Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany. Jonathan Petropoulos. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014. 407 pp.).
In his book, Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany, Petropoulos boldly declares that modernism was not destroyed by fascism and continuously argues that modernism excelled under Hitler’s regime. His argument maintains the idea that modernism is defined as the rejection of “verisimilitude and traditional historicist idioms” (xi) and the process of abstraction, and non-realistic art components. Throughout his argument the author expands the definition of modernism. He argues that modernism itself has a very loose definition and later uses his unique interpretation of said definition in his argument. His analysis applies this definition to the specific perspective on daily life, culture, resistance, and collaboration by the Third Reich. Petropoulos discusses both groups of artists who succeeded in the Nazi Regime and artists who tried but failed to find support. Those artists who did fail were not actually interested in working for the Nazi party but just wanted to continue practicing their craft safely.
Petropoulos creates a sound argument by organizing in three main sections which together highlight ten exemplary artists. First he reviews the history of the relationship between modernism and the Third Reich. In this section he discusses specific art exhibits such as the Degenerate Art Exhibition and the Thirty German Artists. Joseph Goebbels, the “cultural czar” of the Nazi party, is introduced in this section. Goebbels is an important figure in Petropoulos’ argument, as he organized most of the art exhibits under Hitler’s reign. In this section Adolph Hitler’s management style regarding the arts is defined to the reader. Hitler himself was an anti-modernist yet he allowed his higher-ranked officials to fight his “design wars”. In the second section of his argument the author reviews five artists who tried but failed to continue working under the Nazi regime. The last section reviews five more artists who continued to work under Hitler and even adapted to the ideals and goals of the Third Reich. Throughout the entire book, Petropoulos continues to go against the more conventional argument that Nazi culture was too constraining for modernism.
Most notably in the first section, Petropoulos emphasizes the support given to the modernist movement from senior Nazi officials. Many of the older Nazi officials, such as Joseph Goebbels, were collectors of modernist works. Goebbels himself is said to have collected work from Ernst Barlach, an “unsuccessful” modernist sculptor. While this may be true, many of Barlach’s pieces were later put in the Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937 because they didn’t align with the Third Reich’s ideology. All degenerate art was banned from the grounds, despite having a senior official’s aesthetic approval. The author explains that there was a great deal of tension within the art community at this time, resulting in a lot of “grey area” when it comes to what was considered degenerate. . This “grey area” holds little weight when discussing the regime as a whole. He argues that because higher officials admired modern artwork themselves, they represented the true ideals of the party. If the party as a whole condemned certain works, historically, these decisions of a handful of senior officers do not pull much weight in the argument.
Artists such as Richard Strauss, Gustaf Gründgens, and Arno Breker were successful through the Nazi regime, and considered themselves modernist artists. I believe that Petropoulos fails to look critically at these artists through a historical lens. Despite his argument that these artists were expressionists, which was a “Nordic” form of modernism, these artists are truly expressionists and not completely categorized as modernists. These artists were more passionate supporters of Hitler than their unsuccessful counterparts, and were still loosely considered modernists. One of Petropoulos’ main arguments for these artists highlighted Breker’s support of Picasso. Despite this support, Breker actually altered his original style to align with the Nazi ideal. His new style was more violent and powerful than before. Even though he made these changes to fit the Nazi ideal, Petropoulos argues: “Breker hailed from a truly modernist milieu and never entirely gave up that identity, even after 1935, as he rose to the pinnacle of the Nazi cultural establishment.” (262). Due to this change in style there are holes in the author’s argument. This reinforces the conventional conversation discussing the rejection of traditional modernism during the Nazi regime.
Despite his unique and sound argument, Petropoulos’ argument is easily disputable. Even though there were a select few successful modernist artists working under the Third Reich, the regime as a whole rejected modernism. Because of Hitler’s own opinions and decisions regarding art during this time, all other officials’ opinions were not relevant. Hitler himself essentially controlled all aspects of his party so his beliefs were the beliefs of the party as a whole. Also many of the successful artists discussed in the author’s argument would not have been historically categorized as modernists. It is important to note that the goal of Petropoulos’ argument was to create a deeper understanding of these artists and their work in a historical lens. Overall his analysis offers an interesting and worthwhile perspective on the effect that fascism had on design, most notably during the Nazi regime in Germany.