Scene from the 1938 Nazi Degenerate Art Exhibit
In June 1937, Joseph Goebbels instructed Adolf Zeigler, the president of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts, to scour all German museums for “German degenerate art.” Ziegler assembled a commission that confiscated several hundred works, from which he pulled together a “Degenerate Art” exhibition. “Around us,” he said, “you see these figments of insanity, of audacity, of good-for-nothingness and degeneration. We are all shocked and disgusted by the sight.”
With these words, Ziegler opened the exhibition on July 19, 1937 in the gallery at Munich’s Hofgarten. The show was a sensation: more than 2 million flocked to see the what the fuss was all about. A “Degenerate Music” exhibition was subsequently assembled in 1938.
The Nazis were alleged to have burned thousands of “Degenerate Art” paintings. No picture gets mercy,” Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbel scribbled in his journal on January 13, 1938. Nearly one year later, on March 20, 1939, more than 5,000 works of so-called “degenerate art” are alleged to have been burned by Nazis in the courtyard of the “Old Fire Station” in Berlin. Nevertheless, it’s not clear today whether this burning actually took place. There are no official photos of the event which, in contrast to the book burning of 1933, happened behind closed doors. Even Goebbels’ journal revealed no clues about this infamous day.
There are no traces of the allegedly destroyed collection in any formal documentation materials. In total, nearly 20,000 modern works of art were confiscated by the Nazis.
On July 27, 1942, in Paris, a large number of “Degenerate Art” paintings by Picasso, Dalí, Ernst, Klee, Léger and Miró were destroyed in a bonfire by the Nazis.
The “Degenerate Music” exhibition in Düsseldorf, shown here, also drew large crowds
The unexpected success of the exhibition inspired a second wave of confiscations. Ziegler was instructed to seize the remaining products from this period of decay. Around 19,500 pieces were then removed from German museums.
The majority of the paintings were placed in the Victoria storehouse in the Berlin harbor and in a grain silo in Köpenicker street. The works considered to be of international value were placed in Neiderschönhausen Palace, where they could be shown to potential buyers.
Sales to foreign investors had an unanticipated side-effect: one of the four art dealers, Karl Buchholz, sold nearly 650 works to his Jewish business partner, Curt Valentin, who had emigrated to New York. The result was that Jewish immigrants succeeded in establishing German Modernism on the North American continent. This was certainly not intended by Hitler.
Works that weren’t “recycled” in this way were released by Propaganda Minister Goebbels for destruction. Rolf Hetsch, the head of the Department of Fine Art, had documented each of the examples of “degenerate art. The list has only been partially preserved. The “Harry Fischer List” is considered the only copy of the Nazi seized art list to date. The list stems from the estate of art dealer Harry Fischer. In early 2014 it was made public – a bonanza for provenance researchers around the world.
All of the works that were supposed to be destroyed received an ‘x.’ Nevertheless some of the so-called destroyed pieces have been located alive and well. Art dealers like Hildebrand Gurlitt may have “rescued” such works from fiery destruction by having bought them or having hid them in storage. In 2012, tax inspectors seized about 1,280 works of art from Cornelius Gurlitt – Hildebrand Gurlitt’s son. From the confiscated works, about 380 could be identified as “degenerate art.”
Since 1992, researchers in Russia and Germany have been tracking down cultural treasures that had been stolen by the Nazis.