Out of the Ashes: Art Stolen by Nazis Rediscovered

It’s a sad fact of human history that the leadership regime most obsessed with art belonged to that of the Nazis. From Adolf Hitler the frustrated painter to obsessive collectors such as Herman Goering and Joseph Goebbels (who knew enough to step aside when Hitler lusted after an object), the Nazi power circles thought about art and its effect on their country’s culture continually, more often to art’s detriment than to its benefit. Exhibit A of the detrimental effects of that cultural concern is that dark episode in modern art history—the infamous Entartete Kunst (“Degenerate Art”) exhibition of 1937 that defined for Germans what was and what wasn’t acceptable art. Some of those “degenerate” works and the artists that made them escaped Nazi clutches, while much of that condemned art seemed lost to posterity in the same conflagration that consumed the Nazis themselves. A recent discovery, however, adds a small, but happy coda to the tragic symphony of the Nazis destructive love of art.


Earlier this year, workers began excavating parts of Berlin to lay down a new subway line. Most of modern Berlin stands upon the rubble of Second World War-era Berlin, the victim of Allied weaponry and the Nazis own scorched earth policy. As workers dug the new subway tunnel, they found the remains of an office building that had burned down in the summer of 1944. Beginning on the roof of the building, the fire spread and the building’s floors collapsed down upon one another. Apparently some of the estimated 15,000 works of art labeled as “degenerate” inhabited that doomed building. How many works on canvas or in wood may have been lost in the fire is unknown, but workers excavated 12 sculptures of bronze and terra-cotta from the ruins. Their survival—first from the hands of Hitler and secondly from the flames—is nothing short of miraculous.

Entartete Kunst enjoys a mixed art historical reputation. Perversely, Hitler’s condemnation became a label of pride for artists such as Piet Mondrian, George Grosz, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, and others. If you offended Hitler, you had to be doing something right. Efforts to save those artists and their art led to a greater appreciation of modern art and, thanks to several artists finding refuge in America, led to America and New York City specifically becoming the epicenter of the art world, replacing conquered France and Paris. Many of the extensive European modern art collections of American museums began at the auctions held by Nazis to sell these “degenerate” works to anyone who would pay anything for them. Of course, the Nazis first seized those auctioned works from their rightful owners, setting off the long struggle for reparations that plagues American art museums today.

But this rediscovery is a happy day in the convoluted history of “Degenerate Art.” It ‘s so very appropriate that the works exhumed from the rubble all bear a strong resemblance to the art of ancient or “primitive” cultures. Edwin Scharff’s statue of the German actress Anni Mewes (shown) could easily slip into an exhibition of Egyptian art and go unnoticed. Many modern artists, including German Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, leaned heavily on the example of ancient and even African, what they’d call “primitive,” art to achieve a new level of emotional and psychological power. The xenophobic and racist Nazis couldn’t condone such borrowings and cited such connections as the very definition of “degenerate.”

For most Germans today, they’d prefer that the Nazi past remained buried. The rediscovery of these artworks, some of which can no longer be linked to their creators, may be the one exception to that rule. This success story should serve as a cautionary tale for all censors. No matter how powerful your regime, no matter how broad your sweep of your culture, no matter how deeply you try to bury what you hate and/or fear, art—the expression of the human spirit—will always rise from the ashes.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less

Steven Pinker's 13 rules for writing better

The Harvard psychologist loves reading authors' rules for writing. Here are his own.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Steven Pinker speaks onstage during OZY Fest 2018 at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on July 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Media)
Personal Growth
  • Steven Pinker is many things: linguist, psychologist, optimist, Harvard professor, and author.
  • When it comes to writing, he's a student and a teacher.
  • Here's are his 13 rules for writing better, more simply, and more clearly.
Keep reading Show less

Want to age gracefully? A new study says live meaningfully

Thinking your life is worthwhile is correlated with a variety of positive outcomes.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds that adults who feel their lives are meaningful have better health and life outcomes.
  • Adults who felt their lives were worthwhile tended to be more social and had healthier habits.
  • The findings could be used to help improve the health of older adults.
Keep reading Show less