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 artwork 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 atrocities and preserve memories.
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 tried to exploit art and visual imagery—including photography, museum exhibitions, posters, newsreels, and films. Nazi leaders used art to try to promote Nazi ideology, create a strong German national identity, and secure political power. Art was a central medium of Nazi propaganda, and the regime encouraged artistic activity that supported Nazi ideals. Those artists who gained the party's approval enjoyed a privileged place in society.1
The Nazi regime used art to spread antisemitic propaganda through government-sponsored museum exhibitions, such as the so-called "Degenerate Art" Exhibition in Germany2 or the antisemitic propaganda exhibition called "France and the Jew" in German-occupied France. Both of those presentations used paintings and sculptures to inform viewers of a supposed "Jewish menace," blaming political and economic problems on the influence of Jewish people. Beginning in 1941, the "France and the Jew" exhibition in Paris displayed caricatured images of Jewish people alongside an illustrated history of France's supposed "infiltration" by Jews and its 1940 military defeat by the forces of Nazi Germany. 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 works of art that Nazi authorities deemed to be politically suitable and truly "German." This exhibition was staged annually from 1937 to 1944 in an effort to celebrate the talents of certain German artists and the supposed cultural genius of the so-called "New Germany." Artists who chose to align themselves with the regime often received professional or financial benefits. The "Degenerate Art" exhibition, "France and the Jew," and the GDK all illustrate how the Nazi Party and its collaborators used art and artists to promote the social, political, and cultural changes they envisioned.
Despite its use of images and artwork as tools of propaganda, the Nazi regime never gained complete control over visual culture. Artists in Germany and the territories occupied by German forces managed to keep some degree of control over their own work. They drew on a variety of motivations and sources of inspiration to produce new art. Artists continued to pursue their own creative objectives, although these sometimes aligned with Nazi priorities. For example, Walter Frentz 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, but Frentz was never a member of the Nazi Party. He claimed that he was merely creatively inspired by the Nazi 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 show how art could serve as a way to cope with extreme forms of persecution. Jewish artists often used their creative talents to avoid deportation or death. Creating art could make life more bearable, but at times it meant concealing one's own identity or political views. For example, a prominent Jewish filmmaker named Kurt Gerron was imprisoned at Theresienstadt. Gerron directed a Nazi propaganda film that sought to hide the realities of the Holocaust from global audiences—possibly to save his own life. Another Jewish artist named George Byfield served in a forced labor battalion, where he traded his drawing and painting skills for extra food rations. Illustrating company journals or drawing building plans also permitted him to avoid brutal physical work.
Both Jewish and non-Jewish artists also produced works of art in order to document atrocities and preserve memories. A skilled amateur photographer in the German army named Fritz Heinze took striking photographs that reflect his position as an eyewitness to—and perhaps a participant in—a mass shooting of Ukranian Jews. These images humanize the victims while making a record of their murder.4 A Soviet Jewish soldier and artist named Zinovii Tolkachev created a series of prints to capture the horrors of the Majdanek and Auschwitz killing centers with similar force. In a world characterized by mass murder and shocking cruelty, amateur and professional artists both relied on their talents to depict scenes that seemed to defy description.5
Artistic talent could help one survive—or at least try to cope with—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 her work for a French newspaper following the German occupation of southern France in the featured oral testimony . During that period, Pirotte photographed the people of Marseilles, especially Jews and the resistance. She also used her skills to produce fake identification cards. As a Jewish member of the resistance, she did not know if she would survive the war. She hoped that her photographs would at least survive to tell the story of those who bravely opposed the German occupation. Similarly, a young German woman named Maria Seidenberger hid photos of concentration camp prisoners. She secretly photographed the death march of prisoners from the Dachau camp in 1945. Seidenberger recognized how capturing evidence of German war crimes could weaken the regime and make the faces of its victims visible.
Sources in this collection offer a glimpse into the varied experiences of individual artists. This includes those who worked to support Nazi propaganda as well as those who aimed to undermine Nazi rule. These artists relied on their artistic talents and creativity to navigate their daily lives, to cope with events, to survive, and to resist policies of persecution and mass murder. The featured sources offer a glimpse into the daily life of artists and everyday people in German-occupied Europe—and the many challenges they faced.