Art and music under the Third Reich

Entartete Kunst and Entartete Musik exhibitions

Nazi ideology regarding race extended to all aspects of cultural and social life in the Third Reich. There were strict controls over the works of art, music, literature and film that could be enjoyed, and those that were considered Entartete, or ‘degenerate.’ This regulation of cultural life culminated in two exhibitions in the late 1930s: Entartete Kunst (1937) and Entartete Musik (1938). The exhibitions were intended to ridicule and make examples of those artists and musicians considered inferior according to Nazi policy, as well as the work of modernists contrary to the Nazis’ ideals of German culture.

Weimar Germany during the 1920s had been a centre for experimental, avant-garde art, music, literature and plays. This modernism pushed the boundaries of conservative taste and did not fit with Nazi concepts of German style. While philosophers in nineteenth-century Germany had previously argued that art and music could have inherently ‘degenerate’ characteristics (from the German entartung, meaning degeneration), the Nazis pushed this further, interpreting ‘degeneracy’ as a racial characteristic to fit with their antisemitic ideology. The Nazis claimed that ‘Jewish’ influence was responsible for the creation of morally questionable modern art and music and sought to ban such works. Artistic movements such as Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Post-Impressionism were all banned, as were musical genres such as atonality, jazz and swing. All works by Jewish people were classed as Entartete and officially banned from the Third Reich.

This caused confusion even within the Nazi Party because though the ideology argued that works were banned on the basis of their inherent ‘degeneracy,’ the real issue was not with the work of art itself but with the race or ethnicity of its creator. People could not necessarily tell from listening to music or looking at a piece of artwork whether it was Entartete. Because the Nazi bans focussed primarily on ‘high’ art, some genres were able to continue untouched – in film, for example, the Nazi bans were less strict. In some ways, the bans on music were more significant in everyday life because listening to jazz music and attending concerts of modern music was a popular activity in German cultural life. In contrast, the banned artistic genres such as Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism were – arguably – somewhat disliked or misunderstood by ordinary Germans.

Entartete Kunst

German painter Adolf Ziegler was appointed Senator of the Fine Arts at the Reichkulturkammer in 1935 and became the President of the Kunstkammer (Chamber of Art) in 1936. He was tasked with confiscating all degenerate art from museums and exhibitions, including works by Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. Works were curated into a display of degenerate art, the Entartete Kunst exhibition, in Munich in 1937. This exhibition would bring together works by Jewish artists and modernists disliked by the Nazis to encourage German hatred of these artists and styles, reaffirming Nazi cultural ideology.

The exhibition featured more than 650 paintings and sculptures organised incongruently and chaotically to emphasise their offensive and confusing nature, as perceived by the Nazis. Several rooms included displays of works by Jewish artists, anti-Religious works and those that were deemed insulting to the German people. Misinformation accompanied the artworks, and slogans emphasised their degeneracy. Though the focus was on Jewish influence, only six of the 112 artists represented were Jewish. The Nazis ran a concurrent exhibition, the Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German art exhibition) which displayed art approved by the Nazis, though Entartete Kunst was much more popular. The exhibition closed in Munich in November 1937 and toured Germany and Austria.

Entartete Musik

Music was essential for Nazi propaganda. In 1933 the Reichsmusikkammer was set up with the aim of regulating German musical life. Jewish musicians and composers were purged almost immediately and the performance of their works were banned. Jazz and swing music also suffered (though to a lesser extent initially), as did foreign composers. The racial laws were imposed strictly in music because it was so important in the Third Reich; the Nazis considered Germany to be culturally superior in all areas – but particularly so in music. Jewish artists could not possess licenses for performing in public and were no longer allowed into concert halls (though they could perform in the Jüdischer Kulturbund). Banned Jewish composers included Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek and Bruno Walter.

The Reichsmusikkammer set up Reichsmusiktage (Reich Music Days) in Düsseldorf in 1938 to present sanctioned German music; they later set up an exhibition of degenerate music which echoed the Entartete Kunst exhibition. Curated by Hans Severus Ziegler, the exhibition displayed portraits of banned composers and offered listening booths where visitors could hear ‘degenerate’ music. Slogans criticised composers and their music, educating visitors about the danger of these music and musicians. The exhibition, which opened in Düsseldorf’s Kunstpalast (Art Palace) in May 1939, was accompanied by a brochure written by Ziegler. His aims for the exhibition were that it should ‘bring about a clear decision for music as well [as art]: what was and is diseased, unhealthy, and highly dangerous in our music and that for this reason must be eliminated.’

Composers included in the exhibition included Jewish musicians, foreign artists and Modernists including Paul Hindemith, Alban Berg, Ernst Toch, Hans Eisler, Igor Stravinsky, Franz Schreker, Ernst Krenek and Kurt Weill. The exhibition presented a diverse selection of artists and genres of music linked only because they were disliked by the Nazi regime. Composers such as Hindemith and Stravinsky, who had been unsure about their place in Nazi Germany, took their inclusion in Entartete Musik as confirmation that they were unwelcome in the Third Reich.

Entartete Musik and Entartete Kunst in the Third Reich

The Entartete Musik exhibition was more controversial than Entartete Kunst and it received little publicity from Josef Goebbels. It was boycotted by many musicians and composers in Germany, even those that were committed members of the Nazi Party. The President of the Reichsmusikkammer, Peter Raabe, resigned in May 1939 in protest against the exhibition (though his resignation was not officially accepted by Goebbels). Entartete Musik closed earlier than expected in June 1939, unlike Entartete Kunst which had toured for several months.

Though the same Nazi ideology applied to both Entartete Kunst and Entartete Musik, music was a more sensitive subject in Nazi Germany and Entartete Musik was therefore more controversial. The art exhibition was celebrated on a wider scale, whilst the smaller music exhibition was quieter so as not to incite protest. The same principles of ‘degenerate’ art applied to film and plays, though they were not exemplified in exhibitions.

In 1988 Albrecht Dümling and Peter Girth reconstructed the Entartete Musik exhibition to encourage recognition of the dangers of fascist cultural politics. The record label Decca have released a series of albums entitled Entartete Musik to recognise musicians and composers whose lives and careers were cut short or destroyed by the Nazis.

By Abaigh McKee


Richard A. Etlin (2002) Art, Culture and Media Under the Third Reich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Erik Levi (2004) ‘The Censorship of Musical Modernism in Germany, 1918-1945,’ ed. Beate Müller (New York: Rodopi)

Michael Meyer (1993) The Policits of Music in the Third Reich (New York: P. Lang)

The Bremen Museum, ‘Entartete Musik.’ [accessed 19/12/2017]