Nazi Ideology Effects on German Visual Arts

Section 1: Identification and Evaluation of Sources

This study will investigate the question “To what extent did Nazi ideology affect German visual arts from 1933 to 1945?”

The two sources that will be evaluated are Joseph Goebbels: Life and Death by Toby Thacker and German Artists and Hitler’s Mind: Avant-Garde Art in a Turbulent Era by Wayne Andersen. Both these books discuss the events related to art and propaganda that occurred while Nazi-governed Germany. These sources describe the regime from a variety of angles and take into consideration diverse factors that shaped the political and social events of the time. The development of art can be traced using both of these sources, but the first one covers it more narrowly, whilst the second explores a broader array of factors. These books will be helpful during the investigation because the research question of the current paper pertains to the impact of the Nazi ideology on German art, and these books discuss the arts rather thoroughly.

Source A. Joseph Goebbels: Life and Death

This source is a biography of Joseph Goebbels; it was originally published on September 23, 2009. Its author, Toby Thacker, is a senior lecturer of Modern European History at Cardiff University. Dr. Thacker obtained his Ph.D. from Cardiff University in 2002; before starting his work at Cardiff University, he taught History at Cheltenham Bournside School, then at Sixth Form College, and later at Swansea University (Cardiff University par. 3). In his studies, Dr. Thacker focuses on the cultural, military, and political history of Europe in the 20th century; he has written and published a large number of works on these topics (Cardiff University par. 1). Therefore, the book by Dr. Thacker can be deemed reliable due to the author’s background and specialty in history.

According to the book, being in charge of propaganda that was so powerful it was able to launch the Holocaust, the genocide of the Jewish people in Europe, Goebbels also had a massive impact on other social trends in Germany (Thacker 67). In particular, the information that was presented in the mass media was heavily censored by the Propaganda Ministry, and so was art. Therefore, art became a part of an entire system that was purposefully designed to shape people’s mindsets and ideas. The reader of the book in question can track this tendency while learning about the life of the main person behind it, Joseph Goebbels, and about the factors that were a part of his life journey of becoming one of the world’s most known war criminals in history. It should be stressed, however, that even though this book does not discuss art as a separate subject, one can make their conclusions and connections between the biography of Goebbels and the impact of his actions as the Minister of Propaganda on German art during 1933-1945.

The purpose of this book is to educate the readers about the life of Joseph Goebbels, and his influence on history. Its value as a source is the deep historical research conducted by the author, as well as the inclusion of data from many other valuable works. Its limitation in terms of coverage of the subject of art is that it focuses on the political journey of Goebbels and his life story, but not on the issues of art specifically. Another possible limitation is that the book is primarily focused on providing the facts about the life of Goebbels, but perhaps it could also benefit from adding certain elements of empathy to it.

Source B. German Artists and Hitler’s Mind: Avant-Garde Art in a Turbulent Era

This source is a book that was originally published on the 22nd of March, 2007. Its author, Wayne Andersen, was a Professor Emeritus of history, theory, and criticism of art and architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He obtained his Ph.D. from Columbia University and was invited to work as a lecturer and as a developer of a program of visual arts (Massachusetts Institute of Technology par. 3). Dr. Andersen had extensive experience in researching arts and history, as well as working for a leading U.S. university, and therefore, his book should be considered a credible source.

From the title of the book, it is clear that it explores the development of art in Germany in the period during which the Nazi-governed the country. The author covers the lives and artistic paths of versatile artists of the time and the challenges they faced due to the political situation in the country and the world in general. The book describes how the social trends and the interest towards art developed in Germany and were regulated by the government; for instance, how the governmental support of arts led to the attraction of multiple new people to this career, who ended up having insufficient educational background and training to work as professional artists and found themselves in poverty due to the lack of skills (Andersen 124).

The purpose of the book is to track the development of different trends in the art such as Romanticism, Expressionism, and Modernism, the factors that contributed to their formation in Germany, and the influence they had on the society. The book is valuable because it provides the reader wishing to learn about art in Nazi Germany with a considerable amount of information, and has a broad coverage of the topic. A possible limitation of this book is that it almost does not touch upon the political events of that era, whereas they were crucial for the way the German art developed at the time.

Section 2: Investigation

Throughout history, art commonly served as a tool employed by dictators, political regimes or other authorities to consolidate their position, expand their influence and justify the right to govern people by emphasizing the great potential of the existing system of power distribution and underlining numerous achievements made during the period of their rule. Also, art was (and, arguably, is) utilized to propagate certain values that are desirable for those who are in power.

In Nazi Germany, art was also widely used as a means of imposing Nazi political views. However, it is pivotal to be aware of the fact that the word “political” should be used in a broad sense here. That is, the Nazi art not only propagated the power of the Third Reich and the weakness and pitifulness of its enemies (although it did so directly), but also promoted those values, as well as the aesthetics (obviously), the ideals, the way of life, and the types of behavior which were viewed as desirable by Nazis. For instance, the works of Arno Breker propagated the ideal of a strong, physically flawless man, a brave Aryan warrior who is distinctly superior when compared to the representatives of other races. Another example: many of the paintings of Ludwig Dettmann (for instance, “By the Waterlilies in the Moor”), who was added to Gottbegnadeten list, the list of artists considered critical for the Nazi culture, depicted the tranquility of the rural Volk life, which also was an important point of the Nazi ideology (Grunberger 153).

The main aim of the current analysis is to investigate the extent to which the ideology of Nazism affected visual art in Germany from 1933-1945. At the same time, it is also paramount to discuss Hitler’s perceptions of art and to consider how each area of the visual arts was affected by Nazi Ideology. The extent to which the Nazis controlled the development and production of art, as well as the effect of that art on non-Germans, should also be examined.

Hitler’s Perceptions of Art

Although various institutions and political figures were involved in the process of “cleansing” the German culture, Adolf Hitler played the central role in it. He was the leader and the central authority, and his beliefs had a clear impact on German art during 1933-1945. On the whole, Hitler’s interest in art was associated with his childhood dream to become a painter and devote his life to drawing (Kleiner 765). In this respect, Hitler’s idealistic viewpoints had a clear effect on the generally accepted concepts of art in Nazi Germany. Firstly, Hitler was a strong opponent of cubism and impressionism (Trueman par. 4). The reason for this was the conflict of interests and the lack of consistency of these art movements with Hitler’s political values and beliefs. Furthermore, limiting the influence of these artistic movements would increase the effectiveness of propaganda during the rule of the Nazi government.

Hitler’s preferred form of art was old-fashioned and traditional, classical art, rather than the art which was contemporary for him. He claimed that classical and romantic arts were the “true” arts, and also that art should not illustrate pain or distress (Trueman par. 4).

How Nazi Ideology Affected Painting

The painting belonged to the sphere of the interests of the Nazi. It is paramount to realize that this ideology was focused on the appeal to the “fact” that Germans were the “chosen” people, and that they must prevail over other peoples (“Art in Nazi Germany” par. 7). Art was used to proclaiming this idea and make people believe it. Besides, paintings of the Third Reich were characterized by the adherence to some peculiarities of Romantic realism that was based on classical models (Gabbut 6). Moreover, Nazis considered modern styles degenerate (Farago), and promoted traditional schools with special attention given to racial purity, militarism, obedience, traditional values, and simple virtues (Gabbut 6). For instance, Adolph Ziegler was among the favorite Hitlers painters, for his works were considered to be able to satisfy the demands of the Nazi ideology (Gabbut 11). Ziegler’s “Girl With Two Fruit Baskets” or his triptych “The Four Elements” might be used as examples for the statements made above: in these pictures, the painter promotes purity and natural beauty (Keats par. 5). However, several artworks are centered around military plots, that emphasize the power of the German nation, and that “justify” the territorial claims of the Third Reich. On the whole, the painting was an important sphere utilized by the Nazis to alter people’s mentality.

How Nazi Ideology Affected Sculpture

The sculpture was another important sphere of art influenced by Nazi ideology. Monumental possibilities of this kind of art suggested several ways to express theories of Nazism. The fact is that sculpture helped to embody an ideal image of the Aryan, a representative of the “chosen” and “dominant” race. For this reason, the art of sculpture was given great attention. The nude male was the most common subject explored by sculptors (“Nazi Art (1925-45)” par. 4). For instance, Arno Breker was considered an official sculptor whose monumental style contributed to the formation of the recognizable image of the Third Reich (“Nazi Art (1925-45)” par. 8). In general, monumentalism became the most distinctive feature of Nazi art as it helped to demonstrate the “greatness” of claims and ideas promoted by this regime (Trueman par. 5). Moreover, sculpture demonstrated no signs of “imperfections” or other traits that are characteristic of living beings. The sculpture of that period was aimed at creating an ideal that should have been desired by the population of Reich. In this regard, the impact of ideology in the sphere of sculpture could hardly be overestimated as the new ideology demanded the creation of an image of an ideal person who belonged to the German people.

How Nazi Ideology Affected Architecture

When considering the impact of the Nazi ideology on German art, it is also important to discuss the architecture. Being closely related to sculpture, it followed the same patterns and regularities. Architects of that period tended to create great and magnificent buildings to mimic the imperial style and to underline the ambitions of the government that wanted to prove its similarity to the previous Reichs (“How Did the Nazis Control Culture and Leisure?” par. 6). Furthermore, the usage of great forms and expensive materials was conditioned by several important purposes (“Art in Nazi Germany” par. 8). It was considered a means of impressing masses and manipulating their consciousnesses. Being a mediocre artist who failed to succeed in the given sphere, Hitler interfered in the way this kind of art evolved, and pushed artists to create monumental buildings in older neoclassical or art deco styles (Trueman par. 6). For this reason, the given ideology impacted the evolution of this kind of art considerably. It preconditioned the spread of the imperial and the neoclassical styles and the strangler of buildings erected according to the peculiarities of these approaches (“Art in Nazi Germany” par. 8). For instance, The Dietrich-Eckart-Theater is a perfect example that illustrates the impact that the Nazi ideology had on the architecture of that historical period (Gabbut 9).

How Nazi Ideology Affected Cinema

When speaking about art and the impact that ideology had on it, it is also crucial to mention the cinema, which was a new but very influential tool. Trying to justify their dominant position, Nazis wanted to alter the attitude to their ideas and approaches. For this reason, the majority of movies created in the middle of the 20th century in Germany had great ideological meaning and significance (“How Did the Nazis Control Culture and Leisure?” par. 8). Adolf Hitler and his subordinates recognized the unique role that this kind of art played in the modern world and the perspectives related to its further development. In this regard, movies depicted numerous successes, both international and local (Gabbut 13). People were provided with demonstrations of how powerful and influential their state became due to the shift of priorities (“Nazi Art (1925-45)” par. 8). Moreover, the main characters of the majority of movies were depicted as ideal Aryans–brave, courageous, fair, and so on (“How Did the Nazis Control Culture and Leisure?” par. 8). On the contrary, non-Aryans, as well as the proponents of the opposing ideologies, were depicted as having numerous adverse traits and characteristics such as weakness, non-trustworthiness, cowardice, and so on. Such motion pictures as Hans Westmar (1933) or White Slaves (1937) may serve as examples of Nazi propagandist films.

The Extent to Which the Nazis Controlled Art

The totalitarian Nazi government thoroughly examined and censored the sphere of art. In particular, the main character of Thacker’s book “served” as the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in the Third Reich (Thacker 152); one of the divisions of the ministry was the department of art, music, and theatre, which, was specifically aimed at controlling and shaping these spheres. Besides, such an agency as the Reichskulturkammer (RKK, the Reich Chamber of Culture) was created in 1933; it was stated that it should serve as a professional organization of German artists, but it was utilized to instill the Nazi ideas in the German culture (Thacker 156).

Also, it should be stressed that the art in Germany was also strictly controlled by legal means. Several laws concerning the art and culture were created; for instance, Expressionism, which was despised by Hitler, was banned. The program of the NSDAP demanded “legal prosecution of artistic and literary forms which exert a destructive influence on our national life” (Totten and Feinberg 105); this was later implemented in life, and it is clear that the vagueness of the phrasing meant that any types of “undesirable” arts could be prosecuted severely. The “undesirable” arts also included the arts associated with other races, and especially with the Jewish culture; the latter were persecuted heavily. It is noteworthy that the German motion picture industry also suffered severely because numerous prominent film artists were banned, and only politically “correct” movies were to be produced and demonstrated to the masses.

On the whole, it should be pointed out that the Nazis controlled the art to a considerable extent. Art was one of the central parts of the Nazi propaganda; Michaud and Lloyd state that this was because many of the Nazi leaders, including Adolf Hitler himself, “harbored pretensions to the status of the artist” (29). A large number of works of art were branded as “exert[ing] a destructive influence” (Totten and Feinberg 105) and forbidden, and those who spread these faced harsh consequences inside the walls of the Nazi penal apparatus.

The Impact of Nazi Art on Non-Germans

Nazi art had a profound impact on how representatives of other nations were viewed by the proponents of the Nazism. As has been pointed out above, the Nazi art was aimed at promoting the values associated with that ideology; in particular, the representatives of non-Aryan races or opposing ideologies were depicted as inferior, pathetic and disgusting; for instance, in the movie Hans Westmar, communists are shown as the enemy, and Jews are depicted as foul cowards who e.g. initiate violence and then flee (“Hans Westmar”). Non-Jewish representatives of non-Aryan races were also depicted as inferior, although not as inferior as the Jews. Of course, this led to certain beliefs about non-Aryans among the proponents of Nazism. Thus, even though it might be difficult to clearly distinguish between the effects of the Nazi arts and of other methods of their propaganda (and perhaps even pointless, because these methods were integrated and intertwined with one another), it might be stated that the Nazi arts hurt representatives of other peoples, promoting an image of these people according to which they were simply a tool to be used for further development of the Aryan culture (Michaud and Lloyd 76), and causing Germans to experience arrogance and contempt towards them, or to view them as instruments for achieving the goals of the Nazi ideology.


On the whole, Nazism had a major influence on art in Germany during 1933-1945. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis utilized it as a form of propaganda to appeal to the masses. It emphasized the “benefits” of the Nazi’s political regime to attract more followers. They portrayed their reality and their beliefs in art with limited themes to be able to indirectly impose these onto the German audience. At the same time, attempts were made to ban most if not all the aspects of art that did not comply with the Nazis’ ideology and views. The close monitoring and control of art was a major factor that Hitler used while consolidating his power. Therefore, the power of art used as propaganda, and the role of it in the introduction of the Nazi ideas to the mindsets of the German people at that time can easily be seen.

Section 3: Reflection

The role of a historian is to develop a justified interpretation of past events with the use of a range of primary and secondary sources. Carrying out this investigation helped the author to understand the importance of the different steps that historians need to take to develop their studies. This includes the primary stage of the investigation, which involves assessing the reliability of sources by evaluating their origins, purposes, value, and limitations. Throughout this stage of the given research, the author also had the opportunity to analyze numerous secondary sources, one of which included extracts of one of the primary sources, the book Joseph Goebbels: Life and Death, and also contained extracts from Joseph Goebbels’ diary.

Nonetheless, the author faced challenges that can be now acknowledged as some of the main limitations encountered by historians. Once one examines several sources, one eventually comes to several contradicting perspectives. For instance, several historians illustrate the extent to which Nazism affected German visual art quite differently.

Concluding history can be difficult due to the variety of perspectives on the same problems. History can have several interpretations, and only one of these doesn’t need to be true.

Works Cited

Andersen, Wayne. German Artists and Hitler’s Mind: Avant-Garde Art in a Turbulent Era. Editions Fabriant Ltd, 2010.

Grunberger, Richard, The 12-year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany, 1933-1945. Da Capo Press, 1995.

Kleiner, Fred. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective. South-Western Cengage Learning, 2014.

Michaud, Eric, and Janet Lloyd. The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany. Stanford University Press, 2004.

Thacker, Toby. Joseph Goebbels: Life and Death. Palgrave McMillan, 2016.

Totten, Samuel, and Stephen Feinberg. Essentials of Holocaust Education: Fundamental Issues and Approaches. Routledge, 2016.

Gabbut, Lynne. “Nazi Ideology and the Visual Arts, 1933-1945.” UCLan Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 5, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-9.

“Art in Nazi Germany.” Khan Academy. 2016. Web.

Cardiff University. “People: Dr Toby Thacker.” Cardiff University. 2017. Web.

Farago, Jason. “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 Review – What Hitler Dismissed as ‘Filth.’” The Guardian. 2014. Web.

“Hans Westmar (Full Film W/Subs) (1933) – A Tribute to Horst Wessel.” Web.

“How Did the Nazis Control Culture and Leisure?” The Holocaust Explained. 2016. Web.

Keats, Jonathon. “See The Kitschy Triptych That Hung Over Hitler’s Fireplace – And How It Impacted German Art – At This New York Exhibit.” Forbes. 2014. Web.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Wayne Andersen, Pioneer in Visual Arts at MIT, Dies at 85.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2014. Web.

“Nazi Art (1925-45).Visual Arts. 2016. Web.

Trueman, Chris. “Art in Nazi Germany.” The History Learning Site. 2016. Web.