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Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're standing in Munich looking at the House of Art, which was once called the House of German Art. SPEAKER 2: It was built for Adolf Hitler, and was a place to promote a very specific idea of German art. SPEAKER 1: This is thought to be the very first building that Hitler had commissioned for the Nazi state, and this was to be the first of many buildings they were to be constructed around the nation that were the embodiment of National Socialist ideology. SPEAKER 2: As we look at this building, it's hard not to notice that the Nazis were drawing on the classical tradition of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. SPEAKER 1: Yes. But by way of 19th century classical revival traditions, especially in Germany, we might think of the work of Schinkel, up in Prussia, in Berlin, especially, and we might think of the work of Klenze, here in Munich. These were artists that took the ancient tradition and appropriated them for their age. This building is a little bit different. It is even more spare. It is even more stripped down. But we can see this long door colonnade on either side, giving a sense of order and power. SPEAKER 2: And I think timelessness is another words that we should use about this architecture. There was an aspiration toward the eternal, or timelessness-- that ancient Greek architecture stood for those very values that the Nazis wanted to embody, as opposed to what they considered degenerate art, or sickly, unhealthy art, that was actually exhibited just a few blocks away. SPEAKER 1: There were two major exhibitions of art that were opened in 1937 that were meant to be seen in opposition to each other, and they were only about a block and a half from each other. The Great Exhibition of German Art opened here, at the House of German Art. But then in a temporary exhibition space was the first iteration of the Entartete Kunft Exhibition, the Degenerate Art Exhibition. SPEAKER 2: We use that word "degenerate," and what it really meant for the Nazis was an art that was sickly and unhealthy-- the art that today we hold as most dear. If you go to modern art museums, you'll be looking at the art the Nazis considered "degenerate"-- artist like Schmidt Rottluff or Paul Klee or Max Ernst, Kirchner. All of the great early modernists. And those artists were drawing on so-called primitive art. They deformed the human body. They used extreme colors. They distorted space. These were all things that Hitler rejected. He was looking for an art that was ideal and beautiful and perfect, and that represented a kind of timelessness. SPEAKER 1: So this architecture and the art that it was meant to house were tied up in National Socialist ideology. Germany had gone through a very rapid industrialization. And the National Socialists, the Nazis, looked back to a kind of invented agrarian past that they romanticized. And so the contemporary ills that came with industrialization, that came with urbanization, were vilified. And art that was representative of those changes, a kind of international character, a kind of risk taking-- all of the aspects that we associate with modern art-- is something that was vilified. And this building was built specifically as a kind of antidote. SPEAKER 2: And you could say that another aspect of modern art is that it's constantly changing. There's Cubism and Futurism and Dadaism and all of these movements, always trying to stay contemporary as opposed to what Hitler was wanting for the Third Reich, which was timeless. SPEAKER 1: In fact, Hitler spoke to this directly. SPEAKER 2: In the speech that Hitler gave on the opening of the first exhibition, he said, "Until the moment when national socialism took power, there existed in Germany a so-called 'modern art.' That is, to be sure, almost every year, another one. National Socialist Germany, however, wants, again, a German art." So when Hitler says, "a German art," make no mistake. What he means by that is eradicating another kind of art and denying those artists the ability to make art, sending some of them off to concentration camps. The artist whose work appears on the cover the Entartete Kunst exhibition was sent to a concentration camp and murdered. This was serious, frightening propaganda. SPEAKER 1: So the kind of art that was being exhibited here was really an art of exclusion, and it was really a kind of propaganda. And it reminds us of just how powerful the visual arts can be as a tool of the state. And the person who embodies this most is a man named Adolf Ziegler, who was a painter, and the man responsible for putting together the first exhibition of great German art here in the House of German Art, and also organizing the Entartete Kunst exhibition. And Ziegler was a favorite of Adolf Hitler. In fact, his painting, The Four Elements, was hung in the Reich's chancellery, in Hitler's own office in Berlin. Characteristic of Ziegler's work and characteristic of much of the painting and sculpture that was exhibited in this first exhibition in the House of German Art is a classicism-- we see an emphasis on eternal properties, like the four elements, like the four seasons. And we see an emphasis on a particularity and a kind of hyper-clarity that we might associate with 15th century northern art. SPEAKER 2: And the art that was exhibited in the degenerate art exhibition was hung with art by people who were mentally and physically handicapped. So that was art that was associated with all that the Nazis were eradicating-- literally murdering. SPEAKER 1: And it was wildly popular. Estimates put the attendance to the Entartete Kunst exhibition between two and three million people. And you know what? Even now, in the beginning of the 21st century, there is still real controversy about modernism. People still get upset. And I think it's important to understand our uncomfortableness, but also the kind of historical dimensions by which intolerance of art can become dangerous. SPEAKER 2: Very dangerous. Maybe this is a good time to read a little bit more from Hitler's speech at the inauguration of that first exhibition. "Art can, in no way, be a fashion. As little as the character in the blood of our people will change, so much will art have to lose its moral character and replace it with worthy images, expressing the life course of our people. Cubism, Dadaism, Futurism, Impressionism have nothing to do with our German people. I will therefore confess now, in this very hour, that I have come to the final, inalterable decision, to clean house-- just as I have done in the domain of political confusion-- and, from now on, rid the German art life of it's phase-mongering." Those are chilling words. SPEAKER 1: And, of course, Hitler did with people what he also did with the art. SPEAKER 2: It's interesting to note that the motto of the Austrian avant-garde-- and Hitler was, after all, Austrian. SPEAKER 1: And he was a would-be artist. SPEAKER 2: The motto was, "to each age its art, and to art it's freedom"-- the very opposite of the ideals that Hitler was trying to promote.