HomeGER-383Module 4: Decadent Culture

Module 4: Decadent Culture

Burning Books

The Holocaust Encyclopedia puts it well: “The burning of books under the Nazi regime on May 10, 1933, is perhaps the most famous book burning in history.” The first two articles below explain how the event came to be and what happened. The third article broadens the context, recounting the history of book burnings and helping us understand why people do burn books.

Book Burning from the Holocaust Encyclopedia

“Cultural Incineration” from DW

“Book-burning: Fanning the Flames of Hatred” from The Guardian

Your task: Although the Nazi Party embraced the book burnings, the original instigators of the event were university students swept up in the national revolution that came with the Nazis gaining power in January, 1933. What were they so afraid of that they felt the need to burn books?

Decadent Art

Hitler’s dictum – “to be German means to be clear” – can be seen as the philosophical underpinning of Nazi art. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Degenerate Art Exhibition, organized by the Propaganda Directorate in 1937, was intended to mock all art that was not clear and therefore “unGerman.”

The catalogue for the Degenerate Art Exhibition is worth reading – it really brings home the irrational hatred that many had for modern art. Here are some excerpts from it:

What the “Degenerate Art” exhibition means to do: 

  • It means to give, at the outset of a new age for the German people, a firsthand survey of the gruesome last chapter of those decades of cultural decadence that preceded the great change [i.e. the rise to power of the Nazis].
  • It means to appeal to the sounds judgment of the people and thus to put an end to the drivel and claptrap of all those literary cliques and hangers-on, many of whom would still try to deny that we ever had such a thing as artistic degeneracy.
  • It means to show that this was no “necessary ferment” but a deliberate and calculated onslaught upon the very essence and survival of art itself.
  • It means to reveal the philosophical, political, racial, and moral goals and purposes pursued by those who promoted subversion.
  • It means to show, too, how these symptoms of degeneracy spread from the deliberate troublemakers to infect those more or less unwitting acolytes who, in spite of previous— and in some cases also subsequent—evidence of artistic talent, were so lacking in scruple, character, or common sense as to join in the general Jewish and Bolshevik furor. 

From all this emerges, finally, what the “Degenerate Art” exhibition does not mean to do. 

  • It does not mean to prevent those artists shown who are of German blood – and who have not followed their former Jewish friends abroad – from now honestly striving and fighting for the basis of a new and healthy creativity.
  • It does and must mean to prevent, however, the jabbering cliques from that murky part from foisting any such men on the new state and on its forward-looking people as “the natural standard-bearers of an art of the Third Reich.” 

Take a look at these two items as well:

Catalogue: Entartete Kunst/Decadent Art. It’s in German, but have a look at it anyways, especially the pictures. Think about what kind of artwork is in the exhibition. Then flip ahead to p. 31. There you’ll see three pictures with this caption: “Which of these three drawings is the amateur work of an inmate from a lunatic asylum? You’ll be surprised: the one on the upper right! The other two were once described as master sketches by Kokoschka.”

In 2014 the Neue Galerie in New York held a show featuring the artwork that was in the original Decadent Art exhibition. Read this review.

Your task: Can you summarize what it was about modern art that was reviled by the Nazi Party?

Decadent Music

The Nazi party was keen on rooting out decadence in all forms of artistic expression, not just the visual arts. Modern music – especially jazz – was anathema to those who wanted to restore Germany’s cultural purity. 

As with degenerate art, an exhibition was held on degenerate music:

“The Nazis’ Take on ‘Degenerate Music’ “ from dw.com (a German broadcaster)

As with art, the government also encouraged the creation of modern music that reflected “real” German values. With music this is more difficult to demonstrate than with art. How does one hear “real” German values?

The propagandists also realized, however, that they could use music for propaganda purposes, both within Germany and outside the country. Read this article on that:

“Hitler’s Very Own Hot Jazz Band” from smithsonian.com

Your task: The cover of the Decadent Music exhibition catalogue makes clear the racist attitudes of Nazis towards jazz music. So what do you think of their attempts to make a German version of it?


The Nazi critique of modern art and culture extended to architecture. Weissenhof was a housing development near Stuttgart that was built by leading modern architects as part of a 1927 exhibition on apartment living sponsored by the Deutsche Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen). Despite heavy damage during the Second World war, the housing development is still functioning. When it was built it was reviled by German cultural nationalists.

First, here are two posters for the exhibition. Look closely at what the X is crossing out:

Next, read this introduction to the Weissenhofsiedlung (= Weissenhof housing estate/development) written by City of Stuttgart planning office:

The Weissenhofsiedlung is considered one of the most important monuments of the “Neues Bauen” movement. It was created in 1927 as a building exhibition of Deutsche Werkbund and was funded by the City of Stuttgart. In some special way, Weissenhofsiedlung represents the social, aesthetic and technological changes following the end of World War I. Using the programmatic title “Die Wohnung” (The Housing), this Werkbund exposition demonstrated the renunciation from habitats characterized by pre-industrial periods. In these 33 houses with 63 apartments, a total of 17 architects from Germany, France, Holland, Belgium and Austria formulated their solutions for living arrangements of the modern big city dweller, coupled with the use and implementation of new building materials and effective construction methods. As part of this novel and overall urban concept, typical buildings for cost-effective mass production were created but also buildings of great architectural variety.

The estate rightfully derives its place in architectural history from the participation of architects who were then known only among the avant-garde but who are considered today among the great masters of the 20th century: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Hans Scharoun and others.

In an early memorandum dated June 27, 1925, the Mayor of Stuttgart, Karl Lautenschlager, and the President of Deutscher Werkbund, Peter Bruckmann, outlined the intentions as follows: “Efficiency measures in all areas of our lives do not stop where housing is at issue. The economic conditions of today prohibit any kind of waste and demand the maximum effect with minimum amount of means, requiring the implementation of such materials and technological appliances which will lead to lower building and operational costs, and will lead to a simplification of households, and to improvements of living itself.”

Weissenhofsiedlung represented a new type of building exhibition. For the first time fully functional experimental buildings were erected that would later on serve as “regular” lease apartments. At the time of the exhibition they were furnished in accordance with ideas of “Neues Bauen” (Functionalism). In addition, there was an experimental area where different building techniques and materials were shown, complemented by an indoors exhibition with the latest technological devices, furnishings, furniture and household equipment.

Now watch this short videoclip from the broadcaster DW:


Finally, look at these two postcards. The first one shows Weissenhof shortly after it was completed; see if you can pick out which buildings belong to the new development and which don’t. Then take a look at the parody postcard dated 1940. 

Your task: The parody postcard shows you what German nationalists thought of Weissenhof. (It was to be razed around the time of that postcard, but the war got in the way.) What is it about Weissenhof that would upset them so much? 

Specific Instructions for this Review: Decadent/Degenerate Art

Have a look at this ProfMoment:

Your task: as you can tell from the long (and rambling – oy!) ProfMoment above, there’s a lot to discuss here. The Nazis turned modernist artistic works into objects of derision and scorn – degenerate art, made by degenerate people, that introduced foreign ideas into German society and culture. Explain how some of the works identified in the module did not correspond to or support the ideas and ideals of Nazism. 

Feel free to make use of the content items in the module and the postings of your classmates when composing your answer. (For example, perhaps someone else mentioned the point you’re making in a posting – you can cite that and expand on it.)

550-650 words

General Instructions for the Module Reviews

Please keep the following in mind, and please note the elaborations that have been added (in red):

  • your answer should be uploaded as a PDF document – if it isn’t, it will be graded, but you’ll receive no comments.
  • your answer should be double-spaced.
  • no title page, but there should be a title, your name should appear at the top, and there should be page numbers.
  • answers should be within the specified word range.
  • good essays have the following: grammatically-correct sentences; coherent paragraphs; no spelling mistakes; a clear argument or point; titles that capture, directly or indirectly, a point being made in your essay.
  • if you refer to a reading in this unit, you don’t have to give full bibliographical information, but when you first mention it, give the full title and author’s name. If you refer to material not read in class, provide a full bibliographical citation at the end of your essay (it will not count as part of the word count).

Please note: the question may ask you to make use of the discussions that occurred in the module. There are two modes for viewing the discussion forums, GRID VIEW and READING VIEW. (You can change which you view by clicking on the settings – the gear icon – in the upper right-hand corner of your screen when you’re in the Discussions area of the course.) Play around with the two views to find the setting that works best for you. For example, when I’m reading your discussions during the week and commenting on some of them, I use the READING VIEW, but if I have to read and grade a lot of postings I use the GRID VIEW.