“You did not bear the shame.
You fought back.
You gave the great,
Sign of change,
Sacrificing your glowing life
Justice, and honour.”
THUS READS the plaque attached to a bronze sculpture of a young naked man with his hands bound, at the memorial site for German resistance to the Nazis at Stauffenbergstrasse (formerly Bendlerstrasse) in Berlin. The creator of the sculpture, entitled “German Resistance”, was Richard Scheibe. Yet Scheibe was one of 114 sculptors and painters (all men) on the Nazis’ list of 378 favoured “divinely gifted” artists—the very opposite of the men and women commemorated at the memorial, who paid for their opposition to the Third Reich with their lives. The select 114—some active supporters of the Führer, other silent consorts—were exempted from military service and benefited from tax breaks and other subsidies.
Visitors to “Divinely Gifted: National Socialism’s Favoured Artists in the Federal Republic”, which opened on August 27th at Berlin’s Historical Museum, may be surprised to learn that almost all the favoured artists continued to work (and receive handsome pay) after the war. Museums and galleries did not show their work, which is why their names are hardly known to the general public, but they could still rely on the many public officials and private supporters who had patronised them during the Nazis’ 12-year rule. City governments, schools, churches, hospitals and private individuals continued to commission their work; universities let them teach.
How to deal with their work decades later? They are all dead, as are most of their patrons, but their art is on display in public places in Germany and Austria. The exhibition’s curators do not prescribe an answer. They want the public to be aware that the sculptures, paintings, friezes and gobelins displayed in both countries were created by artists who were thriving at a time when Jewish painters and sculptors were hounded out of the country—or suffered much worse fates.
The curators picked 12 artists to show how the “divinely gifted” fared in post-war West Germany. The eight sculptors include Arno Breker and his brother Hans, as well as Scheibe; among the four painters are Paul Mathias Padua and Werner Peiner. One of the surprises of the show is that they did not change their anti-modernist style much after the war. They stuck to ancient mythology, symbolism, fallen soldiers, mothers with children or grieving mothers and hard-working manual labourers. It struck a note with many of those left disoriented amid the speedy change of the Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle.
Arno Breker’s (unauthorised) post-war biographer called him the “Michelangelo of the Third Reich”: Breker was talented, and sculpted in the neo-classical style. A photo taken in Paris in June 1940 shows him alongside Hitler in front of the Eiffel Tower, flanked by Albert Speer, the Führer’s preferred architect. The Rhinelander, whose father was a stonemason, joined the Nazis in 1937. The party soon gave him an aryanised penthouse in Paris, formerly owned by Helena Rubinstein, eponymous founder of the cosmetics company. He also acquired a big atelier in Berlin, a country estate and plenty of cash. In 1945 all this was gone but Breker managed to get off lightly during denazification, thanks to witnesses who testified that he helped Jews. His friend Pablo Picasso also interceded on his behalf. Breker was classified a “fellow traveller”, fined 100 marks and let off. In the decades that followed West German political leaders, including Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard, sat for him, as did titans of German industry and banking including Rudolf-August Oetker, Hermann Josef Abs, Andreas von Siemens and Herbert Quandt.
Rather than feeling remorse after the war, many of the favoured artists defended themselves—arguing that they had needed official approval, whoever provided it, in order to work. The show includes old TV interviews with some of the 12 artists the curators picked. The painter Padua, who, like Hilter, started his career as a landscape artist and won fame for a portrait of the dictator, “The Führer Speaks”, grumbles about being ostracised by the academy in Munich and the artistic establishment in general. He resorted to showing his work at his own house on Tegernsee, a Bavarian lake. His palatial estate was paid for by his loyal admirers.