Strange Bedfellows: The Modernists and the Nazis

By Jan BreslauerFebruary 8, 2015

Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany by Jonathan Petropoulos

SHORTLY AFTER HITLER was appointed chancellor in 1933, he ordered a competition to design the new Reichsbank in Berlin. A committee identified 30 architects to submit designs. Two of the architects were Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The Bauhaus was the most highly regarded art school in Europe at the time. It was also firmly identified with the Weimar Republic, which made it anathema to the Nazis. “Yet here were two of its leaders asked to undertake a design for Hitler’s first public building,” writes Jonathan Petropoulos in his important new book, Artists Under Hitler. Gropius and Mies complied, and although neither won the commission for the building that was built the following year, their attempts appear to have been sincere.

Indeed, Gropius provided a great deal more material than was called for, including blueprints, cost estimates, a philosophical statement, and photographs of a mock-up. The image of Walter Gropius working feverishly on the new Reichsbank headquarters in early 1933 and hoping that he would become an official architect in the Third Reich needs to be integrated into the cultural history of Nazi Germany.

Petropoulos relates this anecdote early on, underscoring both the irony and the uncomfortable compromise that will resonate in more such stories throughout his book. He is able to do this in part because new information has come to light, accurate historical details about some aspects of the Nazi era that have come to us only in recent decades, after years of lies perpetuated by collaborator-artists concerning their activities, and because German data protection laws required files to remain closed until 30 years after a person’s death. Petropoulos has employed this newly available knowledge, along with other research, to paint a portrait of artists during the Third Reich. For that reason alone, this book is an important addition to the cultural history of Nazi Germany. Yet Artists Under Hitler has importance beyond bringing new historical detail to light. It is also a study of the sometimes unhealthy alliance between artists and power. Although more dire under the Nazis, the moral questions raised by complicity with a repressive regime are not unique to the Third Reich.

Artists Under Hitler examines in detail the experiences of 10 modernist artists who chose to stay in Nazi Germany and seek “accommodation” with the regime. “Accommodation” is used here as a term of art. It may strike some as a euphemism, and while it should, the choice of the term and its implications are integral to Petropoulos’s enterprise, which is to present an ostensibly evenhanded documentary of what these artists did, and to a lesser extent, why they did it. He gives us details such as how each artist got appointed to which post, who did what favors for whom, and who looked the other way when. Petropoulos cites a number of factors for why they did what they did:

first, a misunderstanding of the Nazi leaders and their goals; second, an unchecked ego and sense of self-importance […]; third, a highly developed survival instinct […] combined with a more garden-variety opportunism; fourth, the mixed signals from the Nazi leaders themselves […]; and finally, a belief that the intellectual goals of modernism and fascism were compatible.

Petropoulos suggests that each case is complicated, but that it mostly comes down to self-interest and ego. It would take a study more concerned with psychology and sociology to provide anything more, and Petropoulos rightly spends little time trying to speculate. He simply posits this much and leaves it to the reader to judge.

Artists Under Hitler groups its 10 case studies into two groups of five: the ones who had limited success in pursuing “accommodation” (Walter Gropius, Paul Hindemith, Gottfried Benn, Ernst Barlach, Emil Nolde) and the ones who succeeded in “accommodation” (Richard Strauss, Gustaf Gründgens, Leni Riefenstahl, Arno Breker, Albert Speer). After reading all 10, it’s evident that the distinction is largely one of degree, that the artists in question have more in common with one another than they do with, say, the artists who chose to flee or resist. Petropoulos’s first group attempted accommodation during the earlier years of Nazi rule, which were not as dark as the later years. After that, most of the artists discussed gave up trying to get along; indeed, by the mid-1930s, most read the writing on the wall and left. In the second group, the artists were either adept collaborators or fully complicit, enjoying the spoils of being favored by the Nazis.

A common thread throughout these case studies involves the plight of modernism. A common misunderstanding, or oversimplification, has been that the Nazis were at odds with modernism, but Petropoulos demonstrates that the relationship was much more complex than that. Some figures within the Nazi power structure, up to and including Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, liked and supported the work of certain non-Jewish modernists. Goebbels favored the work of Ernst Barlach, for instance, and had some of the sculptor’s work in his personal collection. (That wasn’t enough to stop Barlach from being included in the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition, which vilified many of the most prominent modernist visual artists.)

Certainly there are reasons why the modernists could have thought — at least in purely aesthetic terms — that there was common ground to be found with the Nazis. There are aspects of modernism that could be read as compatible with Nazi arts policy (Kunstpolitik) — the celebration of the mechanical, for example, or the abstract composition found in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Modernists could also look to Fascist Italy’s embrace of Futurism as an example of a dictatorial regime allowing the avant-garde to continue. Indeed, the case studies are replete with examples of modernists who seemed to think they could have their work accepted, if they either weren’t too strident or were willing to self-censor their art. For others, it was a matter of straight-up selling out: tailoring their work to fit the fashion required by the ones handing out the perks and privileges. Call it compromise, call it accommodation, or call it what you will, but what it often came down to was that those who managed to stay in favor, to hold positions of authority within the Nazi power structure, or who were in fact card-carrying Nazis, were the ones who got the appointments, the commissions, and the big paydays. After the war, they sought to deny or disguise their associations — Riefenstahl is the most notorious example — but there is enough documentation available now that those lies have been discredited.

Many modernists were vehemently against Hitler and chose to emigrate. Others stayed and opposed the Nazis. “Painter Max Pechstein went fishing in order to feed himself, and former Bauhaus Master Oskar Schlemmer painted camouflage for the Luftwaffe and then worked in a lacquer factory in Wuppertal,” writes Petropoulos. “At a different level of hardship, Bauhaus-trained artist Franz Ehrlich, who had studied with Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Lázló Moholy-Nagy, designed the gates of the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he had been a prisoner since 1935.” Still many others stood up to the Nazis and were killed. But Petropoulos is telling the tale of the ones who stayed behind and, for whatever reasons, chose to go along in order to get along. Or, in the case of the latter group of artists, who chose to join the Nazi enterprise and thus thrived.


Hitler made it clear from the outset that he intended to control culture and the arts for his own purposes, and Petropoulos describes the Nazi courting of cultural figures. Hermann Göring, the high-ranking Nazi who amassed a great deal of stolen art in the later war years, once remarked that it was “easier over time to make a decent National Socialist out of an artist than to make a great artist out of a minor Party member.” Goebbels was especially eager to enlist famous artists. The Reich Chamber of Culture was the chief structure for appointments for such celebrity-artists, and it housed seven chambers: literature, journalism, radio, theater, music, film, and visual arts. Each chamber had a president and a vice president, along with a Reich Cultural Senate, to which Goebbels made direct appointments. Goebbels tried to get Fritz Lang to come back from Hollywood to head the Reich Chamber of Film; Lang, an iconic modernist hero in Weimar, did not take the post. Goebbels also considered making a bid for Marlene Dietrich. He tried and failed to convince Weimar stalwart Thomas Mann to head up the Literature chambers. These turndowns notwithstanding, sometimes the Reich Minister of Propaganda did indeed get his man. Richard Strauss became the first president of the Reich Chamber of Music, with conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as his vice president. By serving in such appointed capacities, these artists not only secured their own positions but were also called upon to help determine the fate of their colleagues. These were positions of power and influence, and highly consequential in determining the course of many careers.

In the initial chapters of Artists Under Hitler, Petropoulos takes pains to present the artists’ actions with equanimity. There are moments where the book veers too close to an apologia, but only moments. By the time it comes to the conclusion, Petropoulos’s voice is more cohesive and less equivocal. It is only near the end that the author allows himself to articulate a point of view about his subjects, and point a few fingers.

A central theme of this book concerns the elusiveness of clear categories — or, at least, the broad width of a gray zone — with regard to the cultural life of the Third Reich. […] The Nazi leaders who made cultural policy adapted existing styles and idioms across the various arts and utilized them to their own ends. While many modernists tried but ultimately failed to find accommodation with the Nazi regime, countless others altered the style of their work — and engaged in other forms of accommodation — in the interest of finding a modus vivendi with the Nazis. With regard to the latter, the rich array of figures tempts one to compile a cultural “hall of shame” of complicity. Indeed, along the lines of the Reich Chambers of Culture, one could have multiple discipline-specific categories.

Only at this point, past page 300, does Petropoulos give us a fuller list of the worst offenders, which includes, in addition to those already mentioned, composer Carl Orff, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, film director Veit Harlan, actors Werner Krauss and Emil Jannings, sculptor Fritz Klimsch (and a number of other visual artists), architect Wilhelm Kreis, and many others. Petropoulos discusses in passing how they and others lied about their pasts in the postwar world. In addressing how the myths about these artists evolved, Petropoulos notes they took hold in part because of the toothless denazification trials, and the “equivalent measures for collaborators in the occupied countries, such as the French épuration légale,” which treated such figures with leniency, handing down judgments that had little lasting effect. America handed over jurisdiction for these trials to Germany in 1946, and that’s one reason why they became little more than show trials. The tribunals were mired in bureaucracy, which contributed to the token penalties — such as the DM 100 ($24) fine handed down to Arno Breker, even after he’d been paid millions by the Nazis. Of course, it would also have been hard for these courts to come down hard on the collaborating artists, when so many of the Nazis who actually did the killing evaded prosecution entirely. The public, for its part, was largely apathetic about the leniency. So these collaborators took their slaps on the wrist and laid low for a while before resurfacing.

Petropoulos’s discussion of such postwar legal and social mechanisms comes only in the last few pages of Artists Under Hitler. A discussion of the equivalent mechanisms during the Nazi years themselves would have been welcome. And yet, a book need only accomplish that which it sets as its task. In so far as Petropoulos endeavors to portray the interplay of modernism and political culture during the Third Reich, he succeeds. His case studies give us an informative picture of the plight and problematic choices of a variety of noted artists under Hitler. There’s little doubt that this book adds to the cultural history of the period.


But as I say, that is not the only reason why this book matters.

Even though Petropoulos likely began working on the research for this book more than a few years ago, it would do his tome a disservice to ignore that it was published when it was, in late 2014. Readers should see similarities between the questions raised about the Nazi collaborators and accusations made recently regarding certain artists in Putin’s Russia. I do not for a minute mean to suggest that Putin is comparable to Hitler. Yet there are recurring questions facing artists who are in complicity with dictators — whether it’s Hitler, Stalin, or Putin.

In the past few years, Russia has taken a hard turn back toward its repressive past and freedom of expression has suffered. Anyone critical of Kremlin policy risks being charged with sedition or worse, and this has been used to devastating effect with writers and artists. There are new laws forbidding obscenity on stage or in films, and the anti-gay propaganda law has been used to suppress the LGBT community under threat of incarceration in prison, gulag or asylum, or worse.

Valery Gergiev, artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre, has been criticized for supporting Putin. In 2013, Putin cut a check for $700 million to renovate the Mariinsky. Since then, Gergiev has had to contend with protesters in Europe and America, who show up at his concerts to demonstrate against the conductor’s cozy relationship with Putin and his tacit support of Putin’s anti-gay law. And yet, he continues to try to walk a PR tightrope, to maintain his public persona in the West while supporting Putin at home. When Gergiev performed at the Met with soprano Anna Netrebko, protests targeted both of them. And these international musical stars are not alone in refusing to bite the hand of the bear that feeds them. Most of Russia’s performing arts theaters rely on the government for funding, which they stand to lose if they don’t toe the party line. Those who support Putin are allowed to continue and often receive substantial backing. Oppose the party and these theaters cease to exist, their leaders punished.

Some Russian artists under Putin may believe they do not have the luxury of speaking their mind, but clearly not all of them feel this way. Ask Pussy Riot. Or the Stanislavski Drama Theater’s Boris Yukhananov, who reportedly turned down government money to overhaul his theater. Or the many artists and writers who have found themselves on lists of traitors or enemies of the state, simply because they have spoken out against Putin’s war in Ukraine. A key portent of things to come in Nazi Germany was the 1933 enactment of the Law for the Protection of a Professional Civil Service, which was used to fire Jews and others. Putin’s anti-gay law has been similarly utilized, and sounds a note of warning that there is more and worse to follow. Perhaps the Russian artists who don’t see the problem with sidling up to a dictator should read Petropoulos’s book, for the cautionary tale it presents of artists who went along with an ugly government in the interest of short-term gains or careerism. Such fated alliances may work for a time, but they prove to be untenable Faustian bargains in the long run.


Jan Breslauer is an arts and entertainment attorney in Southern California.

LARB Contributor

Jan Breslauer is an arts and entertainment attorney in Southern California.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!