In May 1945, US Army Major Ralph E. Pearson came upon a vast collection of paintings in the salt mines of Altaussee, Austria. These paintings, collected from museums, galleries, and private collections all over Europe, and including masterpieces like Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altar and Vermeer’s “Painter in his Studio” (“Die Malkunst”), demonstrated more than the Nazis’ brutal pursuit of spoils of war. As attentive observers of Nazi cultural politics already understood, this collection reflected the extraordinary importance the Nazis attributed to the visual arts. The Nazis’ explosive interventions into the field of the visual arts domestically and internationally raise questions that have only gained in importance over time. The period since 1989 in particular has seen a burst of interest in the Nazis’ looting of art, and concerted international efforts to return stolen property to its pre-war owners. Moreover, the nature of the relationship between Nazism (and fascism) and the arts has attracted new attention, reflecting the search for new ways of theorizing the workings of power through cultural and aesthetic practices.
Two recent studies demonstrate the on-going vitality of both of these fields. Birgit Schwarz’s Hitlers Museum presents significant new documentary sources on Hitler’s preparation of a new painting gallery in Linz, which answers important questions about this central part of the Nazis’ program of art looting, while raising new questions about its significance. Eric Michaud’s The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany uses a close reading of Nazi texts and images to offer a bold interpretation of the place of art and ideas about art in Nazi ideology, propaganda, and policy. Taken together, these works show that the study of art under Nazism raises broad and important questions, even as they highlight the methodological difficulties of pursuing these questions in a satisfying manner.
The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany brings to English-speaking audiences a study first published in French in 1996 by Eric Michaud, Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. Originally entitled Un Art de l’Eternité: L’image et le temps du national-socialisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), this is not a study of art or artists under National Socialism but an interpretation of National Socialism itself, or rather of what Michaud calls “the Nazi myth”. His use of this term apparently draws on the essay of that title by Philippe Lacoue-Labarth and Jean-Luc Nancy (Le mythe nazi. La Tour d’Aigues, 1991; in English as “The Nazi Myth”, translated by Brian Holmes, Critical Inquiry 16, 2 (1990): 291-312). Like the authors of that essay, Michaud reconstructs the ideas, rhetoric, and internal logic of the Nazi worldview, seeking, he writes, “to enter and work through the Nazi myth, tracing its metaphors and seeking to reveal a structure” (p. XI). But where Lacoue-Labarth and Nancy regarded Nazism as a specifically German phenomenon, Michaud wants to demonstrate that Nazism’s myth mobilized concepts derived from two bodies of ideas (“models”) that were shared all over Europe: art and Christianity. Through readings of Nazi texts about art, including works by Hitler, Alfred Rosenberg, Ernst Jünger, Gottfried Benn, Walther Darré, and Paul Schulze-Naumburg, and interpretations of works of Nazi-era painting, sculpture, and photography, Michaud argues convincingly that it is not enough to say that the Nazis mobilized the visual arts for propaganda. Instead, “art” – by which he means ideas surrounding the nineteenth- and twentieth-century European concept of “art,” including concepts derived from Christian ideas about images – was at the heart of the Nazi worldview.
For example, Michaud argues in the first two chapters that the idea of Hitler as “the Artist-Führer” played a crucial role in legitimating Nazi dictatorship. Michaud shows that the rhetoric of the “politician as artist” was common in interwar Europe, and situates that development in an impressive condensed history of the way “the legitimation of power through a divine right was replaced by legitimation through artistic genius” since the eighteenth century (p. 1). In Chapters 3 and 4, Michaud argues that “art” was also central to Nazi racism. A key part of the Nazi claim to Aryan racial superiority was the notion that the quality of a race could be determined from its visual, original contributions to culture – of which the Jews, as a long-standing tradition liked to claim, had made none. The Nazis also invested art with “real eugenic power,” insisting that exposing the populace to images of the healthy Aryan race was an effective means of actually producing this race. Michaud presents this claim in the context of the long history of “the myth of engendering through images” (p. 135) – a literalist’s interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s famous claim that “life imitates art,” itself rooted in the Bible and ancient Greece. Finally, in Chapter 5, Michaud examines Nazi concepts of time, arguing that in its constant references to its own end, “Nazism seems to have repeated the same link between faith and sight that is central to Christianity, within the same structure of anticipation as that constituted by Christian eschatology” (p. 181).
As a “reading” of Nazism, this book will be highly stimulating to readers interested in theories about the nature and power of images. It offers several fresh and provocative arguments about the structure and roots of National Socialist ideology, in particular with regard to its relationship to Christian ideas. Above all, Michaud is to be commended for his effort to advance the project of what he calls “de-Germanizing” Nazism, using his substantial erudition to show that central elements of the National Socialist worldview should be understood not as outgrowths of a specifically German problem, but rather as reflections of European cultural and intellectual traditions. This seems like a valuable way to move forward on questions left open by the Sonderweg debate, and to address the “European” status of National Socialism – a serious problem for today’s effort to forge new, more integrated narratives about European history.
At the same time, Michaud’s contribution to this project is likely not to satisfy many historians. First, his effort to contextualize Nazi ideas, while erudite and stimulating, remains somewhat impressionistic. Assembling quotations from across the ages on a topic can demonstrate interesting continuities, but does not make a historical argument about how these ideas came to occupy the place they did in Nazi ideology and practice. Second, while it is valuable to “enter” the Nazi myth, it also seems important to exit it, in order to subject one’s findings to an analysis external to the Nazis’ idiosyncratic worldview. The lack of such a perspective leads Michaud to make dramatic claims that his analysis and sources cannot support. These include his insistence that “over and above all its tumults,” World War II “was primarily intended to restore the calm and radiant vision of the eternal Reich that lay as a dream in the heart of the Volksgeist” (p. 207), or his claim that “the anti-Semitism and extermination practiced by the Nazis are intelligible only from this historical perspective of the sublation (Aufhebung) of an invisible God by an incarnate God – a sublation that turned into a contrast between redemption and the critical authority that had to be abolished” (p. 83). If these claims are made from within the Nazi myth, explaining the myth’s internal logic, are they really meant to illuminate the intentions or motivations of Nazi leaders in war and genocide? Apparently not, since Michaud announces early on, “the question of whether or not the Nazis believed in their own myth is of secondary importance” (p. XII). Or do they explain how this myth appealed to those at whom it was aimed? As the book offers no analysis of the reception or efficacy of the myth, Michaud’s study cannot answer that question either.
Finally, and most seriously, Michaud’s analysis is undermined by the static and simplistic manner in which he presents “Nazism” as the object of his analysis. Michaud draws on sources from disparate figures and periods at will, downplaying the range of competing visions among Nazi leaders, and ignoring the differences between Nazism as a movement in 1925, as a government in 1933, in its newly radicalized forms following 1937, or in its international dimension from 1940. Nazism’s “myth” did not exist purely in the realm of texts, ideas, and images; it was the ideology of a political movement and, like all such ideologies, it changed over time, responded to political, economic, and military pressures, and was forged and re-forged by interested actors interacting in a complex field of power relations. Hopefully future work will be able to integrate this kind of information with Michaud’s stimulating suggestions, creating work of greater explanatory power.
One of the areas of Nazi art policy that has aroused most interest is the matter of the Nazis’ campaign of art theft, which has been the subject of a large and continuously growing literature. In 2000, Vienna-based art historian Birgit Schwarz was researching this topic when she came upon a valuable and virtually unknown source: a series of albums filled with black and white photographs of paintings, detailing the planned contents of the new painting gallery that Hitler planned to build in Linz, Austria, after the war. Held at Berlin’s Regional Finance Office (Oberfinanzdirektion), these black leather-bound volumes, marked “Gemäldegalerie Linz,” had been assembled and presented to the Führer by Hitler’s special officer for the preparation of the new Linz museum, Hans Posse, head curator of Dresden’s renowned Gemäldegalerie, and his successor in this post, Hermann Voss. (They are currently on display in a glass box as part of the new permanent exhibition of the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin).
Hitlers Museum reproduces the contents of all of the surviving volumes in 264 pages of photographs. Schwarz also lists all the works to have been included in this museum, includes the provenance (where known) and present location of each piece, and has prepared a useful index of the images by artist. This source material is introduced by a long introductory essay, in which Schwarz offers a narrative reconstruction of the development and execution of the plan to create the so-called “Führermuseum,” focusing on Posse’s curatorial work, offering an assessment of the value of these photo-albums for future research and correcting several errors of fact which, having been made in the first sources on Nazi art looting in the 1940s, have been repeated by many authors since then. In particular, scholarly and popular assessments of Nazi art looting alike have mistakenly claimed that all the paintings collected by the Nazis – including the thousands discovered by the Americans in the salt mines at Altaussee – were destined for Hitler’s future museum. This in turn has been imagined as a kind of super-museum, to outclass the Uffizi and the Louvre, reflecting Hitler’s greed and megalomania. In fact, Schwarz argues that the photo-albums demonstrate that the planned public museum was designed to display only a portion of the art the Nazis had amassed.
On the contrary, the photo-albums show that Posse envisioned this as a high-quality but relatively modest collection, consisting of a selection of European old master paintings from before 1800, and a larger collection of German and Austrian nineteenth-century works. Rather than rivaling the greatest museums on earth, Schwarz argues Linz’s collection was to have taken a dignified place between Munich and Vienna. Drawing on Posse’s correspondence with Nazi officials, Schwarz shows that the Linz museum plan was part of a larger project of the redistribution of cultural goods among the cities of the Ostmark (annexed Austria), developed by Hitler and Posse in conjunction with the Nazis’ seizure of the extraordinary collections of Vienna’s great Jewish art collectors. Moreover, this “Austrian model” went on during the war to be the basis for the planned redistribution of works of art in the eastern regions of the German Reich. She notes that the works of art seized in occupied Poland, as well as some of the most important collections seized from Jewish collectors, were split into two categories: “Kategorie I” paintings were to be sent to Linz, but the far larger “Kategorie II” was what Schwarz calls a “Verteilungsmasse” – a fund of works to be distributed around the regional museums of the expanding Reich’s eastern half (pp. 68-73).
Moreover, the photo albums are also a crucial source for understanding the organizational, or “museological” concept of Hitler’s gallery. Posse selected the paintings according to traditional criteria of quality, and carefully organized the images – in a manner entirely traditional for the period – by national schools, and chronologically within each school. As Albert Speer later reported, Hitler deferred to Posse’s expert judgment, even when Posse declined to include several of Hitler’s most beloved works from his holdings in Munich. There was, then, nothing particularly National Socialist about Hitler’s museum, except of course for the brutal and anti-Semitic seizures of private property that made its assembly possible. Indeed, looking through the book’s images – which, while a valuable source for specialists, do not make for terribly interesting viewing – the chief insight one gains is just how unexceptional this artistic and museological vision was.
But then this conservative traditionalism itself needs analysis. Insofar as Schwarz discusses Hitler’s motivations, she presents his museum as an effort to present himself as a “man of culture”. “Mit [der Sammlung Linz],” she writes, “wollte sich Hitler nach einem erfolgreich zu Ende geführten Krieg dem deutschen Volk und der ganzen Welt als ‘Kulturmensch’ präsentieren” (p. 81). After Michaud’s provocative reading of the Nazis’ complex views on art, race, history, and the power of the image, one is disappointed by Schwarz’s comparatively superficial and instrumentalist analysis of the basic question of why the Nazis invested so much importance in art. One hopes that in her forthcoming book on “Hitler as Collector” Schwarz will pursue this issue with greater depth. In the meantime, reading these texts together, it seems clear that art – understood as a set of ideas about the role of images in history and society, as a set of practices, and as a legacy of objects – will continue to be a crucial field of inquiry for the ongoing effort to understand the experience of Nazi domination in Germany and Europe.