Wiener Library Blog
Nazi Propaganda in Art
Posted by Theo Fiore, Wednesday 19th April, 2017
I’m a keen first year history student at Queen Mary University of London who enjoys medieval and modern history alike. I leapt at the chance to volunteer at The Wiener Library, because, as someone who loves history and loves even more to express their opinion, I was attracted to the prospect of blogging for the Library. Furthermore, I feel that The Wiener Library addresses relevant and meaningful topics that remain in our collective consciousness, and I was therefore keen to be associated with such a historic and prestigious institution. Due to my experience with art history, I was drawn to analysing Nazi propaganda in Third Reich artworks in an attempt to decipher the meanings, motifs and messages of certain images.
Nazi Propaganda in Art
On my first visit to The Wiener Library I saw Juden Raus! (English: Jews Out!), a board game produced in Germany in 1938 that players ‘win’ by capturing caricatured Jewish figures and deporting them to Palestine. When looking back on items of propaganda like this (although it should be stressed that the game was not an official Nazi Party product), the first thing that strikes me is how audacious and lacking of subtlety their antisemitism is. The existence of this object continues to interest and fascinate many to this day and was featured in a special Holocaust Memorial Day edition of the Antiques Roadshow at the beginning of this year - watch the full clip on BBC iPlayer.
In this piece, I would like to focus on Nazi art, which was another popular means of spreading propaganda, something perhaps unsurprising considering that Hitler was genuine art lover and passable painter himself (Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker described him as “ripe for instruction that he never received”, 19 August 2002). It’s interesting nevertheless to see Nazi Germany adopt artistic movements and imbue it, sometimes subtly and often more bluntly, with ideas of Nazism.
Adolf Hitler in Art
In keeping with traditional artistic tropes, the most obvious (and therefore perhaps most trite) choice of painting subject in Nazi Germany was Adolf Hitler himself. The sheer number of these types of paintings is astonishing; for a man busy leading a country at war, it is notable that he considered the propagandic element of the Nazi ideology to be of similar importance. In fact so many of these types of portraiture were completed, even Hitler was forced to take a stand and decree that only one could be displayed officially at each Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung (English: Greater German Art Exhibition). The opening in 1937 began with a showing of Heinrich Knirr's "Adolf Hitler, der Schöpfer des Dritten Reiches und Erneuerer der deutschen Kunst”, now displayed in the Imperial War Museum in London.
Revealingly the title translates to “Hitler, the Creator of the Third Reich and Renewer of German Art”. It’s not hard to see how the painter glorifies him as a leader (whether Knirr did so under duress or not is unclear), but it’s interesting that the artist also heaped praise on Hitler as a figurehead of art. Those able to recall examples of portraiture of Tudor Henry VIII will immediately be able to recall the pose Hitler mimics: the sitter looking both commanding and benevolent, with a hand on hip, and an array of ephemera on display. In Hitler’s case he is adorned with his Nazi armband, and medals on his jacket. This kind of portraiture is therefore relatively easy to dissect and analyse. Clearly the aim was to paint Hitler in a commanding light, displaying his confidence and experience as a strong military leader. Paintings of this style were incredibly numerous, and unsurprisingly, they adopt the same tropes, ideas and aesthetics.
Families and Children
Another trend within Nazi art was that which focused on families and children. The Nazi Party understood that the youth of the 1930s would make up the society of the future and therefore made a concerted effort to imbue and indoctrinate them with Nazi ideology. These kinds of propagandic artworks focused on Hitler’s popularity amongst Aryan children and families. One such piece, “We want to see our Fuhrer” (unknown artist, 1930s), illustrates this trope well and seemingly offers a heartwarming image of happy toddlers and their parents that has suddenly and abruptly been interrupted by Nazi officers and Swastika flags. At first glance the Nazi undertones seem out of place and looking back on this period in history with our knowledge of today, it’s jarring to see the contrast between dark-suited Nazi troops and innocent children represented together in an apparently wholesome scene.
This image focuses on the young crowd celebrating Hitler and indeed the somewhat petulant title itself “We want to see our Fϋhrer” seems to come directly from the mouths of the young awaiting crowd. Secondly there is the linguistic link between ‘Fuhrer’ and ‘father’ echoing in a rather blatant manner Hitler’s deliberate attempt to depict himself as the ‘Father of Germany’. The authority and power ascribed to Hitler is evidenced by the awed expressions on the toddler’s faces; those in the foreground are attempting to crawl past the troops just to get a glance of the Fuhrer, as though he’s a modern celebrity. The Aryan features of the children do not go unnoticed, and for contemporary audiences there is an additional shock: in the background a Swastika is held aloft by a baby. The aim here is simple, to ingrain Nazi images and ideology into the receptive youth at a helplessly young age. The obsession with portraying children and families also carries over to certain Nazi propaganda posters, such as ‘The NSDAP secures the National Community’. This image similarly has a focus on family bonding and community, ultimately promising an idyllic family and social dynamic that Nazi rule could protect.
Art was, and remains, a powerful political and ideological weapon, however this was not a new concept and it should be stressed that the Nazis were merely following an already well-trod path in terms of depictions of heroism and militaristic tropes. Neither should it be ignored that the Allies were producing similar pieces of propaganda for their means too. Images and paintings are such an interesting medium because they transmit ideas almost subliminally, expressing emotions and ideas that resonate without the viewer consciously consenting.
The two paintings I chose to study are just two examples of thousands that I could have chosen from, yet they nonetheless express a thousand words which aid in our understanding of the period. It’s fascinating to decipher these images, their messages and the demographics they aimed to target in order to try and identify how the Nazi regime wished to portray itself and be seen by others.
Schjeldahl, Peter. “Hitler as Artist.” The New Yorker, 18 August 2002.
Suggested Further Reading:
The Wiener Library holds many books and documents relating to propaganda created by the Nazi Party, some of which are listed below:
- Weekend in Munich: Art, Propaganda and Terror in the Third Reich by Robert S. Wistrich
- The Arts in Nazi Germany: Continuity, Conformity, Change by Jonathan Huener and Francis R. Nicosia
- Art, Culture and Media under the Third Reich by Richard A. Etlin
- The Faustian Bargain: the Art World in Nazi Germany by Jonathan Petropoulos
For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Nazi visual arts; cultural policy; Nazi propaganda; The Arts; artists
Photo Credit: Wiener Library Photo Archive WL1150
Please report misuse to our Education team.