Ghosts-Degenerate Art

“Degenerate” Art

Exterminating Culture

The Nazis proved that mass murder begins with social marginalization; the eviction of diversity from the social order, the foreboding and ultimately fatal stamp of “the other.”

Books, music, plays, film and fine art were no more immune to this concept than the millions upon millions of human victims in the Holocaust.

“Degenerate” Art or entartete Kunst was the term for banned works that the regime labeled “depraved” or “degenerate” because  of “Jewish” or “Jewish-Communist” authorship or “influence” … a label that encompassed, according to Nazi policy, nearly all modern art from Impressionism forward, particularly those artistic movements identified with the hated Weimar Republic. Germany, according to law and Der Fuehrer’s own tastes, must be purged of all such “decadent” influence.

Hitler—the failed, mediocre art student—completed his revenge.

Examples of “Decadent” Art

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“Entartete Kunst” Show and Sale

All “degenerate” work was confiscated from museums and collections by 1937, when Joseph Goebbels (Reich Minister for Public Entertainment and Propaganda) and Adolf Ziegler (Reich Chamber of Visual Art) decided to exhibit the confiscated pieces to the public and solidify public sentiment against the “contamination.”

 Many of the paintings were hung upside down, crowded and purposefully displayed in as chaotic a fashion as possible to emphasize their “degeneracy” to the millions who flocked to see the show. Hate speech and “critiques” were painted on the walls next to the artwork. Below is a video of the 1937 Munich Exhibition.

In 1993, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art staged an exhibit about the Nazi war on art and tried to recreate the original 1937 entartete Kunst show. The following is a documentary produced for that event.

Of course, the value of much of this work still held outside of Nazi Germany and the fascist government took full advantage of this fact. In June, 1939, some of the more priceless pieces from the exhibit were auctioned off in Switzerland by the Galerie Fischer (still in business, by the way), an event that garnered great interest worldwide from museums and private collectors.

Criticism was leveled that buying the pieces was financing the German war machine, and this was true—museums and private collectors flocked to pick up acclaimed masterworks for a comparative pittance,  social consciousness as conspicuously absent as greed was ubiquitous. However, an argument could also be made that a purchase was safeguarding the art from destruction.

In fact, approximately four thousand condemned entartete Kunst paintings, drawings, prints, etc. were destroyed by the Berlin Fire Brigade in 1939 because they were not deemed valuable enough for the international market. In 1942, more were burned (this time works by Picasso, Miro, Dali, Klee, Leger, and Ernst) at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

The most valuable works, ironically, were often kept by high ranking Nazi officials like Herman Goring, who plucked a Cezanne and a Van Gogh from the “degenerate” art trash heap. Below are pages from the catalog that accompanied the 1937 entartete Kunst exhibit.

A video on Nazi book burnings by the United States Holocaust Museum:

Looting of Europe

While it was illegal to import “degenerate” art into Germany, it was perfectly legal to buy—or “confiscate” it, if you were a Nazi official—in France.  But what of the vast holdings of art treasures that did not qualify as modern and therefore “degenerate”? What of masterworks of Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages and works by artists like Rembrandt, Cranach and Vermeer?

As Germany became more and more isolated, art became currency, not only for those trying to escape persecution, as it had been earlier in the war, but for individuals seeking to survive the inevitable end of the Third Reich. And, as always, Hitler and Goring competed at the highest levels for “ownership” of Nazi-approved masterworks by favored artists like Vermeer. Below are some of the artworks rescued by the real-life Monuments Men.

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High ranking Nazis and collaborators looted, hoarded and stashed thousands upon thousands of European treasures, from altar pieces to the Mona Lisa to silver liturgical pieces. But much European artistic patrimony—especially from Poland—was systematically destroyed.

A good deal will never be recovered, though efforts have been in place for a number of years to identify artwork looted from individuals so that it can be repatriated back to the heirs of the original owners. The recent discover of a hoard of masterworks in a Munich apartment holds hope that more work—including “degenerate” pieces—will be found.

Below are ten looted masterworks out of thousands that are still missing: some presumably destroyed, some in forgotten hiding places, and some hoarded and possessed by private “collectors” … a true definition of “degenerate”, if you will.

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Ironically, Goring’s greed for Vermeer led to his duping by a Dutch forger—one of the most successful of all time. Hans van Meegeren was a not-too-successful painter of mostly sentimental scenes who decided to prove unkind art critics wrong (and enrich himself) by forging much-admired Dutch painters. Vermeer proved to be his ticket to fame and wealth.

Van Meegeren used chemical techniques to make his paintings seem genuinely old, and by 1937, his forged “Vermeer” Supper at Emmaus was hailed as not only a prime example of the great painter’s oeuvre, but his very finest. You can compare the painting, below, to the real Vermeers in earlier galleries.


Unfortunately, the forger cheated not only Goring but his own country. Dutch museums cobbled together precious money to buy the “Vermeers”, hoping to save them from Nazi confiscation.

Immediately after the war, Van Meegeren was tried for collaboration, and—for his defense—demonstrated how he forged the paintings in an effort to prove he swindled, not cooperated with, the Nazis. There are several biographies of the forger; The Forger’s Spell: a true story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick was one of the sources for CITY OF GHOSTS.