the foundation stone to signal the coming of the Third Reich. It was the propagandistic triumph that Goebbels had anticipated for months. Yet, as the first ping of Hitler’s silver hammer sounded and the cameras rolled, the hammer head wobbled. With the third and final ping, it flew off the handle.

So did Hitler.

He demanded that the press self-censor the debacle and the German media, independent only a few months before, unanimously cowed to pressure, reporting that “the Führer had completed the act of laying the foundation stone with three sharp, silvery strokes.”

The Foundation Stone Ceremony’s comic end became a triumph of sorts for Goebbels, proving how once independent institutions were now complying with policies that he and Hitler had introduced a mere eight months before. Only days before the event, Goebbels had required journalists to join his Reich Press Association, which banned non-Aryans or those married to non-Aryans. In one fell swoop, it transformed journalists into civil servants who could be held legally responsible for tarnishing their government’s reputation. Employing his sly sense of humor, Goebbels referred to this as the “Neue Sachlichkeit,” German for the “new reality,” which also was the name of the art movement to which George Grosz and Otto Dix had belonged.

After the January 1933 victory of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party), Goebbels had started crafting cultural, racial, and political policy ahead of October’s Foundation Stone Ceremony. Notably, Goebbels urged Hitler to secure permission via legal means to conduct cultural censorship. If Hitler skipped these steps, Goebbels warned, the government risked becoming incapacitated by protests that the Nazi party was breaking the law.

Within a month of Hitler’s ascension to office, a terrorist attack provided Hitler and Goebbels with a plausible excuse to seize power from the citizenry. On the evening of February 27, Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutchman, set fire to the Reichstag. Van der Lubbe’s execution was a foregone conclusion. The arsonist had broken with the Dutch Communist Party in 1931, but Goebbels used the connection to propose emergency legislation “for the protection of people and state.” The Nazis indefinitely suspended the freedoms of speech, association, and the press, as well as the right to uncensored postal distribution and to unsurveilled telephone calls.

On March 23, parliament passed the Enabling Act, allowing his cabinet to pass laws without their involvement. The German parliament officially and legally made itself irrelevant. Spring and summer plans to streamline power went smoothly for Hitler. He passed the Professional Civil Service Restoration Act, permitting the party to fire non-Aryan government employees and requiring all civil servants to use the Hitlergrüß, or “Heil Hitler” greeting. The message was clear: government employees now had to pledge their loyalty to Hitler, not to the citizen or the rule of law.

Like those of most European countries, Germany’s Culture Ministry oversaw the nation’s museums; Goebbels knew he needed to win over the minds of the German people through culture. He aimed to curate a show around the theme of Great German Art for the opening of the House of German Art, aiming to define what art Germans were allowed to create.

Invitations for a rally at Nuremberg sent two weeks later featured what would become a favorite artistic theme for Hitler: muscular, naked young men bearing the party standard. Five hundred trains carried 225,000 people to cheer on the Führer with cries so genuine that even cynics, including American journalist William Shirer, were impressed. “They reminded me of the crazed expressions I saw once in the back country of Louisiana, on the faces of some Holy Rollers,” he recorded.

The Führer’s confidence reenergized once-hesitant anti-Semitic hooligans. As bullying increased, Hitler decided that the most efficient action to take was no action at all. “There’s no point in artificially creating additional difficulties,” he reasoned.

Hitler even made “the future of German art” the major theme of the 1935 Nuremberg rally. “At some future date, when it will be possible to view those events in clearer perspective, people will be astonished to find that just at the time the National Socialists and their leaders were fighting a life-or-death battle for the preservation of the nation, the first impulse was given for the re-awakening and restoration of artistic vitality,” he declared.

The Führer fervently posited that a nation’s art reflected the genetic purity of its citizens. Privately, Hitler told his inner circle that inferior artists should be “‘reeducated’ in concentration camps.” Publicly, however, he argued that he was challenging artists who aimed to “wallow in filth and rubbish for the sake of filth and rubbish,” adding, “Nobody has the right to be allowed to inflict spiritual death on a people, simply because he claims full liberty for the exercise of his obscene and distorted fancy.”

Goebbels and Hitler prepared frantically for the summer 1937 opening of the Great German Art Exhibition. In mid-January 1937, German newspapers published a call to German artists to submit artworks. Hopefuls submitted a staggering 15,000 pieces.

Architecturally speaking, the House of German art—the embodiment of Hitler’s regressive art program—was one of the world’s most progressive museum structures. It featured a layout that, unlike many museums, did not threaten to upstage the artworks and used simple lines for a modern feel. Elevators aided the elderly and injured war veterans, all radically progressive measures at the time.

Two bronze inscriptions above the entrance, however, managed to convey a menacing message: “Art is a sublime mission, which necessitates fanaticism” and “No person lives longer than the documents of his culture.”

On reviewing the submitted artworks in early June, the Great German Art jury mortifyingly realized that the expulsion of controversial artists from the Reich Chamber of Culture in the early 1930s, along with the lack of specifics from Hitler on what constituted “good” art, had produced a mediocre submission pool. The would-be Great German Artists were largely a dully homogenous group of older men who showed few new techniques.

“The sculptures are passable, but the paintings are in some cases outright catastrophic,” complained Goebbels. “The Führer is wild with rage,” he added. Mulling over how to improve the opening of the inaugural Great German Art Exhibition, Goebbels spontaneously proposed to Hitler that they organize a Degenerate Art Exhibition to open concurrently, near the House of German Art. By doing so, Goebbels reasoned, the Nazis would send a clear message that professional artists now belonged to one of two opposing camps: good artists and Degenerate Artists.

Hitler agreed, giving Goebbels less than a month to curate an exhibition that would damn the futures of dozens of artists who had prospered before 1933. Though German artists, including Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein, had hoped to obtain the status of Great German Artists, this now created the possibility that they would be not merely left out of that exclusive circle but defamed by the Führer and labeled degenerate, their livelihoods ruined. Goebbels enlisted the aid of Adolf Ziegler, the original jury member for the Great German Art selection. The pair frantically worked to assemble a list of artists whose artwork they could vilify. Ziegler was tireless, canvassing thirty-two collections in twenty-eight towns and confiscating 650 artworks.

The Great German Art Exhibition opened on July 18, and the festivities kicked off with a gaudy parade stretching over seven kilometers and featuring 456 horses.

Weimar officials had neglected Germany’s cultural past and jeopardized her future, Hitler said. “Yet with the opening of this exhibition the end of the mockery of German art and thus of the cultural destruction of our people has begun.” Then, using language that ominously echoed the words and phrases he used to justify genocide, Hitler concluded, “From now on, we will wage a pitiless, purifying war against the last elements of our cultural decay.”

Adolf Ziegler, known as the “master of pubic hair” for his painstakingly depicted nudes, had five works in the Great German Art Exhibition. One of them, The Four Elements, was Ziegler’s most famous; it featured four nude women painted as medical specimens rather than sensual beings.

The following day, on July 19, the Degenerate Art Exhibition opened at the Hofgarten Arcades, a few minutes from the House of German Art.

A few days after the opening of both exhibitions, a 17-year-old named Peter Guenther came to Munich from Dresden, leaving with razor sharp memories of both exhibitions that he wrote down for posterity. Guenther’s father was a culture critic whom the Nazis had banned because his second wife, Guenther’s stepmother, was Jewish. Growing up, Guenther had revered modern art, pasting reproductions of van Gogh’s artworks on his wall. Entering the House of German Art, he was struck by how quiet it was. Visitors whispered, as if in a church. “It was obviously due to the semi-ecclesiastical atmosphere created by the size of the rooms, their decor, the impressive lighting, and the careful placement of the exhibits,” Guenther observed.

At Hitler’s insistence, the exhibition featured none of Hitler’s own artworks. Christian art was absent, though the Nazis appropriated Christian symbolism and motifs. One such painting was by Hermann Otto Hoyer, an artist so obscure that he had never before been reviewed in newspapers. Hoyer painted the remarkably photorealistic In the Beginning was the Word, which depicts Hitler giving a speech to a small, rapt audience; the painting’s title, taken from the first line of the gospel of John, underscored the Nazis’ view of Hitler as a Christlike savior.

The first room featured three works arranged as a triad. In the middle was a portrait of Hitler by Heinrich Knirr, a 74-year-old Austrian who depicted the Führer in a traditional statesman’s pose. On the left hung The Last Hand Grenade by the Bavarian Elk Eber, showing a soldier gazing reverently out of the frame toward Knirr’s toned Führer. On the right hung Eber’s Roll Call, in which a pair of strapping young Nazis are buttoning their brownshirt uniforms.

The next room housed Comradeship, a massive, homoerotic statue by Josef Thorak, who was Hitler’s favorite sculptor. Two naked men with rippling muscles, holding hands placed over the left man’s genitals, towered over the exhibition’s visitors. Guenther was unimpressed: “I thought that they were intentionally attempting to imitate famous Greek sculptures I knew from books, but they lacked the grandeur and quiet balance that I considered to be the hallmarks of that art.”

Guenther wandered into the room featuring the exhibition’s most revered paintings. There hung a work by Sepp Hilz, one of the youngest featured artists. Hilz’s work showed a country peasant undressing in her room, a thick red-and-white striped sock still on her foot. The nudes struck Guenther as “bland.”

“It was not that I had been brought up a prude: on the contrary, my mother was very much in favor of anything healthy and natural,” noted Guenther.

In contrast with the stagnant content of the work, the young Guenther recognized that the exhibition’s layout and the museum’s architecture were trailblazing. A clearly marked red line guided visitors through forty rooms that ended at a modern gourmet restaurant with an electric kitchen and a bar—innovations in 1937. Floor runners created a clean look, and the works were well hung with enough space to view each piece in comfort. Rather than distracting wall placards, cards with information about each piece could be viewed in the middle of each room at comfortable benches perfectly suited for a quick rest.

As he left the exhibition, Guenther noticed a red card tucked into his complementary exhibition catalogue advertising the Degenerate Art Exhibition. “Check it out! Judge for yourself!” it said, so he made the short walk to the Hofgarten Arcades. In contrast to the stellar layout of the Great German Art Exhibition, the exhibition rooms were narrow, the ceilings low, and the works badly lighted, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. Adolf Ziegler had organized the show into nine themes: generally inferior color or form, blasphemy, anarchy, insults to the military, sexually deviancy, misrepresentation of nonwhites as fully human, positive depictions of the mentally and physically disabled, Jewish artists, and evil “isms”: Dadaism, Cubism, and Expressionism.

Born after the Great War, the high schooler Guenther was particularly confused to see artworks that confronted the trauma of the Great War in a way that he considered accurate; placed next to each other were Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Soldier and Otto Dix’s The War Cripples. Also on the wall hung The Trench, a painting that Konrad Adenauer, as mayor of Cologne, had blocked the city from purchasing because it depicted war’s traumatic effects.

Though he did not dare say it, Guenther was particularly impressed by Otto Dix, who had 20 works in the show that depicted victims of war; residents of Berlin or Dresden, he noted, had often seen “men whose legs had been amputated or with other visible deformities sitting in the streets selling shoelaces and matches,” he recalled.

Another room was an assortment of paintings not arranged by any theme; they included Oskar Kokoschka’s 1914 work Bride of the Wind, the portrait of the artist and his lover at the time, Alma Mahler, now maligned by the Nazis because her late husband, composer Gustav Mahler, had been Jewish. Guenther saw Kirchner’s exploration of his postwar depression, Sick Man at Night, before he entered the fifth room, where the Nazis had arranged art under the theme “Nature as Seen by Sick Minds.” There, Nolde’s painting Young Oxen hung catty-corner to Kirchner’s Winter Landscape in Moonlight, which was near his glamorization of sex workers from 1913, Five Women on the Street.

It was clear that even artists who had tried after the Great War to paint subjects they considered harmless were being skewered if their artworks deviated even slightly from what Hitler considered ideal depictions of Aryan culture and the perfect Aryan body.

Winding his way through the crowds, down the narrow staircase, Guenther came to a catacomb-like corridor packed with paintings and works on paper crammed together on the walls. Works from Max Pechstein’s series The Lord’s Prayer hung alongside Dix’s portrait of a sex worker, Leonie. Also here was Keep Your Mouth Shut and Do Your Duty, George Grosz’s etching from 1927 and the most famous of the 20 works of his in the exhibition. On the wall around Grosz’s works were quotes from his publisher, Wieland Herzfelde, about the potential merits of communism.

Having their works in the Degenerate Art Exhibition represented the professional death knell for dozens of artists. In total, thousands of their artworks were confiscated by the Nazis for potential use in the Degenerate Art Exhibition. When that exhibition closed in Munich in 1937 before touring the country, over two million people had visited, a number that even the Metropolitan Museum of Art would not surpass until the Mona Lisa visited Manhattan in 1963.

The Great German Art Exhibition, by contrast, saw 554,759 visitors between July and its closing on October 31. The artworks it showcased were put up for sale; this, combined with the growing Nazi censorship of artists featured in the Degenerate Art Exhibition, was an explicit attempt by the government to rig the art market: it declared Aryan work valuable even as it condemned and confiscated supposedly Degenerate Art.

By July 22, three days after the show at the House of German Art opened, 250,000 reichsmarks’ worth of art had sold. Ultimately, Germans bought around 500 works for a total of 750,000 reichsmarks that year. The Führer himself was the largest supporter, paying 268,449 reichsmarks for an unknown number of works. German firms hoping to ingratiate themselves with the regime purchased most artworks and, ultimately, there was no genuine popular enthusiasm for the work displayed in the Great German Art Exhibition. The sales were largely manipulated.

The degenerate art exhibition ended the careers of many artists who had risked their livelihoods to combat Nazism. Oskar Kokoschka, living in Prague, soon fled to England. Otto Dix retreated with his family to a house on Lake Constance at the Swiss border, hoping that the Nazis would forget about him. Max Pechstein escaped detection for a few years, until the Nazis drafted him into the Volkssturm, their national militia.

Inclusion in the Degenerate Art Exhibition hit Ernst Ludwig Kirchner the hardest of all. After years of battling clinical depression and insomnia, he told his partner, Erna, on the night of June 14–15, 1938 that he was about to shoot himself. He could not cope with a growing fear that the Nazis would capture him, a fear he developed after being so maligned in the Degenerate Art Exhibition. Erna rushed to the telephone to call his doctors but, as she was doing so, he walked outside and pulled the trigger. “He chose a radiantly beautiful day,” Erna recalled a few days later. “He had been suffering grievously until he was able to make this decision.”

In summer 1938, Max Beckmann, his career in tatters, traveled to London to warn the English art world about the censorship that had increased since the opening of the Degenerate Art Exhibition. In vain, Beckmann cautioned that the collectivism that had engulfed the German art world would extend into other European countries if those nations did not actively oppose it. “The greatest danger that threatens humanity is collectivism. Everywhere attempts are being made to lower the happiness and the way of living of mankind to the level of termites,” he unsuccessfully entreated. The majority of the art world did not listen. Meanwhile, Hitler and Goebbels moved forward with their plans to process the thousands of artworks they had confiscated from German museums—even as they eyed the private collections of Jewish Europeans and other minorities.

Both men aimed to use military expansion into other western European countries to gain access to the greatest art collections on the continent so that they could rewrite—on a continental scale—the cultural history of European art in favor of their Germanic prejudices. In order to do this, they realized, they would need to assemble a team of savvy museum directors and art dealers to help them accomplish what would become the largest art heist in history.



You Might Like

Read Next

About Us







  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • TikTok
  • Pinterest
  • Flipboard