During World War II, both professional and amateur artists created images in response to the circumstances they faced. For some, art provided financial stability and professional success. Others found that creating art brought a sense of normality to their daily lives. Still others produced artworks as a means to challenge or support the rule of the Third Reich and its allies. Under the extreme conditions of war, occupation, and the Holocaust, artwork also became a way to document atrocity and preserve memory.
For the Nazi party, artists played an important public role because they could frame the image of the ruling regime for the German public. From the party's beginnings, its leaders saw art and visual imagery—including photography, museum exhibitions, posters, newsreels, and film—as critical for promoting its ideology, creating a strong German national identity, and securing political power. Art was a central medium of propaganda, and the regime encouraged artistic activity. Those artists who gained the party's approval enjoyed a privileged place in society.1
Many artists sought to display their works in government-sponsored museum exhibitions, such as Germany's "Degenerate Art" Exhibition and France's "France and the Jew." Both of those presentations used paintings and sculpture to instruct viewers of a "Jewish menace," blaming political and economic problems on the influence of Jews. Beginning in 1941, the "France and the Jew" exhibit in Paris displayed caricatured images of Jews alongside an illustrated history of France's "infiltration" by the Jews and its defeat in World War II. The exhibition was the result of the collaborative work of French and German propaganda officials and French artists. In contrast, the "Great German Art Exhibition" (GDK) displayed hundreds of suitably "German" artworks annually from 1937 to 1944 in an effort to celebrate the talents of German artists and the cultural genius of a new nation.2 The "Degenerate Art" exhibition, "France and the Jew," and the GDK illustrate how the Nazi party and its collaborators embraced art and artists as a means to enact the kind of social, political, and cultural changes they envisioned. At the same time, those artists who chose to align themselves with the regime could benefit financially or professionally.
Despite their embrace of images and artwork as tools of propaganda, the Nazi regime never gained complete authority over visual culture. Artists in Germany and the territories it occupied retained varying degrees of control over their work and drew on a variety of motivations and sources of inspiration to produce new art. Even when widely viewed, artworks did not always align with Nazi priorities, and artists continued to pursue their own creative objectives. Walter Frentz, for example, became a successful cameraman for well-known propaganda films and newsreels in the Third Reich.3 Frentz chose to depict Adolf Hitler at the height of his power, however, he was never a member of the Nazi party; rather, he claimed to be creatively inspired by the German leader. Nevertheless, Frentz's skill in capturing movement and speed in his films helped create a dynamic vision of Hitler as a powerful figure.
Several of the sources featured here also underscore how creating art could serve as a way to survive extreme forms of persecution. Jewish artists came to rely on their creative talents to avoid death or deportation or cope with their desperate position. Crafting art could make life less difficult, but at times it required defying or concealing one's own identity or political views. Kurt Gerron, a prominent Jewish filmmaker and prisoner of the Theresienstadt concentration camp—perhaps in an effort to save his own life—directed a Nazi propaganda film that sought to hide the realities of the Holocaust from global audiences. Another Jewish artist, George Byfield, served in a forced labor battalion, in which he used his drawing and painting to pass the time and lift his spirits. Byfield also traded his images for extra food rations. Illustrating company journals and drawing building plans at times permitted him to avoid back-breaking work.
For both Jews and non-Jews, the arts offered a means of documenting brutality and preserving memory. Fritz Heinze, a skilled amateur photographer and soldier in the German army, took striking photographs that reflect his position as an eyewitness to—and perhaps a participant in—a mass shooting of Ukranian Jews. These images simultaneously humanize the victims while recording their fate.4 Prints created by Soviet Jewish soldier and artist Zinovii Tolkachev convey the horrors of the Majdanek and Auschwitz death camps with similar force. Navigating a world characterized by mass death and shocking cruelty, both amateur and professional artists relied on their talents to depict scenes that seemed to defy description.5
Although creative talent could help one survive—or at least try to make sense of—persecution during the Holocaust, it also provided opportunities for resistance and the preservation of memory. Julia Pirotte, a Polish-Jewish photographer active in France, describes in an oral testimony her work for a French newspaper following the German occupation of southern France. During that period, she photographed the people of Marseilles, especially Jews and the resistance, using her skills to produce fake ID cards. As a member of the resistance and a Jew, she did not know if she would survive the war, but she hoped that her photographs would survive to tell the story of those who bravely opposed Nazi occupation. Similarly, a young German woman named Maria Seidenberger hid photos of concentration camp prisoners and sent them to families, and she secretly photographed the death march of prisoners from the Dachau camp in 1945. Seidenberger recognized how capturing evidence of Nazi crimes could weaken the regime, at the same time making the faces of its victims visible.
Sources in this collection offer a glimpse into the varied experiences of individual artists, including those working to support Nazi propaganda, and those who aimed to undermine Nazi rule. These individuals relied on their artistic talents and creativity to navigate their daily lives, to make sense of events, to survive, and even to oppose policies of persecution and mass murder. These artworks, and the stories of their creators, offer a nuanced exploration of the daily life for artists and everyday people in Nazi-occupied Europe. At the same time, they highlight the role of images in the landscape of everyday life in wartime Europe.