March 26, 2009

Art and Design in the Third Reich: An Overview

This 1938 portrait was Hubert Lanzinger's allegorical "Der Bannerträger" (The Standard Bearer), showing Hitler as an armored knight. This painting became very popular in poster and postcard form. Copyright Third Reich in Ruins.

Thanks to the philosophy and forward thinking at the Bauhaus, German fine arts and graphics were well ahead of the world norm prior to World War II. Once Hitler personally intervened in the arts, “Political aims and artistic expression became one,” says a “Teachers Guide to the Holocaust.” Graphic design, allegory, and traditional images became intermixed in the German arts just as they did in the American government sponsored art under the WPA. No truly modern artists needed apply; no internationalism need show itself.

The task of art in the Third Reich was to shape the population's attitudes by carrying political messages through stereotypical concepts and imagined realities. They did this using every medium from carefully chosen type styles through stone sculpture, using every device from tiny runes on book covers to the massive banners and lighting seen at the party rallies. Every arts item was often approved directly by Hitler himself whether a drawing or a piece of sculpture.

One of the smallest details, type styles, proved to be a most controversial issue. The broken, blackletter gothic style we think of as typical of the National Socialist era is called Fractur. It was in use for over five centuries in the separate German states through the German Nazi era. In the 1930's, Futura, and its variations, were introduced by Paul Renner into Germany. Major print media immediately began using Futura after its introduction, but Fractur was deeply entrenched, and despite the bureaucracy disowning it after 1941 as Jewish, it was still in use at the end of the war.

Typestyle examples: Fractur on the left and Futura on the right. Copyright: A History Of German Graphic Design.

Hitler, “regarded the late 19th century as one of the greatest cultural epochs in human history,” wrote Albert Speer. This way of seeing the arts cut him off from the modern German artists of the time, and often placed him directly into the petit-bourgeois. The heroic images and dramatization of Aryan strength and beauty fit his mindset perfectly, and his minions followed easily swayed by the strength of his personality no matter what they believed in private.

Left: Dramatic poster of an Aryan woman at a Reich Sports fest, 1934. Right: A Walter Brudi ad for wool using the banned international style with Futura type, 1932. Copyright: A History of German Design.

Left: Poster following the party lines using Fractur, 1937. Right: Fine arts Magazine The Art of the Third Reich, using Classic type style, personally directed by Hitler. Copyright: A History of German Design. Image Copyright:

Albert Speer noted that when he gave away a painting as a gift it was often from the collection stored in the cellars of the House of German art. Later he commented that there was little difference between these works that were “once the subject of (such) violent controversy” and those paintings that were approved for display.

Hitler’s favorite sculptors were all considered neoclassical in the Doric sense. Although Arno Breker was heavily influenced by the impressionist artists of the period in Paris, such as Charles Despiau, Isamu Noguchi, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Maliol, who he called the “Michelangelo of Germany,” Becker was really mannerist though Hitler preferred to think of his work as neoclassical. He became Hitler’s favorite sculptor with works titled Comradeship, Torchbearer, and Sacrifice that helped typified Nazi ideals, and suited the nature of the NS architectures. Other sculptors, such as Josef Thorak worked in an adapted neoclassical manner in his powerful oversized architectural pieces.

Left: Dramatic but modernist sculptures outside the Olympic Stadium by Josef Wackerle. Middle: Thorak working on his “Monument to Work.” Right: A model of Thorak's "Denkmal der Arbeit" (Monument to Work), with an artist's conception of the work in place - this work was to be placed in the median at the southern entrance to the autobahn system, at the Austria border near Salzburg. <©> Third Reich in Ruins.

Hitler’s favorite subjects were gentle countryside images from his invented Volk Germanic History, dramatic images of heroic Aryan’s in action, or quiet Aryan nudes. He used these works as propaganda for the masses and as a tool for the bureaucracy. “To promote proper art, Hitler had the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art) built in Munich, to be the scene of special yearly exhibits,” Geoff Walden writes in Third Reich in Ruins. He knew exactly the kind of art he liked, and he personally edited the brochures that accompanied each show which had been juried to his liking by his personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, and special friends like Speer.

Walden also says, “The annual exhibitions featured military scenes, portraits of the Führer and other Nazi leaders, German landscapes and places associated with Hitler's youth, nudes, and scenes promoting German traditions, particularly "folk-art" agricultural views. Favored artists included sculptors Josef Thorak, Arno Breker, and Fritz Klimsch, and painters Sepp Hilz, Karl Truppe, Elk Eber, Wilhelm Hempfing, Ernst Liebermann, and Adolf Ziegler. The first exhibit was in 1937, at the opening of the building, and the annual shows continued through 1944.” Many of these images are indistinguishable from WPA art of the period both in style and medium. Even works that focused on a favorite theme, Portraits of the Furher were always done in what was considered a classical style.

Left: "Die Kunstzeitschrift" (The Art Journal) by Udo Wendel, 1940 (the magazine page shows the Fritz Klimsch sculpture "Die Schauende"). Right: "Porträt des Führers" by Fritz Erler, 1939. This work portrayed Hitler as the inspiration for German architecture and sculpture; the Haus der Deutschen Kunst is visible in the left background. Images Copyright: Third Reich in Ruins.

After the war, the American and British armies considered the neoclassical architecture to be propaganda and began its destruction. They also faced a difficult task when dealing with the many paintings, sculptures, and graphics, as well as the smaller items such as decorated books or napkin rings. The Occupying Forces now considered these also propaganda works. Instead of destroying the art, the US Army quietly collected over 9,250 Nazi-era works of art in 1946–47, and shipped them to the United States.

This existance of this collection, “has long been suspected by journalists and scholars of fascism and the Third Reich. But aside from a few familiar, frequently exhibited objects, such as Hubert Lanzinger's Der Bannenträger (1937), The Standard Bearer, knowledge of the whereabouts, the full contents, and the provenance of this collection, the largest surviving remnant of Nazi culture, has eluded researchers for over sixty years,” writes Gregory Maertz in Unearthing the Lost Modernist Art of the Third Reich. Only in 1986 were 7,100 pieces returned to Germany.

Though Hitler felt his art uniquely Aryan, the arts of the National Socialist period, 1932 through 1945, parallel much of the world political art of the time. Where Hitler used art to further his personal aims, Britain, Russia, and the United States all had similar government funded art programs using similar controlled styles to sway the public’s opinions. Only after the end of WWII did the true modernists crawl out from the wreckage of the war and begin to see the world in a new manner. Modern art now held full sway, and the international style won in the end.

Previous works in the series:

A Search for Nazi Architecture: July 8, 2008

Prora: The 20,000 Room Hotel: February 15, 2009.

Strength Through Joy Cruise ships: March 11, 2009

Art and Design of the Third Reich: March 25, 2009.

Links to more Third Reich Art Information:

Third Reich in Ruins

German Typefaces

Adolph Ziegler Degenerate art, Aryan nudes

Teacher’s guide to the holocaust Nazi approved art

A guide to the Holocaust

A history of German Graphic Design>Lots German Modern Art

Nazi Art Magazines

Arno Breker Sculptor

Josef Thorak the forgotten artist


  1. Should anyone even care about this? Personally I think all the good was negated by the bad?!

  2. Terrific design. It so colorful. Great work. The information shared here about the design is too good and informative. I too have got a beautiful designs for my post card from Postcard ninjas.

  3. This is a type of article that I would like to see in a Fine Arts Magazine. Although this kind of work can have a negative aspect to it, there is still things that you can learn about art of the era and how it influenced the people around them

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Peter in front of a wall sculpture. We were invited up to Peter Knego’s home to see the latest installation.   Abstract flat ...