A consistently startling and intellectually rich account that throws light upon the largely obscured players in the art world of Nazi Germany—exploring their moral equivocations, their roles in aiding the Reich, and their generally lenient fates.
Petropoulos (Art as Politics in the Third Reich, not reviewed) notes that the actions of many German artists and intellectuals during the Reich confound expectations (shared then by the Allies) that such figures were likelier to “behave in a more scrupulous and humane fashion,” and he presents a number of scrupulous studies of individuals who struck the “deal with the devil . . . for greatness and in pursuit of a lofty ideal.” He endeavors first to piece together, through personalized narrative, some understanding of why these individuals accommodated the Nazis, and then to show how the German art world’s close-knit, complex web of competition and profit ultimately provided cultural legitimacy (as well as aesthetic and financial support) for the regime’s genocidal politics. To this end, Petropoulos examines representative figures from among museum directors, art dealers, journalists, historians, and artists, according in-depth coverage to such key Nazi associates as Walter Hofer (Göring’s personal dealer) and Arno Breker (Hitler’s favorite sculptor). Though one might assign avaricious or self-preserving motives to these art-world professionals, the range of their Nazi-related deeds is a sobering indictment of true fervor; Petropoulos documents activities ranging from the blackballing of Jews and leftists to the confiscation (for destruction or covert sale) of “degenerate” art to the organized plundering of art from all Nazi-occupied countries. Yet most of these well-connected art professionals were treated lightly in de-nazification proceedings, and most resumed their careers with varying degrees of informal approbation. An especially dark theme here concerns the fervor of top Nazis for art collecting and patronage; it offers a more disturbingly nuanced configuration of the supposed “banality of evil” schematic that makes Nazism easier to comprehend.
Thus, a subtly rendered, thoroughly informed, and important examination of one of the least-understood aspects of the Third Reich.