Anselm Kiefer’s Haunting Approach to Third Reich Architecture

Although learning about the Third Reich is now common, in Germany, it wasn’t always so. Anselm Kiefer’s artwork examines Nazi Germany’s architectural relics in order to confront their complicated histories.

Oct 14, 2020By Sasha Savenko, BA Art History w/ Contemporary Art and Theory Concentration
athanor anselm kiefer
Athanor by Anselm Kiefer, 1991 (left); with Nuremberg Rally, 1938 (right)


Born soon after the fall of Nazi GermanyAnselm Kiefer grew up questioning his homeland’s dark past. His photographs and paintings helped Kiefer to explore the challenging history of Germany while giving a voice to memories forgotten with the passage of time. Here is an overview of his life and career as a contemporary artist navigating the history of Germany’s Third Reich. 

Anselm Kiefer’s Context: Germany After The Third Reich

Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, via the Independent


Following the fall of the Nazi party, Germans found themselves amidst the rubble of a society that had perpetuated unthinkable violence against millions of people for over a decade. German citizens were left reeling, wondering how, and why, they had become caught up in such a devastating cultural event. Those not actively responsible for the Nazi party’s actions were left struggling to recuperate their own complicity with the events of the Holocaust. Those born after World War II, including Anselm Kiefer, faced their own set of obstacles putting together the pieces of a history hidden from them. 


The unspoken social solution after the war, it seemed, involved a total cultural recall of all memories pertaining to the Third Reich. Certain government officials who had held office during the Third Reich were reelected after World War II, and their previous political alignments went largely undiscussed. In many ways, Germany chose to rebuild itself as though nothing of note had occurred during the Holocaust, electing a form of cultural amnesia over the gargantuan task of unpacking the events of the early twentieth century.


Nuremberg Rally, 1938


However, this collective ignorance could only last for so long. The first generation to come of age after World War II are called nachgeborenen, a German word roughly translating to ‘those born after [the Holocaust].’ Because this generation was not alive during World War II, they did not share the burden of complicity with the actions of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Instead, this new-coming generation grew up with a large absence in their cultural history and a hidden social identity. As this generation began to come of age, however, many started to question these gaps in knowledge and pursue answers. 


Anselm Kiefer’s Early Photography 

Besetzung 1969 from “Occupations” series by Anselm Kiefer, 1969, via Art Institute of Chicago

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Anselm Kiefer, a German neo-expressionist painter and photographer, falls into this nachgeborenen category. The theme behind his artwork is the struggle for the rediscovery and reclamation of the German past, be it dark or glorious. He pursues this development through the examination of architecture, using it as an opportunity to contextualize present Germany with that of the past.


His most controversial work was produced in 1969, a photographic series entitled Occupations (also known as Besetzung, or Occupations 1969). In this work, Anselm Kiefer traveled to various sites that had been either key locations for the Nazi regime or which had been appropriated as symbols of the power by the Third Reich, where he then photographed himself giving the sieg heil. His goal was to force a conversation about recent history and the Nazi regime’s lingering presence in German culture. This marks the first serious example of Anselm Kiefer’s interest in architecture as a vessel of historical memory. 


The power of architecture and its ongoing influence on German society was to become a major theme for Anselm Kiefer, and in Occupations, he attempts not to re-establish the link between the German-built environment and Nazism, but to remember. And by remembering, he refuses to let history be buried or to let evil to remain hidden around him.


Innenraum (Interior) by Anselm Kiefer, 1981, via Royal Academy of Arts, London


A key foundation of the Nazi party’s platform was drawing a connection between the cultural mythology of the German people and the political power of the Third Reich. One example of this is the morphing of the German peoples’ cultural identification with ‘blood and soil’ in order to draw on Germany’s historical connection to the land and twist it to create the binary of the ‘pure’ German and the impure other. After the fall of the Nazi party, Germans were left with a mangled cultural identity, one tied irrevocably to the war crimes of Hitler and the Third Reich. 


Anselm Kiefer’s ambition in creating Occupations was to remind Germans that regardless of the historical significance these cultural symbols once held, the Third Reich has become a permanent piece of that story. Because of its influence, there can be no forward progress for Germany post-World War II while that history is pushed behind the curtain. 

Art And Post-graduate Career

Das Museum by Anselm Kiefer, 1984-92, via SFMOMA, San Francisco


After completing his Occupations series, Anselm Kiefer began to move away from photography. His interest in Third Reich architecture did not wane, however, instead finding itself translated from source documentation (as in Occupations) to a more interpretative mode of painting on large canvases. Along with this shift in media, Kiefer began to tie in more of his interest in myth, in particular as it plays into cultural history. His work began to address the blurring lines between myth and history, and how the formation of one is arguably inseparable from the other. Imagine these ties as a sort of chicken and egg situation.


In this shift towards Expressionism, however, Anselm Kiefer did not move away from the architectural as a major theme. Instead, Kiefer began to select pertinent buildings or landscapes and enrich them with thick brushstrokes, plaster, straw, ash, and other varied materials. The plaster and other textured materials on the canvas are sometimes so thick that the painting begins to resemble a wall itself. 


Athanor by Anselm Kiefer, 1991, via Christie’s


Like his mentor Joseph Beuys, certain materials (like feather and straw) carried a specific referential meaning for Anselm Kiefer. The straw and ash, for example, seen in Shulamite as well as Your Golden Hair, Marguerite, represent the Third Reich dichotomy of the blonde Aryan and the dark-haired Jew. Even further, it represents the wealth of privilege of some people, and the loss experienced by others — the loss of the friends, of life, of memory. The buildings in Kiefer’s paintings often look burned and ruined, emulating that same loss, while also acknowledging the ties between the ruin of Jewish culture, German history, and the physical environment.


Anselm Kiefer And Nazi Spaces

Shulamite by Anselm Kiefer, 1983, via SFMOMA, San Francisco


In Shulamite, Anselm Kiefer returns again to a Nazi space — in this case, a Nazi memorial hall in Berlin. However, in this work, Kiefer doesn’t force the Third Reich connotation as boldly as he did in the Occupations series. Instead, Kiefer repurposes the memorial hall into a haunting space of memoriam. It becomes a solemn altar at which to honor those Jewish peoples who died during the Third Reich’s dictatorship. In some versions of this work, the names of the dead are inscribed in the walls, between layers of ash, dried flowers, plaster, lead, and paint, or hidden by streaks of watercolor. This method of commemoration can be found in multiple of Kiefer’s paintings from this era, including Innenraum (pictured further above). 


Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldier in the Hall of Soldiers built by Wilhelm Kreis, 1939, via Smarthistory


The name Shulamite (or Sulamith, depending), refers to a famous poem about the Holocaust by Paul Celan. The poem, entitled “Death Fugue,” frames two young women against each other — the dark-haired Jewish girl, Shulamite, and her blonde gentile colleague, Marguerite. As in many of Anselm Kiefer’s works, like Shulamite, the straw painted into the canvas represents Marguerite’s golden hair and the wealth of her privilege, while the ash represents Shulamite’s dark hair and her untimely demise. This is an example as well of Kiefer’s tendency to mythologize the past and to inversely make the mythological the very meat of history. 


It is no coincidence, either, that the depicted memorial hall seems to resemble the hollow gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps. Anselm Kiefer chose this location (pictured above) specifically because of its dual symbolism. In redesignating this memorial to the Nazi soldier as a place of remembrance for the victims fallen to the Nazi regime, he elevates and empowers the Jewish history. In highlighting the visual similarity of the Nazi memorial to the gas chambers, Kiefer does not allow the memory of the Third Reich to be separated from the actions taken in its reign of terror. 


Operation Sea Lion by Anselm Kiefer, 1984, via SFMOMA, San Francisco


In other paintings, such as Operation Sea Lion (above), he draws the same connections between the German landscape and the dark stain of the Third Reich on German history. This particular work could be interpreted as a boat on dark waters, recalling the thousands of refugees forced to flee their homeland in order to escape the concentration camps. It could also represent a ruined farmhouse, with acres of scorched farmland behind it. This draws, too, on the German mythology of Blut und Boden, or blood and soil. An old cultural idea of the German peoples as tough laborers of the field, this phrase became emblematic of the Third Reich at the height of its reign. 


Like the Occupations photo series, Anselm Kiefer’s later works continue to speak the same truth. The memory of the Holocaust is a melancholy theme to address each time, but that confrontation is part of Kiefer’s intention. The Nazi party bastardized many aspects of German mythology and culture in order to infiltrate the minds of the German peoples, and those cultural ideologies can never be the same as a result. It may be difficult to face the evils of the German past, but it is important to do so. If the past is not acknowledged, it does not disappear but instead carries forward in society around us. Anselm Kiefer’s work asserts that buildings will carry the weight of history whether we like it or not, and without confronting the dark truths within them, that weight will remain, affecting us all.


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By Sasha SavenkoBA Art History w/ Contemporary Art and Theory ConcentrationSasha is an artist and musician from Richmond, Virginia. She received a B.A. in Art History from the University of Washington, Seattle, with a focus in Contemporary Art Theory and Architecture. When not reading or writing, she dedicates her time to interdisciplinary practice in visual arts, music, film, and critical theory.