Hitler Knew What He Liked

Most art created during the Nazi regime in Germany wound up in the ashes of World War II. What survived molders mostly not in art museums but in places like the customhouse in Munich. Hardly anybody will exhibit the stuff, but-maybe because of the Nazi book burnings of the early 19308-no one is willing to destroy it, either. Even scholars shy away; the great architecture historian Nikolaus Pevsner said, "Every word about it is too much." Peter Adam, a half-Jewish ex-BBC producer who was raised in Hitler's Berlin, thinks different. He has sifted through the repositories of Nazi art to produce. Art of the Third Reich (332 pages. Abrams. $39.95), a somewhat informal history (he doesn't date about half the works he cites) of a brief but sorry period in the history of art.

The Third Reich never really spawned a style; it only appropriated styles from elsewhere. Many artists badly imitated 19th century romantic painting with the same kind of sentimental realism that some of today's detractors of the National Endowment for the Arts seem to love: family values pictures like Adolf Wissel's "Farm Family" (1939). The Nazis seemed especially to like sculpture for its ability-as in Arno Breker's "Warrior's Departure"-to combine muscle-bound propaganda with smooth-finished permanence. The scale was often ridiculous-take Josef Thorak's 65-foot-high plaster horses, meant to be cast in bronze. In general, Nazi art idealized small towns and peasant life while it abhorred the cities that nurtured such iniquities, as one poster proclaimed, as "niggerized" music. (In the infamous Munich "Degenerate Art" exhibition of 1937, the Nazis actually exhibited modern art just to mock it.) The Third Reich's urban architecture was inhumanly cold and grandiose. Paul Ludwig Troost's austere House of German Art (still a museum in Munich) is a depressing example.

Of course, Hitler himself was a failed artist. In his Vienna student days, he sold postcard-size sketches of local buildings and later became a pedestrian, if prolific, painter. Oddly, in 1937 he forbade any reproductions of or writing about his work, maybe because he realized its mediocrity. But art was a high priority for the fuhrer: he had Joseph Goebbels create the Reichskulturkammer to maintain control over the arts. At its height, the RKK's ranks included 23,000 painters, sculptors and designers. The vast majority weren't Nazi party members, just opportunistic hacks who prospered under the new regime by such gambits as adding the word "German" to the titles of idyllic landscapes.

If Nazi art is so obviously counterfeit and bombastic, why does the prospect of exhuming some of it make so many people uneasy? After all, there's no real danger of Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 recruiting movie, "Triumph of the Will," driving people to join the neo-Nazis today. Dusting off a few old jut-jawed portrait busts and treacly harvest paintings is likely to elicit nothing but scorn from art lovers. But to exhibit or document Nazi art, no matter how disinterestedly, is in some way to celebrate it. And "Art of the Third Reich," noxious as the subject is, is a handsome book. How can this be reconciled with the imperative, as Adam says in his introduction, to see Nazi art "through the lens of Auschwitz"? It can't. There will always be pain involved in looking at even the most innocuous work of art approved by the Third Reich. But we shouldn't shrink from feeling that pain. We should know exactly how bad-morally and esthetically-art can get.