What Did the Art of the Third Reich Look Like?

Art in the Third Reich took different forms which are still fascinating and concerning for both experts and the public.

May 26, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

what did art third reich


After seizing power in Germany, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis presented a new ideology of art which was mostly based on conservative values and Hitler’s own failed artistic aspirations. All avant-garde was deemed ‘degenerate’ and it was either destroyed or displayed in mock exhibitions. Read on to learn more about artistic protest, compliance, fraud, and the art in the Third Reich.


Art in the Third Reich: Hitler’s Failed Artistic Career 

third reich hitler alpenhof painting
Alpenhof, by Adolf Hitler, 1926. Source: Wikipedia


Before entering politics, Adolf Hitler aspired to become a professional artist but was rejected by the Vienna Art Academy twice. Although his paintings were technically good, they lacked originality, dynamism, and soul. As noted by his teachers, he focused on architectural details and geometric forms but was clearly indifferent to painting people. He was a staunch opponent of everything non-figurative and non-realistic, believing art should be visually pleasing, didactic, and rely on the Neoclassical standards of beauty and harmony.


Hitler’s own artistic preferences became the basis for the ideology of German art of the time.


Shortly before Hitler’s rise to power, a group of European psychiatrists conducted research on artworks created by psychiatric institution patients. Their theory was that by examining the drawing style and its particular features, a medical professional could formulate a precise diagnosis and the origin of the illness.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


The Nazi scientists went further with this questionable theory, turning it backward. According to them, modern art with its distorted proportions and increasingly non-realistic forms was the sign of mental degeneracy and it was seen as the product of enemy propaganda aimed to destroy the German nation. The paintings of Modigliani and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner were juxtaposed with the photographs of intellectually disabled people, attempting to prove the point. French Symbolism was denounced as morally decaying and dissolute. The main enemies of the Nazis were the Dada artists, who demonstrated an open anti-war stance and deliberately ruined artistic canons.


Official Art: Realism and Romanticism 

bocklin isle painting
Isle of the Dead III, by Arnold Böcklin, 1883. Source: Wikipedia


Analyzing art through the prism of racial theories and ideological postulates, Hitler and his followers defined the short list of acceptable art forms. They were supposed to glorify German nature and history instead of urban life, motherhood instead of lust, and an ideal healthy body instead of expressionist experiments with line and form. Among the accepted art movements was German Romanticism, which allegedly dwelled upon the soul of the nation.


Despite Hitler’s hate of most European Symbolist works, Arnold Böcklin, the great German Symbolist painter, was one of his favorites. He kept one of the thirteen versions of the famous Isle of the Dead in his private collection. In Bocklin’s work, Hitler saw the ideal depiction of German nature, national aspirations, and original Germanic mythology. The painting is now exhibited in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.


third reich ziegler christmas painting
Christmas Picture, by Adolf Ziegler, c. 1930s. Source: Invaluable Art Marketplace


To take care of sorting acceptable art from degenerate abominations, Hitler arranged a special commission led by one of his personal favorites, painter Adolf Zigler. Ziegler was a fierce fighter of everything abstract and non-realistic, depicting mostly rosy-cheeked children held by their flawless German mothers and scenes from imaginary Antiquity. Nonetheless, Ziegler’s appointment was deeply and bitterly ironic.


Before the Nazis came to power, he was an artist with modernist aspirations, but his teachers deemed him talentless and unoriginal. Zigler felt much more comfortable and accomplished as a bureaucrat, finally exerting power over those who did not accept him as equal. Under Ziegler’s command, most avant-garde artists were either prohibited from painting (with the special police units raiding their studios and checking if their brushes were damp) or left the country altogether, afraid for their lives.


Degenerate Art Exhibition 

third reich munich degenerate photo
Visitors at the Munich exhibition Degenerate Art, 1937. Source: MoMA, New York


In 1937 Munich, Adolf Ziegler’s commission opened a large-scale exhibition of the most progressive and bold avant-garde. Titled Degenerate Art, the show was a cautionary tale about corrupt and mentally ill artists looking to undermine the German culture. Each room of the exhibition signified a specific reason to be offended: Jewish artists supposedly mocking German workers, painters ridiculing womanhood, or sculptors promoting a new racial ideal in the form of an African man. The exhibition curators did not forget to highlight the fact that avant-garde artists often drew inspiration from non-Western art, thus mimicking the inferior races and demonstrating their own degradation. In the pavilion next to it, a satellite exhibition took place. Titled The Great German Art, it presented counter-examples of true artistic accomplishment.


nolde paintings photo
Works by Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, and Paul Thalheimer, on display in the Degenerate Art show in Munich, 1937. Source: MoMA, New York


The show presented more than six hundred objects and was a huge success, with one million visitors attending it over the first six weeks. After Munich, it traveled throughout Germany and was supposed to tour Fascist Italy as well. However, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini refused to host the exhibition, offended by the inclusion of Italian Futurists in it. Unlike Hitler, Mussolini deemed all forms of art useful for propaganda purposes.


However, despite the loud denouncement of all things avant-garde, the Nazi officials were not as adamant in their stance when it came to making money. After cataloging thousands and thousands of looted and confiscated art objects, they sold the most valuable of them to foreign cultural institutions, including MoMA. Some remained in German archives as research material for further degeneracy theories, while the rest were burnt and destroyed. Today, the Nazi-looted artifacts often provoke restitution issues, with families of their original owners claiming their ownership rights.


Fraud and Manipulation: The Case of Han van Meegeren 

Han van Meegeren painting a fake Vermeer Jesus among the Doctors to prove his innocence in court, 1945. Source: Het Nationaal Archief


While some avant-garde artists suffered under the pressure of the new power, others were ready to use the situation to their advantage. Art collecting was a popular hobby among the top Nazi officials, constantly supplied by confiscated and looted artworks, as well as gifts from collaborationist authorities. Hermann Göring, the founder of the Gestapo and the German Air Force commander, kept the most astonishing collection, inferior only to that of Hitler. Göring collected almost anything but had a particular admiration for the Old Masters.


In Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, another artist with a wounded ego finally found his calling. Han van Meegeren was a mediocre conservative painter with aspirations of joining the ranks of Rembrandt. In the 1930s, desperate for fame and money, Meegeren started to forge the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. The forgeries were crude yet convincing for a wartime Dutch art world.


Göring, astonished by the prospect of owning a genuine Vermeer, traded van Meegeren’s painting for 137 works from his private collection. Meanwhile, the forger enjoyed a life of wealth and excess, buying property throughout Europe and throwing lavish parties. However, soon after the liberation of the Netherlands, he faced trial for selling Dutch cultural property to the enemy and he had to confess.


Underground Resistance of Claud Cahun

cahun selfportrait photo
Self-Portrait, by Claude Cahun, 1927. Source: Giacometti Foundation


However, not all artists chose between complying with the regime and fleeing the country. Some artists chose to remain home and fight the enemy using their own means and methods. The most famous case of artists working for anti-Nazi resistance is French photographers Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Cahun and Moore were a couple of photographers working close to the Surrealist tradition. They had prolific and exciting careers in Paris before moving and settling on the island of Jersey in 1937.


Three years later, the Nazis captured the island. Cahun and Moore, both gender-nonconforming artists of Jewish origin who experimented with their expression, were hardly deemed respectable citizens under the new rule. Instead of going into hiding, they launched an undercover propaganda project aiming to undermine the positions of the occupying force. They created a fictional persona of a German soldier under the pseudonym The Soldier with No Name, who was supposedly disillusioned with his government and its ideals. The non-existent soldier wrote anti-war and anti-Nazi manifestos and spread them among other soldiers. They printed and spread thousands of fliers, creating an impression of a large-scale conspiracy. In 1944, Moore and Cahun were arrested and sentenced to death for their activities, yet the sentence was never carried out since Jersey was finally liberated months later.


Art in the Third Reich: Rethinking the Difficult Legacy 

kirchner berlin painting
Street, Berlin, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1913. Source: MoMA, New York


The issue of preserving or erasing the painful legacy of the Nazi decades is pressing for German art curators and historians. While some prefer to ignore the topic entirely (like in the case of Arnold Böcklin in Alte Nationalgalerie), others attempt to research and even relaunch some Nazi-era projects to understand how these things were even possible. In 1991, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened a reconstruction of the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition. The museum used the original inventory and records remaining from the Munich show. However, the task was not simple for the curators since some works did not survive the Nazi years, and others were listed under different titles and had no elaborate descriptions. The final project was a deeply disturbing reconstruction of one of the darkest periods of human history, put into a wider context and demonstrating a bridge from hate speech to genocidal actions.

Author Image

By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.