Nazi Censorship on the Arts and Music – Entartete Kunst

The years 1927-37 were critical for artists in Germany. In 1927, the National Socialist Society for German Culture was formed. The aim of this organization was to halt the “corruption of art” and inform the people about the relationship between race and art. By 1933, the terms “Jewish,” “Degenerate,” and “Bolshevik” were in common use to describe almost all modern art.

Nazi Censorship of the Arts

“Entartete Kunst” – Degenerate Art

The years 1927-37 were alarming and terrifying for artists in Germany.   In 1937 The National Socialist Society for German Culture held an art exhibition in Munich.  The Nazis  called the exhibit Entartete Kunst, or Degenerate Art.   During this time  over 22 thousand art-works by more than 200 artists of that time were confiscated. The National Socialist Society for German Culture  declared artists of the banned paintings, mostly Expressionists,  Cubists,  Dadaism, Surrealist, Fauvists, nineteenth-century Impressionist and Post-Impressionist  to be  insane and morally corrupt.

Particularly reviled  were:  Edvard Munch, Emile Nolde, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Kirchner ( Kirchner was so devastated by his exile to Switzerland that he committed suicide in  in 1938.) Wassily Kandinsky, Max Ernst, Otto Dix, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Klee feared for his life and spent his years  cast out in Switzerland. The artist unable to obtain Swiss citizenship because of his status as a degenerate artist.) Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann and Vincent van Gogh. The Nazis felt that these artist led young people astray and encouraged corrupt ideas. The upper echelons of the SS occasionally got together for ‘art burning’ parties. They would drink beer and throw darts at so called degenerate paintings, later burning the paintings in huge art pyre.

The justification for deciding on what could be classified as  “degenerate” art was relatively straightforward and spiteful: any painting or sculpture that was in conflict with Hitler’s  artistic philosophy, was considered to be “Entartete Kunst”.  Many historians believe Hitler despised the artists of his day because he was never recognized for his own uninspiring paintings.  Hitler’s favorite artists included Lucas Cranach,  Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dure, Frans Hals,  Rembrandt  Meindert Hobbema and Quentin Metsys.  Hitler felt that these painters upheld wholesome decent standards.

In 1937, Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Propaganda organized  a public exhibition of banned art.  The exhibition was called “Entartete Kunst,” meaning, “Degenerate Art.”   The purpose of the exhibition was to show the public the stupidity, immorality, and depravity of the modern art movement.

Main Artists on the The Nazi List
singled out for special condemnation

  • Otto Dix German 1862-1942 Expressionist
  • Vincent van Gogh Dutch, 1853-1890 Post-Impressionist
  • Max Beckmann German, 1884-1950 Expressionist
  • Edvard Munch Norwegian, 1863-1944 Symbolist/Expressionist
  • Emile Nolde German, 1867-1956 Expressionist Painter
  • Oskar Kokoschka Austrian, 1886-1980 Expressionist Painter
  • Ernst Kirchner German, 1880-1938 Expressionist Painter.
  • Wassily Kandinsky  Russian, 1866-1944 Expressionist Painter
  • Paul Klee  Swiss 1879-1940 Swiss Expressionist Painter
  • Pablo Picasso Spanish, 1881-1973 Cubist/Abstract/Symbolist
  • Max Ernst German, 1891-1976 Surrealist Painter
  • Marc Chagall Russian, 1887-1985 Surrealist Painter
  • Franz Marc German, 1880-1916  Expressionist / Fauvist


Adolf Hitler (front row on aisle) listens as Wagnerian conductor, Dr. C. Muck, leads the Leipzig Orchestra.

Under the Nazi regime, all music produced had to fit within certain standards defined as “good” German music. Suppression of specific artists and their works was common, yet musicians were permitted limited artistic freedom. The Nazis attempted to create a balance between censorship and creativity in music to appease the German people.

This blend of art and politics led to a three-prong policy regarding musicians and artists:

  1. Loyal Nazi members who were talented musicians were guaranteed a job.
  2. Loyal Nazi members who were not talented musicians were not guaranteed a job.
  3. Any non-Jewish person who demonstrated a “genius” for music and was a member of the Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber) was permitted employment. This exception in policy permitted musicians like conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler and composer Richard Strauss to continue working.

According to Hitler and Goebbels (Hitler’s second in command), the three master composers that represented good German music were Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, and Anton Bruckner. All three composers lived prior to the 20th century.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) believed that “strength is the morality of the man who stands out from the rest.” Hitler identified himself with Beethoven as possessing that heroic German spirit. Beethoven was so loved by the German people that his legacy of music was unrivaled by any other composer.

Richard Wagner (1818-1883) was Hitler’s favorite composer. During World War I, it is reported, he carried Wagner’s music from Tristanin his knapsack. Often Hitler had Wagner’s music performed at party rallies and functions. Wagner’s music was uncompromisingly serious, and intensely Teutonic. It was not only Wagner’s music that ‘struck a chord’ with Hitler, but also his political views. Wagner wrote a violently antisemitic booklet in the 1850s called Das Judebthum in die Musik (Judaism in Music) insisting the Jews poisoned public taste in the arts. He founded the Bayreuth festival, which in the 1930s and 1940s was used by the Nazi party as a propaganda tool against the Jews.

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) considered himself a disciple of Wagner. Bruckner and Wagner were contemporaries composing much of their music between 1845-1880. Bruckner met Wagner in 1865 at the premiere of Tristan and Isolde in Munich. He dedicated his Third Symphony to Wagner. Music historians have referred to Bruckner’s Adagio of the Seventh Symphony as the Adagio of premonition. It is music written with funerals in mind. Wagner died shortly after Bruckner finished it in 1883. Like Hitler, Bruckner had humble beginnings. He never forgot his “peasant roots.” Much of Bruckner’s early training and education was under the guidance of Augustine monks. He had a genuine love of nature and “the great German Fatherland.” To Hitler, Bruckner exemplified the people. A movement from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was played upon the news of Hitler’s death in 1945.

Most musicians and composers who lived during the Third Reich were less fortunate in their ability to please the Führer. For many musicians, survival meant compromise. Many tried to strike a balance between allegiance to Germany and commitment to their work. It was a difficult balance to achieve, knowing that to fail meant deportation or perhaps death. The following musicians were all involved to some extent with the Third Reich.

Hans Hotter (b. 1909) is a classical opera singer Hitler regarded as “the greatest baritone of the future.” Even though Hotter was not a member of the Nazi party and had been known to make fun of Hitler at parties, he was given several prestigious positions within the Reich.

Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989), a wealthy gifted musician and conductor, was the youngest director of an opera company in Germany in the 1930s. In order to obtain better conducting positions, Karajan joined the Nazi party where it was rumored he bought some of his appointments. After the war he was banned from conducting until 1948. He became the permanent director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958 and was considered one of Europe’s most popular conductors.

Clemens Krauss (1893-1984), the illegitimate child of the Archduke of Hapsburg and a Viennese actress, was an accomplished opera conductor. He was a favorite of Hitler, though he was not a Party member. Krauss became a captive of Hitler’s music ministry. Though he tried to be transferred to Vienna on numerous occasions, Hitler insisted that he work in Munich.

Elly Ney (1882-1968), the daughter of a music teacher and an army sergeant, was a child prodigy. When she was ten she had a Jewish piano teacher at the Cologne Conservatory. She disliked her teacher immensely, because of his race. In 1933 she was asked to fill in for a Jewish musician who had been banned from performing, she regarded this as an insult, and said she only managed to do it by concentrating on the music.

Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) called himself a German genius. He was a rabid nationalist who believed that all art should serve the Fatherland. He once tried to persuade Mahler that the most essential feature of Wagner’s music was that it was German, rather than good. Mahler responded that all great artists leave their nationality behind and strive to produce a masterpiece. Pfitzner left the room in a fit of rage. He was compared to Strauss, yet is almost unknown today. His most famous opera was Palestrina.

Li Stadelmann was a harpsichord player who specialized in Bach’s music. She joined the Nazi party in 1933, stating, “Our German masters will find German interpreters.” She was an antisemite, who felt that Jews had no place in German culture or society.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was appointed president of the Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber) when Hitler came to power in 1933. Strauss accepted it as a way to get legislation passed which would benefit “serious” composers in a country he felt had become too commercial in its musical taste. His primary interest was purely musical, whether or not a person was Jewish was irrelevant to him. He regularly refused to fire Jewish musicians and continued to work with Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig. In written statements to Zweig he indicated his aversion to political policies. This politically incorrect stance put him at odds with the Nazi government. Goebbels felt Strauss was opportunistic and distrusted him, considering his music borderline German. Only his worldwide fame kept him from being a “persona non grata.” Because Strauss had Jewish relatives (his daughter-in-law) he was forced to deal cautiously with the authorities. There is a story that he attempted to visit his daughter-in-law’s mother who was imprisoned at Terezín. The camp guards refused him entrance. Her photograph was returned to Strauss soon after her death. Strauss was forced to resign in 1935 after which time his music was censored by the Reichsmusikkammer.

5 thoughts on “Nazi Censorship on the Arts and Music – Entartete Kunst

  1. What the SS soldier did to the paintings makes me mad and have you heard of what they did to the books, that the Night of Burning Books?
    Not cool.
    If Hitler was alive he would hear it from.
    The waste of lreaning, art and music, because one nut case hated the Jews!!!!!!!!!

  2. I am looking to put together an art project that targets racism on the whole world wide level…need fellow artist and help with funding! one voice reaching out there to the world. if you would like to help it would be wonderful.

  3. The Nazi’s could never destroy, burn or vanish true art. Because it’s in the whole of the human heart…every culture and place in time!

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