Nazi History Painting

One of the fundamental problems with Nazi art is its functionalization for propaganda purposes. Thus it is so easily recognizable, so trivial and primitive, that the art historian more or less immediately loses all his interest. This has unfortunately often the consequence that no one asks for its traditions or even less for its artistic and stylistic issues. If the message of an artwork is so intrusive it superimposed its aesthetic conception almost completely. But if you look into Nazi art in the larger context of history painting then automatically arise questions about its traditions about differences and similarities with other paintings of the genre.

But looking for roots and traditions of Nazi art, however it's to become a victim of their own propaganda. Thus many masterminds and theorists of German fascism spoke constantly of a "conservative revolution", which was explicitly understood as the antithesis of the French Revolution with all its odious consequences, such as democracy, liberalism, modernism and individualism. And as the cradle of these ideas, of course, is believed Romantic movement with all its denials of rationalism and the Enlightenment.

In the 19th century Romanticism and similar movements as the Gothic Revival, the Nazarenes or the Pre-Raphaelites were primarily linked to conservative, monarchist and religious ideas. Neoclassicism by contrast was regarded as typical of Republicans and liberals, meaning the heirs of the French Revolution, Enlightenment and rationalism.

That this model doesn't work out so simple demonstrates a quick look at the architecture. Conservatives and Romantics generally favored Gothic Revival and other styles based on the Middle Ages.

Schinkel: Gothic Cathedral Friedrich: Abbey in the Oakwood

Karl Friedrich Schinkel: Gothic Cathedral (1815), Caspar David Friedrich: Abbey in the Oakwood (1810)

However having a look at the buildings and plans of the Nazi master architect Albert Speer, it's obvious that quickly these had absolutely nothing in common German Romanticism.

Albert Speer: Peoples Hall

Speer's "People's Hall" was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome and had thus the same model as the Pantheon in Paris or the Capitol in Washington. However, there are two fundamental differences from the Pantheon in Rome and the buildings in Paris and Washington. Compared with the other examples, the People's Hall is gigantic, a monstrosity. This giantism results not just in new architectural possibilities, but has mainly the purpose to reduce people, the individual to the greatness of ants. Incidentally, it is the same intention, which is behind the mass gatherings of the party rallies at Nuremberg.

Albert Speer: Reichskanzlei

The second major difference is the strong simplification, the rationalization, which makes the People's Hall something like a Bauhaus version of the Pantheon. The architectural style of the Nazis was not simply a continuation of neo-classicism, but its adaptation to the officially so despised New Objectivity.

Tempelhof Berlin Tempelhof Berlin

Tempelhof Aiport Berlin

The close relationship of Nazi architecture to modernist architecture becomes explicitly evident with the example of Tempelhof Airport, which the British architect Sir Norman Foster called "the mother of all airports". Here prevails an extremely simplified Neoclassicism which is much closer related to the Art Deco of the Chrysler Building than to medieval Romanticism so popular among conservatives.

This excursion is necessary in my view because stylistic issues are much more evident in architecture then in painting where they are normally superimposed by the intrusive content. Turning now history painting it's obvious that there too practically nothing left from the conservative romantic tradition of the 19th Century.

Ziegler: The Judgement of Paris Saliger: The Judgement of Paris Saliger: Dianas Rest

Adolf Ziegler: The Judgement of Paris (1939)
Ivo Saliger: The Judgement of Paris (1939) and Diana's Rest (1940)

The paintings are done in a simplified Neoclassicism, which always prefered mythological and allegorical subjects. It is also noteworthy that the body and hairstyle are completely modernized.
Furthermore it seems that especially "The Judgement of Paris" was a kind of Nazi porn where the leaders take their choice.

For comparison two photos and a poster of the 1930s. There is no doubt that the paintings above are using exactly the same type of woman. And it's a type, nothing individual.

BDM Girls Photo by Leni Riefenstahl BDM Poster



Even though something like normal history paintings were produced. These had nothing in common with the tradition of narrating stories or to reproduce something what had happened long ago. Instead there were created universal allegories showing types in place of individuals, heroic sacred poses in place of human behavior.

Kampf: For the Flag Staeger: Eastern Agressions

Arthur Kampf: Fighting for the Flag; Ferdinand Staeger: Repelling Eastern Agressions



Bürkle: Fighting Peasant Kampf: The Maiden of Hemmingstedt

Albert Bürkle: Fighting Peasant; Arthur Kampf: The Maiden of Hemmingstedt (1939)

These paintings focus on heroic figures who lack all individuality, aggressive allegories, which are often exaggerated to the point of caricature. Interesting is also how the image of the Virgin is secularized into a belligerent woman, leading her people to slaughter.

While history was adjusted more and more obviously to the present, on the other hand old techniques were favored to enforce the illusion of a glorious past. First and foremost were here the murals which adorned official buildings. As a kind of Renaissance frescos they should provide tradition and greatness.

The most prominent example is certainly the Brunswick Cathedral, which was redesigned in 1937 to a National Socialist sanctuary. To nave was decorated with eight monumental wall paintings showing scenes from the life of Henry the Lion, who had founded the Cathedral and was buried in its crypt.

Dohme: Henry the Lion

Brunswick Cathedral: Henry the Lion

Dohme: Frontier

Brunswick Cathedral: Guarding the Eastern Frontier

Despite the artist William Dohme used to the traditional sgraffito technique the artwork is much more influenced by clear from the officially so despised Bauhaus and German modernism than from any Renaissance painter.

Spiegel: Tank

Ferdinand Spiegel: Tank

This giant mural "Tank" by Ferdinand Spiegel compares attacking tanks with the force of the Prussian cavalry of Frederick the Great. History and presence, tank or horses, it's all the same, in the eternal wotld of fighting.

In 1938 the artist Franz Eichorst decorated the Schöneberg city hall in Berlin with murals showing scenes from the Fist World War and the follwing civil war in Germany. His work is also strongly incluenced by German modernism.
Eichhorst: Tanks

Franz Eichhorst: Defence against Tanks (1938)

Eichhorst: Schoeneberg

Schöneberg city hall in Berlin with mural



Very similar to the murals are the tapestries by Werner Peiner. Obviously modelled on the famous Bayeux Tapestry he designed a whole series of tapestries showing heroic battles of German history from the victory over the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest to the Battle of Cambrai in the First World War.

Peiner: Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

Werner Peiner: Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (1940)

Peiner: Siege of Marienburg

Werner Peiner: Siege of Marienburg (1940)



Very popular was also the old religious form of the triptych, which was intended to elevate the depicted to sacred heights. Allegories of leadership and hero worship should here replace the traditional Christian values. Often, however, it was only the outer form but not the content which was historical.
Kalb: Searching, Finding, Losing

Friedrich Wilhelm Kalb: Searching, Finding, Losing (1942)

Ziegler: The Four Elements

Adolf Ziegler: The Four Elements (1937)

Sauter: Hero Shrine

Wilhelm Sauter: Hero Shrine (1936)



The Negation of History

This fundamental tendency to hero worship, to prefer universal allegories over real events led to the result that history paintings weren't very useful at all. Art should depict stuff like "the eternal hero", "sacrifice", "leadership" or "war" as an univeral force but not as a special incident. Although the Nazis themselves almost constantly appealed to history, they had no real interest in it.

The idea of progress which had dominated historiography so long was replaced by an eschatological pseudo-religion. There was no longer any sense in telling history or even to investigate it, at best history was invoked as a paradigm. It had become a moldable material for any artist and politician.

SS Poster SS Poster SS Poster

This attitude is probably best illustrated by this propaganda posters. Despite there is a relation to historical subjects, history had a purely appellative function, it serves only to underline the demands of the present.

The crude mixture of pseudo-religion, ahistorical eschatological exploitation of history, glorification of heroism and leadership becomes most evident if Hitler himself is the subject.

Lanzinger: The Standard Bearer Hitler

Here he is depicted as Percival the knight of the Holy Grail. Next he is even presented as a kind of savior with a halo, while the imperial eagle takes the place of the Holy Spirit. Certainly it's the very worst kind of kitsch, but just because of this extremely revealing. History will again become myth and Hitler moved into the place of the eternal savior and redeemer.

That's the end of history and therefore also the end of it's depiction!