Degenerate Art Before and After Nazi Germany in Berlin


…by Jonas E. Alexis


In March 2014, the New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal reviewed a book by an art historian entitled Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937. It’s written by German curator Olaf Peters.

The establishment, of course, quickly jumped on the bandwagon by praising the book for its academic integrity and intellectual honest. Yet Peters’ assessment is another mischaracterization of what was really happening in before and after Nazi Germany.

The book generally condemned Nazi Germany, and Hitler in particular, for attacking what was known then as “degenerate art” in Germany. Taking their cues from Peters, the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal posited claims such as Hitler was basically destroying “many artistic careers”[1] and was therefore thwarting true artistic enterprise.[2]

“Attacks on art began almost immediately after Hitler’s accession in 1933, often in spontaneous, private Schandausstellungen (‘shame exhibitions’).”[3]

This is really bad enough, but the Guardian didn’t stop there. They had more interesting things to say:

“For the Nazis, modernism was not just an inferior or distasteful style. It wasn’t even just non-Aryan. Modernism was a swindle – a dangerous lie perpetuated by Jews, communists, and even the insane to contaminate the body of German society (they were fond of medical and corporeal metaphors, the Nazis).”[4]

The Huffington Post commented,

“The attack against Degenerate Art struck free thought and artistic expression at its core. It went far beyond the defamation of artists and their work. It was state-sanctioned Orwellian groupthink that was intrinsic to building the mentality that would create fertile ground for marginalizing ‘the other,’ — whether they were Jewish, Gypsies, the mentally ill, the gay community or political dissidents.

“The 20,000 works of confiscated art, along with the 5,000 pieces that were destroyed, were both a precursor and a sideshow to the actual extermination and nightmare that was to follow.”[5]

The simple questions are these: what does the historical account really tell us? What were the nuances then? Does a person have to be a neo-Nazi to refute lies and fabrications about Nazi Germany?

History is what happened, not what we wished had happened. In that sense, the Guardian hasn’t done justice to the historical account by producing factoids as historical truth. A little historical backdrop is certainly needed here.

Every serious historian of Berlin universally agrees that Berlin in the 1920s and 30s was unquestionably the crime and sex capital of the world. Historian Alexandra Richie argues that

“Hard work…seemed to mean nothing; one could only get ahead through crime, black marketing or prostitution. Berliners experienced an inversion of values and a new moral relativism far more acute than that seen after the 1873 crash.”

Starvation and moral devastation were so bad that “girls of twelve or fourteen prostituted themselves after school with their parents’ approval. Illegitimate births had already increased to 22 percent of all births by 1917 (as compared to 5.4 percent in London at the same time) and illegitimate infant mortality soared to an extraordinary 300 per thousand by 1920.”[6]

There were instances of people selling their “precious treasures for scraps of food.”[7] Obviously these were serious problems, but they were just the tip of the iceberg:

“Every kind of sexual perversion was catered to and hotels like the Excelsior and the Adlon hired ‘in house’ male and female prostitutes to entertain the guests. As things grew increasingly dire Berlin threw itself into an orgy of dancing, drinking, and pornography and prostitution with je m’en fous being the order of the day.”[8]

For most Berliners, the city itself “was a living hell.”[9] It was these issues that “ultimately made Hitler’s rise to power possible.”[10]

Theatre in Germany began to produce subversive films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), directed and written by Jewish producers Robert Wiene and Hans Janowitz. Other films of the same genre included Carl Mayer’s The Last Laugh (1924), Madchen in Uniform (1931), and Kuhle Wampe (1932).[11]

Madchen in Uniform was an explicitly pro-lesbian film, something that was completely contrary to the Prussian education system at the time, and many of the cast in the movie were Jewish. Film scholar Richard W. McCormick of the University of Minnesota declares that this film “threatened the status quo” of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s.[12] McCormick continues,

“Madchen in Uniform is a film that is implicated within a number of progressive and emancipatory discourses of the late Weimar Republic: the movement for homosexual rights and the flourishing of urban, queer subculture; ‘New Objectivity’ and other avant-garde tendencies in the arts and popular culture; and the intersection of modernity, the movies, and the democratic egalitarianism.”[13]

Philo-Semitic historian Paul Johnson himself tells us that films like Blue Angel were so corrupt that they “could not be shown in Paris. Stage and night club shows in Berlin were the least inhibited of any major capital. Plays, novels and even paintings touched on such themes as homosexuality, sadomasochism, transvestism and incest; and it was in Germany that Freud’s writings were most fully absorbed by the intelligentsia and penetrated the widest range of artistic expression.”[14]

Many of these films were labeled “decadent” as soon as Hitler rose to power, and many of the producers fled Germany.

Madchen in Uniform became a symbol for feminist movements in the 1970s,[15] one of the weapons used against the existing culture. Actor and director Paul Wegener understood how to change the cultural landscape by changing its arts. “The real creator of the film must be the camera,” he said.

“Getting the spectator to change his point of view, using special effects to double the actor on the divided screen, superimposing other images—all this, technique, form, gives the content its real meaning.”[16] Cinema was widely used as a form of subversion of the German culture, traditions, and mores.

Even Eric D. Weitz himself declares that during that period in Germany, “Many artists, writers, directors, and composers jumped at the chance to work in the new media precisely because they signified a break with the past and provided one more way to express rejection of pre-1918 imperial Germany with its Kaisers, generals, nobles, and stuffy, rigid and outmoded art academies.”[17]

Paul Johnson writes that during the 1920s in Germany, “The area where Jewish influence was strongest was the theatre, especially in Berlin. Play- wrights like Carl Sternheim, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernst Toller, Erwin Piscator, Walter Hasenclever, Ferenc Molnar and Carl Zuckmayer, and influential producers like Max Reinhardt, appeared at times to dominate the stage, which tended to be modishly left-wing, pro-republican, experimental and sexually daring.”[18]


Historian Alexandra Richie adds: “Sex had been reduced to auto-eroticism and people to the mere machines of the city.”[19]

Art is one of the main vehicles that would later be used to bring about what Nietzsche would call the transvaluation of all values. Films and movies were one of the largest business enterprises in 1920 Germany.[20]

Hitler, throughout Mein Kampf, seems to have been aware of Jewish revolutionary activities, and even declared that

“the part which the Jews played in the social phenomenon of prostitution, and more especially in the white slavery traffic, could be studied here better than any other West-European city, with the possible exception of certain ports of Southern France…

“A cold shiver ran down my spine when I first ascertained that it was the same coldblooded, thick-skinned and shameless Jew who showed his consummate skill in conducting that revolting exploitation of the dregs of the big city. Then I became fired with wrath.”[21]

This anger began to escalate after World War I when he saw what was happening in the press and theatre in Germany, when art in general was being used to denigrate the German culture.

What perhaps moved Hitler’s anger to a new height was that the Jews were less than three percent of the population, yet they largely controlled the theatre and were promoting what he would call “filth” and “pornography.”[22] For Hitler, these acts “must have been definitely intentional.”[23]

For example, Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), a German-Jewish physician and sexologist, used his medical training as a pretext to promote homosexuality and, in 1897, built his own system of “the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the first organization anywhere devoted to the protection of homosexual rights.” Hirschfeld was also

“The primary inventor of marriage counseling, Gay Liberation, artificial insemination, surgical gender ‘reassignment,’ and modern sex therapy…His goofy persona and conscientiousness transformed Sexology from an anthropological curiosity into a popular German science. The Berlin monthlies, starting in the mid-twenties, referred to Hirschfeld solicitously as ‘the Einstein of Sex.”[24]

Hirschfeld was the Einstein of Sex because he “embraced a doctrine known as ‘sexual relativity.”[25] While Christianity makes it clear that there are only two sexes—male and female—Hirscheld postulated another doctrine, one more congruent with his revolutionary ideology. Hirschfeld “wrote that it was ‘unscientific’ to speak of two sexes. Between ‘full man’ and ‘full woman’ was an infinite string of sexual/gender possibilities.”[26]

The only force that could hinder Hirschfeld was the moral and political order, but he attacked it before proceeding with his sexual revolution.[27] Hirschfeld spent a large part of his 1200-page book The Homosexuality of Men and Women deconstructing the moral order with respect to sex.[28]

Hirschfeld was the Alfred Kinsey of his day, and actually put his doctrines into practical use.[29] This began to take place in 1919 when Hirschfeld opened the Institute of Sexology in Berlin. Jewish scholar Mel Gordon of the University of California tells us that the institution

“quickly became one of the city’s most curious attractions. The Institute’s buildings, including a former mansion, were divided into areas for lectures, consulting offices, study rooms, laboratories, medical clinics, and a museum space devoted to sexual pathology.”[30]

Paul Johnson commented,

“The Foxtrot and short skirts, the addiction of pleasure in ‘the imperial sewers of Berlin,’ the ‘dirty pictures’ of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld or the typical man of the times took on in the minds of the average citizen a repugnance that is difficult to recall in hindsight without some historical effort. In a number of highly celebrated provocations, the stage of the ‘20s dealt with topics like patricide, incest and other crimes and the deepest inclination of the times tended to self-mockery.”[31]

A number of Jewish icons such as George Gershwin, Ben Hecht, Douglas Fairbanks, and Sergei Eisenstein visited the school.[32] Eisenstein “enjoyed the Institute’s collection of sailor-dolls—homemade paper toys that German homosexuals fashioned during the Great War.”[33] The library of the school,

“which contained the largest sex and pornographic book collection in Europe, remained accessible to all readers…Politically, the Institute provided a forum for progressive lawyers and government officials who sought to eradicate the laws against homosexuality and defend Germany’s legal abortion rights from the growing onslaught of fascist and religious parties.

“Most of the legal work involved suits protecting gay men against threats of petty blackmail….The Institute itself was a font of sexological activity. Pediatric care, abortions, ‘sexual rejuvenation’ and sexual ‘correction’ operations were conducted on the lower level of the main building.”[34]

The building contained all sort of sexual devices in order to advance the sexual revolution in Berlin.

“Glass cases of fetishistic objects and sex aids from preliterate, Asian, and European cultures filled two other rooms. In the open counters and boxes were collections of Mandigo dildos that squirted a milky solution, Moche water bottles with penis-shaped spouts, Sanskrit sex manuals, miniature shoes worn by bound-foot Chinese courtesans, medieval chastity belts, torture instruments from a German brothel, sadistic drawings and assemblages created by Lustmord convicts, an entire picture window of ankle boots donated by a local fetishist, antique steam-driven vibrators, fake rubber breasts and vaginas taken from transvestite prostitutes, lacy panties found on the corpses of von Hindenburg’s heroic officers, and other such incontrovertible evidence of Hirschfeld’s new calculus of desire.”[35]

This was the sexual decadence of the Weimar republic during the early years in the twentieth century before Nazi Germany, where sexual fetishism of all sort was widespread.[36] Even D. H. Lawrence, himself a proponent of sexual liberation, knew that the Weimar Republic had become a place for sexual debauchery, writing in a letter that

“at night you feel strange things stirring in the darkness…There is a sense of danger…a queer, bristling feeling of uncanny danger.”[37]

Later, Christopher Isherwood, a homosexual and proponent of sexual liberation, went to Berlin to immerse himself into the gay bars, writing later, “There was terror in the Berlin air.”[38]

During that era, the Weimar Republic

“stimulated all the external tics of sexual perversity. In the center of Europe, mesmerized audiences were warned, sits a nightmare municipality, a human swamp of unfettered appetites and twisted prurient proclivities…With Babylon and Nero’s Rome, Weimar Berlin has entered into our topological thesaurus as a synonym for moral degeneracy.”[39]

Gordon goes so far as to say that during that period Berlin “would have to be considered as one of the most faithless—or heathen—cities in the Western world.”[40] Why? Because sexual decadence and perversion were widespread—so widespread in fact that Jewish revolutionaries used a “scientific” pretension to promote pornography. Gordon writes,

“Clinical studies of sexual perversion, such as von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (Leipzig, 1901) and [Wilhelm] Stekel’s Sexual Aberrations (Vienna, 1922) were printed by scientific publishing houses and produced principally for therapists and legal scholars in Central Europe.”[41]

Wilhelm Stekel was an important figure in this movement because he not only advanced sexual fetishism, but also collaborated with Sigmund Freud. Ernest Jones, a Gentile disciple of Freud during Freud’s early years, noted that both Freud and Stekel were the original founder of the first psychoanalytic society.[42] Though the two men separated later, they were working toward a common goal: sexual revolution.

As soon as Hitler came to power in 1933, “the Institute of Sexology was one of his first targets.”[43] Nazi Germany quickly placed the graphic paintings of George Grosz, Jankel Adler, Rudolf Bauer, Cesar Klein, Max Pechstein, Ludwig Meidner, Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter, among dozens of others, under the heading of “degenerate art” because of their pornographic imageries. Grosz himself declared of Berlin during that time:

“All moral restraints seemed to have melted away. A flood of vice, pornography and prostitution swept the entire country…The city was dark, cold and full of rumours. The streets were wild ravines haunted by murderers and cocaine pedlars, their emblem a metal bar or a murderous broken-off chair leg.”[44]

As Jewish historian Edward J. Bristow shows, Jews were considered a small number of the population in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century, yet they were the largest ethnic group to promote and profit from white slavery and prostitution.

It is important to make this distinction: Jews were the largest group owning whorehouses, but as far as pimps or whores in those houses, there were other groups as well. When things began to get rough, many Jews changed their names in order make things complicated for the police.[45]

A year before Hitler came to power, “Berlin alone supported the flashy productions, séances, and publications of 20,000 itinerant telepathists, wonder-working healers, palm readers, storefront clairvoyants, Hollow-Earth adherents, alchemists, stage mesmerists, doomsday prophets, Gypsy-clad fortunetellers, and trans-performers.”[46]

It must also remembered that it was a time where black magicians such as Aleister Crowley roamed Europe with their sexual rituals in order to gain entrance into what Crowley would later refer to as the New Aeon. All of these satanic sex ceremonies were done as a form of blasphemy in Berlin, where some of the participants also took drugs in order to enhance their sexual magic.[47] In Gordon’s words, there were “dionysian-like festivities,” where hymns to Pan were chanted and a goat was sacrificed to begin the sexual ceremony.[48]

Yet by 1932, the power of sexual eroticism began to decline during the rise of Nazi Germany—most pornographic publications were banned and nudist clinics such as Koch’s were shut down.[49] By 1933, Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexology was ransacked and vandalized by SA-men and students. Archival files were destroyed, and thousands of books and manuscripts were burned.[50] “Berlin’s sex industry contracted and nearly disappeared throughout the summer months of 1933.”[51]

To say that Nazi Germany did not rise out of Jewish revolutionary activity is a complete denial of history—and a thesis that has become a standard for many Jewish historians.

So, why did the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journals, among other publications, fail to discuss the fundamental issues in Berlin during the 1920s? Why did Peters fail to give the historical background?

[1] Jason Farago, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 review – What Hitler dismissed as ‘filth,’” Guardian, March 13, 2014.

[2] Lance Esplund, “A War of Aesthetics—and Life and Death,” Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2014; Holland Cotter, “First, They Came for the Art,” NY Times, March 13, 2014; Maika Pollack, “‘Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937’ at the Neue Galerie,” Observer, March 12, 2014.

[3] Farago, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 review – What Hitler dismissed as ‘filth,’” Guardian, March 13, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Marcia G. Yerman, “Degenerate Art : The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” Huffington Post, July 15, 2014.

[6] Alexandra Richie, Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998), 322-323.

[7] Ibid., 323.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 324.

[11] For a study of these films, see Noah Isenberg, ed., Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[12] Richard M. McCormick, “Coming Out of the Uniform: Political and Sexual Emancipation in Leontine Sagan’s Madchen in Uniform (1931),” Isenberg, Weimar Cinema, 271.

[13] Ibid., 272.

[14] Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (New York: HarperCollins, 1983), 114.

[15] McCormick, “Coming Out of the Uniform,” Weimar Cinema, 273.

[16] Lotte H. Eisner, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 40.

[17] Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 250.

[18] Johnson, A History of the Jews, 479.

[19] Richie, Faust’s Metropolis, 341-342.

[20] Janet Ward, Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 142.

[21] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 43.

[22] Ibid., 42-43.

[23] Ibid., 43.

[24] Mel Gordon, Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (San Francisco: Feral House, 2006), 153.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 153-154.

[27] Elena Mancini, Magnus Hirschfeld and the Quest for Sexual Freedom: A History of the First International Sexual Freedom Movement (New York: Palgrave, 2010), 13.

[28] See Magnus Hirschfeld, The Homosexuality of Men and Women (New York: Prometheus Books, 2000).

[29] Gordon, Voluptuous Panic, 153-163.

[30] Ibid., 164.

[31] Johnson, Modern Times, 115.

[32] Gordon, Voluptuous Panic, 164.

[33] Ibid., 165-166.

[34] Ibid., 164.

[35] Ibid., 165.

[36] Ibid., 171-183.

[37] E. Michael Jones, Monsters from the ID: The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film (Dallas: Spence Publishing Co., 2000), 134; also Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 136-137.

[38] Ibid., 134.

[39] Gordon, Voluptuous Panic, 1, 2.

[40] Ibid., 8.

[41] Ibid., 186.

[42] Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (New York: Basic Books, 1953), 312, 420.

[43] See Jay Geller, “Freud, Bluher, and the Secessio Inversa,” Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini, ed., Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 169.

[44] Quoted in Alexandra Richie, Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998), 309.

[45] Bristow, Prostitution and Prejudice, 52-53.

[46] Gordon, Voluptuous Panic, 195.

[47] Ibid., 199-204.

[48] Ibid., 202-203.

[49] Ibid., 249.

[50] Ibid., 250.

[51] Ibid., 252.


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