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League of German Girls dancing during the Reich Party Congress, 1938Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Curating Nazism in Today’s Europe

Museums grapple with how to show visual art not isolated from greater sociohistorical processes

Matt Alexander Hanson
May 04, 2020
Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
League of German Girls dancing during the Reich Party Congress, 1938Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The German expressionist painter Emil Nolde brought back over 350 pastels and drawings from his colonial government-sponsored expedition to New Guinea in 1913-1914. One became a color lithograph on woven paper titled “South Sea Islander” (1915). The Brooklyn Museum curated it as part of the Rembrandt to Picasso show in 2019 with a placard reading: “Decades later, Nolde had more works confiscated and denounced by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’ than any other artist. This caused him particular dismay because he was himself an ardent anti-Semite and remained a member of the Nazi Party through 1945.”

Nolde’s oxymoronic profile as a degenerate Nazi represents the duplicitous nature of visual art when isolated from greater sociohistorical processes. Immediately following WWII, and arguably not until the Hamburger Bahnhof show of Nolde’s work in Berlin, subtitled “A German Legend,” did the general public and arts establishment fully recognize that Nolde was not a victim of Nazism, but one of its most zealous adherents.

Yet despite his fascist careerism and inexcusable racism, the painter’s place in art history seems secure. Nolde enjoys new critical appreciation in Munich, at the former location of the Nazi headquarters from 1931-1945, now transformed into the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism.

Next to its permanent display on the Nazis’ notorious Degenerate Art show is a painting by Nolde, “Sea and Sky” (1937), one of the few historical works in the distinctively integrated, museumwide temporary exhibition, Tell me about yesterday tomorrow, curated by artistic director Nicolaus Schafhausen. “One piece [by Emil Nolde] is enough. It’s more, for me, just a metaphor,” said Schafhausen, quick to redirect our conversation to his curation of Jewish painter Artur (Stefan) Nacht-Samborski, who changed his name to escape the Holocaust in Poland.

As a newcomer to Munich, a secular American Jew with a Norwegian surname, I had no history or localized identity in the defunct “Capital of the Movement” where Hitler launched Nazism. I stepped into the Documentation Center, a lavishly windowed modernist cube. Flooded with natural light, views of the exacting cityscape appeared on every floor. Across from the museum, the neoclassical landmarks of Konigsplatz that once served as expansive grounds for Nazi rallies were prefaced by the billboard art of Ken Lum. His piece “Coming Soon” (2009) expresses the cosmopolitan pluralism of a multiethnic, bilingual family.

In its bowels, by the “Library of Burned Books,” spanning 12,000 volumes, within seven floors of exhibits, The Body’s Legacies (2018), a two-part film by artist Kader Attia, attests to the codependency of colonialism and fascism—the marriage that bore “South Sea Islander.” The Berlin-based Attia told me that “it is problematic to make the identity of the person you paint invisible, especially when this person is a black person,” while steadfastly valuing Nolde as an indispensable German expressionist, like Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. “Art is a kind of mirror. It does not belong to you. That’s why I feel comfortable with some works of Nolde,” he explained. “I think they are part of the human adventure of creation.”

I looked at “Sea and Sky” and imagined Nolde painting it in 1937, cowardly retreating from supremacist portraiture the year Hitler defamed him as a degenerate artist. His Nordic landscape is devoid of human presence, cold and distant as its darkening gray skies and deep green waters, divided by smears of pale, blood-hued tints.

Of the 465 Jewish people who lived in the little Dutch city of Den Bosch in January 1941, 293 were murdered by the Nazis. The work of the minds who premeditated their extermination, with untold others across the continent, was the subject of a public exhibition of videos and artifacts at the Design Museum Den Bosch, titled Design of the Third Reich.

Excepting the words Third Reich, the only Nazi remnant visible outside the museum is the 1938 KdF-Wagen type 60 designed by Ferdinand Porsche, what Americans might call a Bug. (KdF is a Hitler Youth motto, “Kraft durch Freude,” or “Strength through Joy.”) Its history, encompassing Nazi exploitation and hippie adventurism, is soured by the outright appropriation of Jewish invention, in this case that of the journalist and engineer Josef Ganz. I found the car showroom especially tasteless for not mentioning Ganz, though I guess it was tactful not to project Nazi imagery onto the street.

Prior to the opening of Design of the Third Reich, museum director Timo de Rijk spoke with Hanna Luden, director of Holland’s most respected anti-Semitism watchdog, the Center for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI). “I didn’t think the exhibition presented a new perspective on the Nazi regime. It did not give answers to the most important questions, how the Nazis used design to influence and manipulate the public,” Luden told me over the phone in January.

Museum director de Rijk was previously unaware that people still preserved the history of the former Synagogue Den Bosch, which is now the De Toonzaal Music Center, located across the street from the museum. Initially, representatives of the synagogue were defensive, and did not trust the curatorial plan. They met de Rijk with a notebook of questions, which he answered, winning them over.

Design of the Third Reich comprised two floors. At first, a 20-minute film reinforced the museum’s stance, as introduced by a wall text, reading: “An inherent evil was ascribed to swastikas, rustic Bavarian furniture and even Hitler’s mediocre watercolors. This response was entirely understandable, but it has also resulted after all the years of commemoration in a poor understanding of Nazism in Germany and beyond.”

All of the usual suspects appeared in the introductory film, including concentration camps, Nazi rallies, Hitler cults, and book burnings, along with benign clips of the Aryan lifestyle, sunny outings on the autobahn, and horseback riding through the ethnically cleansed countryside.

Upstairs, the films of Leni Riefenstahl play hypnotically over a slew of loaned objects. The furniture of architect Albert Speer is accompanied by an audio guide vapidly stating: “There is nothing very special about this chair and that was precisely the intention.”

There is a reason Hannah Arendt described the evil she witnessed at Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem as banal. Among its usages, the word connotes a worn-out lack of originality. Every conception of design that the Nazis attributed to themselves, an attribution that the Design Museum naively fosters, was a rip-off.

Nazism plagiarized Mediterranean archaism as their Aryan origin myth. The posters of Ludwig Hohlwein, plastered across the show, were a parasitic degradation of American ads. (He worked in the United States.) The sideboard of Hitler’s chancellery was modeled after 18th-century French decor. Hindus, Buddhists, Jains still pray before swastikas, even in Germany. Perusing the show twice, first accompanied by staff, then on my own, I stared into such Aryan fantasy paintings as “Family Portrait” (1938) by Hans Schmitz-Wiedenbrück, and was struck more by their curatorial context, as concretely preordained as the eugenic ideals of Arno Breker’s sculpture “Der Wager” beside it, favored by Hitler for its Greco-Roman posturing.

Inside the windowless dark of the museum, the plethora of Nazi memorabilia stank from its quarantined retroversion from the world. Its exhibits were splayed in a haphazard, vague disunity of three parts: racist art, propaganda products, and genocidal machinery. The names of Nazi designers were eclipsed by the fine print under their subliminal, visual idioms of hatred.

A cutup wall installation opened the exhibit with the image of a Nazi zeppelin airship, symbolizing their affirmation of industry despite being anti-modern. Toward the back, plans for “Germanified landscapes” chillingly blueprint the cartography of communal liquidation.

The blunt obviousness of the show’s curatorial objective, which was to expose the psychopathic, inconsistent monotony of Nazi visual culture, contrasted with a photograph by Nazi accountant Walter Genewein, enlarged across a wall, of an anonymous Jewish “resident” of Lodz ghetto. The photographer and the smirking Nazi officer Hans Biebow behind him are named while he is not.

“We had discussions about denazification, or how Nazi design was used after the war by the modern far right, but it became too blurry. It was such a task to understand the use of design by the Nazis and how it led to the crimes inherent in the Nazi ideology that we didn’t have space, time, money, and energy,” explained Tomas van den Heuvel, a historian on the museum staff who noted how the show’s public program fills in the political history to the present. The placement of swastikas led to curatorial efforts to curb the inherent sway of Nazism. Flags bearings swastikas were laid down flat. A standard of the SA Storm Division, designed by silversmith Otto Gahr with Hitler in 1922 is raised only so high so as not to relay its original intent to impose power.

“National Socialism didn’t stop in 1945. You could say it started in 1945 in the way it’s had its effect on society. It became a reference for evil,” said de Rijk before pointing out the importance of a map of the Treblinka camp, drawn from memory by survivors Jakub Krzepicki and Rachel Auerbach, exhibited under frigid light at the show’s end. “It is very important to give the victim the last word.”

The show’s opening, two years in the making, coincided with the 75th anniversary of Den Bosch’s liberation, and the Communist Youth and the Dutch Antifascist League organized protests. A red-carpet swastika installed at the museum entrance by local artist Ralph Posset denounced the Design Museum for evoking sympathy for Nazism while far-right, white-nationalist violence returns with a vengeance across Europe and America.

“The curator-director Timo de Rijk at some point in the run-up said that ‘design was a crucial factor in the success of the Third Reich.’ As a specialized historian, I am acutely aware that there is no serious author on the subject who would defend this viewpoint—propaganda, sure, but certainly not design,” said Arthur Graaff, who campaigned with the Dutch Antifascist League, and consoled mourners at the opening, proudly wearing a Star of David on his torn clothes.

One iconic Holocaust photo shown in passing during the introductory film is of a girl named Anna Maria “Settela” Steinbach, who poked her head out of a train in Westerbork bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944. But until 1994, when the Dutch journalist Arie Huibrecht Dignus identified her as Sinti, a Roma people of Central Europe, most assumed she was Jewish. When I asked if the Design Museum reached out to Sinti or Roma representatives for their counsel, de Rijk replied, “I wouldn’t know where to find them.”

Sinti and Roma are mentioned twice in the show, when color-coded with a triangular brand in the camps, and as victims of Auschwitz. Over designs for crematoria, the voice of prisoner Yankl Silberberg recounts how the Nazis burned a child between each man and woman for fuel efficiency.

The Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam is home to a number of institutions that examine not only the peculiarities of the Dutch Holocaust but publicly exhibit authoritative criticism on how to curate sensitive visual evidence. One example is at the former theater Hollandsche Schouwburg, which became a Nazi deportation center during WWII, and now serves as a Holocaust memorial in conjunction with the National Holocaust Museum across the street.

Until mid-2020, Hollandsche Schouwburg was exhibiting Perspectives on the Holocaust: Three Ways of Telling a Story. Trigger warnings and age limits were offered ahead of gruesome scenes of dehumanization, brutality, and murder. Problematizing the curation of testimonies with images shed light on the relationship between history and documentation.

Four photographs were presented, along with a piece of film. The first photograph was from Bergen-Belsen, taken by the British soldiers who liberated the camp in 1945. Eight men stand in front of a wooden edifice, most nude from the waist down, their heads shaved. One man is completely naked, standing with help, the visibility of his ribs attesting to an incarceration in a place where starvation was common.

“I feel it’s permissible, yes. Yes. It’s not unreal. It’s not a lie. It’s just how it was,” said Ernst Verduin, a survivor of the camps at Vught (Herzogenbusch), Westerbork, Auschwitz, Monowitz, and Buchenwald.

“I wouldn’t show this photo to pupils in schools. No photos of nudity. Why not? I don’t think they’re mature enough to truly understand this photo,” said Judith Whitlau, an educator at the Jewish Cultural Quarter. “I also certainly wouldn’t confront adults with this, without first always giving them a choice whether or not to view these photos.”

The future of Holocaust remembrance in the Netherlands remains unsettled. Twenty-four hours before International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2020, Marke Rutte became the first Dutch prime minister to officially apologize for Holland’s role in the Holocaust.

At the Hollandsche Schouwburg, the Dutch Holocaust Name Monument is slated to open in June of 2021, designed by the Polish American architect Daniel Libeskind. It will be the first time each of the 102,000 individual Holocaust victims from the Netherlands are listed together in one place, including the 220 Sinti and Roma. In all of Western Europe, Holland lost the greatest proportion of its Jewish community to Nazism.

“I don’t think there’s too little attention to the history. People know the dry facts but have a lack of understanding of what it was, what it meant and the impact. But I don’t think that this is because there is no museum that is called the Holocaust Museum,” said Luden. “I’m not sure that the fact that we build more buildings and monuments helped disseminating the knowledge and understanding that people need to have.”

In downtown Berlin, there was ample foot traffic into the former Gestapo headquarters, where an exhaustive permanent exhibition on Nazism also hosts traveling shows. The recent exhibit The Persecution of Jews in Photographs: The Netherlands 1940-1945 broke ground as the first exhibition of the Dutch Holocaust to focus solely on photography.

Its curators, Dr. Erik Somers and René Kok, are from the NIOD (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) in Amsterdam, founded on May 8, 1945, to produce independent research on the history of WWII. Their exhibition employed a lucid, simple design, placing the most sensitive photo in the center of curved panels forming concentric circles of successive themes leading to an apotheosis of victimhood.

Over the title “Liberation,” a photograph taken on April 17 by George Rodger of an embryonic NIOD at Bergen-Belsen showed a roadway strewn with unburied corpses as far as the eye can see. A survivor, 7-year-old Simon Maandag from Amsterdam, strides past, looking away from the horrors. Near the image, preceded with educational context, the only four photos of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Alberto Errera depict the blur of outdoor cremation firsthand.

For his work on the Jewish Museum Berlin, Daniel Libeskind adapted elements of design based on the history of the Third Reich toward a full-body immersion into a landscape of institutional remembrance. But as in Amsterdam, the Jewish Museum Berlin has closed its permanent exhibitions for renovations through May 2020, now extended under pandemic stay-at-home orders.

At the Jewish Museum Munich, guest curator Boaz Levin received criticism for showing the “Desert Bloom” series by American photographer Fazal Sheikh as part of Say Shibboleth!, which framed imagery of displaced Bedouin villages in the Negev. Despite the resignation of former Jewish Museum Berlin director Peter Schafer over complaints about his indirect involvement in attempts to pass BDS legislation in Germany (which failed), the museum’s recent temporary show, This Place, again featured Sheikh’s Negev series. “The irony is that in the U.S. it was criticized and demonstrated against by BDS activists, while in Germany and Israel, people have accused the exhibition I curated in Munich of being ‘anti-Zionist’ for showing Sheikh’s work,” said Levin.

Levin included the film A Gentle Breeze Passed Over Us (2017) by artist Pinar Ogrenci in Say Shibboleth! On a cold December night in Munich, she read from her new book of migrant stories, reflecting on her experiences as an exile from her native Turkey who has sought asylum in Europe.

Both curations at the Jewish Museum Munich and at Munich’s Documentation Center are exemplary. Tell me about yesterday tomorrow relays a progressive curation praxis in dialogue with new global contemporary art, emboldened by site-specific political awareness of Nazism past and present.

Artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan infiltrated Dutch immigration, exposing “accent tests,” corroborating undocumented asylum claims with voice recognition technology in his piece, “Conflicted Phonemes” (2012). He submitted the artwork to Dutch immigration authorities and the U.K. Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. It appeared at the Jewish Museum Munich show Say Shibboleth!, and as part of his recent solo show at Hamburger Bahnhof.

Abu Hamdan is a figure of national stature in Germany’s art scene, as he is elsewhere. Beirut-based, from Amman, his research-heavy work is visually impressive, particularly “Conflicted Phonemes.” But his approach complements the curatorial contexts of his work as more than shows of art. He contributes to educational programs that aim to change cultural history.

“My question in general is: Which function does art serve today?” Schafhausen asked me prior to the opening of Tell me about yesterday tomorrow, after stepping down as curator at Kunsthalle Wien in March 2019. “From the generation in which new art histories arrived it’s interesting how the MoMA is trying to rewrite their history. Why is this just happening now?” Tell me about yesterday tomorrow exhibits the drawings of Sebastian Jung, based on his observations of concentration camp memorials in Buchenwald and Dachau, the infamous far-right rally in Chemnitz in 2018, and the perpetrator’s video of the shooting in Halle (Saale) in 2019. Sketched quickly, the minimalist depictions are almost cartoonish, reflecting the abstraction of history in contrast to the collective learning of its often unclear, blinding curve. Jung grew up in the Winzerla building complex in Jena, about 60 miles from Chemnitz, where three right-wing terrorists of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) radicalized.

Two films by Hito Steyerl, The Empty Centre and Normality 1-10, show the continuity of Nazism and its post-WWII manifestations following the controversially fragmentary saga of denazification, since enflamed by the identity crisis of German unification after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In the wake of unresolved regional, economic inequality, right nationalists assume the Nazi guise as a source of symbolic power.

In the ninth segment of Normality 1-10, Steyerl relays a news program, in which an arson attack at a synagogue in Dusseldorf and a swastika vandalization in Buchenwald follow an ice cream ad. Steyerl, who is German with Japanese roots, is seen onboard a crowded metro train viewing it all on a small monitor. The music of Arnold Schönberg plays to interviews of Germany’s visible minorities protesting racism and fascism during festivities for the 10th anniversary of German unification.

“I don’t think that we have to make a long story short,” Schafhausen told me when we met in Munich. “I don’t think we have the institutions at the moment where we can see the world and conflicts as a whole to bring discourse together. It’s all too segregated. I see this as a pilot project, as a point of departure to think differently.”

Matt Alexander Hanson is an arts and culture journalist based in Istanbul.