Why the Nazis feared modern art

The recent discovery in Munich of what are reported to be more than 1,500 major artworks confiscated or banned by the Nazis is a reminder of how totalitarian regimes tend to view art as so dangerous a potential adversary as any enemy army. In the case of the Nazis, that view was entirely in keeping with the central irony of the Third Reich's benighted rule, which claimed to be saving European civilization at the very moment it was destroying it. Today, the same irrational hatred and fear of art can be found among the jihadists of the Taliban, al-Qaida and other Islamist extremists, along with the same consequences for their societies.

It's perhaps a case of life imitating art that the long-hidden treasure trove uncovered in Munich — which includes important works by Henri Matisse and Gustave Courbet, Franz Marc and Max Liebermann, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner — has come to light just as Columbia Pictures/20th Century Fox is set to release the feature film "Monuments Men" next month, with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett in starring roles. Its appearance now will make it hard to escape the parallels between the Nazis' abhorrence of the creative freedom represented by art 70 years ago and that felt by the enemies of freedom today.


The movie recounts the improbable story of the special Army unit made up of museum directors, curators and art historians charged with finding and recovering thousands of artworks looted by the Nazis in Germany and the territories it had occupied. Their unit went ashore in France in 1944 and followed the Allied armies across Europe to conduct the search, often under enemy fire. It was little heralded yet an undeniably consequential operation in terms of its import for future generations.

The artworks the monuments men were looking for had all been stolen from museums and private collections across Europe. Like countless tyrants before him, Adolf Hitler considered important works of art in the conquered territories legitimate spoils of war. Meanwhile, in Germany itself his agents confiscated thousands of artworks from Jewish families before they were sent to concentration camps. Other works were bought cheaply by unscrupulous dealers from collectors desperate for cash to leave the country.


What was striking about the Nazis' looting was the thoroughness with which their rapacity was organized, and its efficiency. In the 19th century, Napoleon had also tried to systematize the looting of artworks during his campaigns in Spain and Italy. But the scale of the Nazis' predations may have been unprecedented. Many of the works later ended up in the private collections of Hitler and his cronies, hidden in underground bunkers for later display in a new German art museum the Fuehrer planned to build after the war, or parceled out to art dealers with Nazi sympathies for sale abroad to raise money for the German war machine.

The irony in all this, of course, is that Hitler and his top lieutenants actually hated and feared art — or at least the art of their own time. They believed modern art was a corrupting influence inimical to the ideal of Nordic "blood and soil" they harbored for the German nation, and officially only painting and sculpture executed in a traditional style that conformed to the Nazi values of racial purity, militarism and obedience could be publicly exhibited. After Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels mounted a 1937 exhibition aimed at ridiculing the "degenerate art" of Pablo Picasso, Matisse and other modern masters, Hitler was furious when the show attracted large, enthusiastic crowds in cities across Germany.

The Nazis' anxiety over modern art stemmed from a recognition that art of any kind is likely to evoke emotional and intellectual responses in viewers that are, in principle, beyond the government's power to control. Hitler hated the art of his time precisely because the values it conveyed could not be reduced to the "blood and soil" formulation on which the third Reich was based. And in a totalitarian society, everything that is not compulsory must be forbidden. Truly creative art must be censored to serve society's rulers, lest it lead to subversive thoughts of rebellion.

The former Soviet Union tried to impose a similar lid on creative expression before that totalitarian system collapsed of its own weight. (At the end of World War II, Stalin's minions carried off much of what the Nazis had failed to collect as Russia's share of the war's booty; the whereabouts of most of those works remains a mystery to this day.) Yet confiscating or censoring art, whether because of its decadence or because of its monetary value, is always ultimately a recognition of art's power to shape attitudes and move people to action.

Perhaps that is why the Taliban's leaders believed the safest course for would-be rulers was to destroy art altogether, as they did in March 2001 with the 6th-century monumental statues of a standing Buddha carved into a cliff in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan. The Taliban thought dynamiting the statues would cement clerical rule in the Islamic state they had set themselves up in as guardians. It didn't turn out that way. Six months after the statues crumbled into dust, the Taliban were driven from power by rival militias backed by the U.S., and they have remained in exile ever since.

Glenn McNatt

To respond to this editorial, send an email to