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5 Books to Read About Artists Under Nazism

How do artists function under tyranny?

A 1938 poster for a “degenerate art” exhibition in Germany (image via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve long been interested in how people, particularly those in the arts (my people!), function under tyranny. How much do we compromise, and how much do we fight back? Sure, we all like to imagine ourselves acting courageously in a perilous situation, but would we really? What if our livelihoods were at stake — or our lives?

Here’s a selection of five books that examine the many ways artists responded to the Nazi regime. Just a little something to keep you occupied on your sleepless nights in the coming weeks, before an unpredictable demagogue takes our nation’s highest office.

Beth Irwin Lewis, George Grosz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic

University of Wisconsin Press, 1971; reprint Princeton University Press, 1991

Cover of Beth Irwin Lewis, George Grosz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic

We tend to think of artistic repression in Germany as starting with Hitler, but the problems were already there during the Weimar Republic. The short-lived democracy was hobbled in its early years by arch-conservatives in positions of power who protected and encouraged the violent reactionaries who would eventually take over the country.

Lewis details the evolution of George Grosz’s art in the environment that fueled it. Grosz used his drawings and prints as a weapon, skewering everyone and everything around him, from the plutocrats driving the country to ruin to the crippled veterans scraping by on the streets. Not surprisingly, the authorities didn’t much care for his work. The government repeatedly prosecuted Grosz, his publisher, and the galleries that exhibited his work for insulting the army, for obscenity, and for blasphemy. Undaunted, Grosz retorted that he was simply depicting the sickness of the society around him. He won most of his cases, but the state destroyed his portfolios and confiscated his printing plates nonetheless. In the 1930s, Grosz drew the ire of the ascendant Nazi Party, but he continued making his caustic drawings until he finally fled to America — just a few days before Hitler came to power.

Peter Paret, An Artist against the Third Reich: Ernst Barlach, 1933-1938

Cambridge University Press, 2003

Cover of Peter Paret, An Artist against the Third Reich: Ernst Barlach, 1933-1938

Despite Grosz’s experiences, the Weimar Republic was a paradise compared to the Third Reich. Whereas the former censored artists, the latter outright banned them from exhibiting, teaching, and even making work — when it didn’t jail or murder them.

Ernst Barlach was a modernist sculptor influenced by German art of the Middle Ages and Expressionism. He enjoyed the admiration and support of some Nazi officials (including Joseph Goebbels) and critics who believed in the possibility of a Nordic Modernism that could serve the aims of the Reich. But Barlach’s pacifist-themed public sculptures of the late 1920s — like those of his better-known friend Käthe Kollwitz — were deemed unacceptable and removed from view. He was eventually kicked out of both the Prussian Art Academy and the Munich Art Academy and officially forbidden from making or selling art.

Rather than emigrating, Barlach stayed in Germany and sent many letters to the authorities protesting his treatment — not exactly the safest route to take in those days. Unsurprisingly, nothing came of his efforts, and his work was included in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937. Barlach died the following year, dejected but unyielding. In addition to Barlach’s struggles, Paret’s short book illuminates the complexities, ambiguities, and infighting among the Nazis seeking to control the German culture industry.

Klaus Mann, Mephisto

1936; reprint Penguin Classics, 1995

Cover of Klaus Mann, Mephisto

Of course, not all artists stand up so directly to their oppressors — some actually see them as an opportunity. Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, written in exile from Nazi Germany, is a roman-a-clef based on the life of one such opportunist, the actor Gustaf Gründgens, an ex-Communist who joined the Nazis to become the director of Germany’s state theater during the Third Reich. Gründgens’ trajectory echoes the tale of Doctor Faustus, in which the protagonist sells his soul for worldly success.

There’s also a personal side to the story: not only was Gründgens Mann’s one-time collaborator, he was also his former brother-in-law (awkward!) and a fellow closeted homosexual. After Gründgens’s death, his adopted son sued the book’s publisher and won, halting its publication in West Germany for many years.

Incidentally, Klaus Mann was the son of the more famous writer Thomas Mann, who also penned a novel about Nazism using the story of Faustus. His Doctor Faustus, though, is approximately one million pages long and, unlike his son’s novel, painfully boring.

Alan Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

Vintage, 2010

Cover of Alan Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

What if the oppression you’re facing is not complete? What if you’re given a modicum of creative freedom — even success — as long as you don’t overtly criticize your oppressors, and as long as you’re not the type, politically or racially, that they’ve sworn to eradicate? Well, it gets messy, that’s what.

When the Nazis occupied France, they decided it would be to their advantage to make the French feel like things were basically business as usual. They put a French war hero in charge, and, after purging Jews and communists, let art galleries continue exhibiting and publishing houses continue putting out books. The responses, as you might expect, fell into three main categories: the happy collaborators, including Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the still-beloved author of Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, as well as scores of justly forgotten middling artists; the relatively unaffected, who kept working as they always had, including Matisse and Picasso, who surprisingly get a free ride to this day; and those who were murdered, forced to flee, or joined the resistance, such as Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett.

What makes And the Show Went On an especially important read today is that it reveals the gray areas that existed between these three categories, and how a lot of people fell into one at some point and then another as the war progressed.

Alice Kaplan, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach

University of Chicago Press, 2000

Cover of Alice Kaplan, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach

If it’s starting to sound like the game is rigged in favor of those who capitulate, take heart. Some take longer than others, but all oppressive regimes do come to an end. And when they do, sometimes — not always, but sometimes — their toadies get their just desserts.

Kaplan portrays Robert Brasillach as a failed novelist whose talent shone brightest as editor of the Jew-baiting weekly Je Suis Partout before the war. And, thanks to his enthusiastic welcoming of the Nazis, that was a job he continued to perform with relish under the ­occupation. After the war, Brasillach was the only Vichy collaborator in the arts to be executed. Some found this unfair — even Albert Camus signed the petition asking that his life be spared. But Brasillach’s sliminess and the pain that he caused Jews and other vulnerable people during the occupation make it impossible not to feel a hint of something that only a German word can express: schadenfreude.

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