The Library of Congress World War II Companion
Edited by David M. Kennedy
Simon & Schuster, 2007, $45,
One of the greatest insights Jacques Derrida laid out in his conceptualization of Deconstruction was that a thing can coexist with its opposite, and in fact, neither can be properly understood without the other. To understand darkness, we must have a notion of light and vice-versa, so that the two become co-dependent rather than mutually exclusive. Thus, part of understanding good art is comparing and contrasting it with its evil twin, propaganda.
If art involves creating and arranging visual forms in a way that is pleasant, true and beautiful, propaganda manipulates visual information to deceive viewers with a charged political agenda. Successful art often inspires viewers to incorporate its vision into their lives; propaganda insists that viewers adapt their beliefs and ideology to fit the misleading narrative, though Derrida would caution that art often exhibits propaganda-like properties, while propaganda often employs artistic elements.
This column often explores Holocaust art, whether created by survivors, victims or people who found artistic inspiration in the Holocaust despite less direct experience of the events. Indeed, the Holocaust was not simply a Jewish tragedy – the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates the Germans killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians during World War II – and as such, many non-Jewish artists turned to the Holocaust for subject matter.
This column has often alluded to Hitler’s denouncement of degenerate art (“entartete Kunst”) and conflation of Jewish art with the degenerate. It is vital to keep this aesthetic-political backdrop in mind when considering Holocaust art. This is why the new “World War II Companion” from the Library of Congress, edited and introduced by David Kennedy, is such an important book. The companion devotes the entire chapter 10 (pages 783-843) to “The Media War,” with subsections on “propaganda and censorship organizations and agendas,” “censorship issues,” “black propaganda,” “propaganda techniques,” “the media,” “propaganda, truth, and influence” and “principal sources and further reading.”
From the catalog for “Exhibition of Degenerate Art” in 1937, arranged by Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels.
According to the section on art, the authors argue that each of the governments involved in the war “viewed art as it did other media – as a potential tool to reinforce nationalism, shape national culture, and imbue the citizen with certain values.” Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union sought to control artists more than Britain and the United States did, yet “Italy organized its artists and allowed experimentation.”
Perhaps the most gripping image collected within the Library of Congress’ book is a page from the catalog for the “Exhibition of Degenerate Art,” which was “curated” by Joseph Goebbels in 1937. The first sentence on the top of the page (see image one) reads, “Even this was once taken seriously and highly paid,” and the works below are by Johannes Molzahn (1892-1965), Jean Metzinger (1883-1956) and Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), all German, and none of them Jewish. As was the case with non-Jewish artists like Swiss painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) and German painter Max Ernst (1891-1976), the Nazis often accused painters they hated of being Jews, even when they had no connection whatsoever to the Jewish community.
Joseph Goebbels at a Berlin book burning on May 10, 1933. According to the authors, “Germany is perhaps less known for books it produced during World War II than the books it burned.”
The Japanese government followed the Nazis’ lead in denouncing the avant-garde. In 1938, Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe began to monitor artists affiliated with the surrealist movement, whom he conflated with the communist movement. A few years later, the official Government Information Bureau policed artists and their work as it did all other media. In Germany, cartoonist Hans Schweitzer, a Goebbels appointee, became the Reich Plenipotentiary for Artistic Formulation. In this capacity, Schweitzer closed the modern wing of the Berlin National Gallery and removed another 16,000 modern works from other museums and galleries.
The journal Die Kunst im Dritten Reich (Art in the Third Reich), edited by Alfred Rosenberg, published only state-supported, National Socialist valued, art criticism. And not surprisingly, the House of German Art, opened in 1937 with Hitler’s mandate to “confirm the sound instinct of the people,” failed to attract nearly the attention and visitors who flocked to the “Exhibition of Degenerate Art.” That exhibit, according to Hitler, displayed “artistic lunacy” and “pollution,” and showed how modern art was “the monstrous offspring of insanity, impudence, ineptitude and sheer degeneracy” in the words of Head of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts Adolf Ziegler.
Unlike his counterparts in Germany and Japan, Benito Mussolini, prime minister of Italy, did not crack down on artists even as the rest of his political movements became increasingly fascist. At an opening of an exhibit of seven 21st century painters in 1923, Mussolini said, “I declare that it is far from my idea to encourage anything like an art of the State … Art belongs to the domain of the individual. The State has only one duty: not to undermine art, to provide humane conditions for artists, and to encourage them from the artistic and national point of view.”
From a September 1943 issue of Time magazine. This is the first photograph of dead American soldiers published in an American publication. The image depicts soldiers ambushed by the Japanese at Buna Beach.
Readers of this column will remember from the Oct. 24 column, “Forward-Looking Photographs” that Mussolini chased Forverts employee Elias Grossman out of Italy after his etching of the prime minister appeared in the New York Herald Tribune with the caption, “What Price Mussolini?” Threatening an artist’s life is of course hardly the same thing as providing “humane conditions for artists,” and indeed in 1938, the Italian government did ban the creations of Jewish artists from exhibition and began to support only artists whose works celebrated Mussolini and Italy.
Britain and the United States did not censor artists to nearly the extent that the axis countries did, but the allied countries did support propaganda that uplifted the allied forces both physically and morally. Sir Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery in London, convinced the Ministry of Information to create the War Artists Advisory Committee. In the Soviet Union, which combined distaste for modern art and for the traditional culture of the czars, idealized the Soviet people and its place within the war. Posters declared “Stalin is Leading Us to Victory,” “The Motherland Calls!” and “Death to the Fascist Reptile!”
“The New Order,” by Saul Steinberg. 1942. Figures include Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito and Henri Petain of Vichy France.
Norman Rockwell is the best known of the American artists who drew in support of the allied forces, primarily his works “OURS … to fight for” and “Four Freedoms.” John Steuart Curry helped sell war bonds with his paintings, “Our Good Earth” and “The Farm is a Battlefield.” Rockwell’s works were used by the Office of War Information, and shortly after the Peal Harbor attack, the U.S. War Department formed the Art Advisory Committee, chaired by artist George Biddle, and several art organizations founded Artists for Victory.
When compared side by side, it is clear that the axis countries singled out artists in their restrictions upon freedom of expression and free speech far more than the allied countries did. This most likely indicates that the axis leaders feared the power of images to thwart their fascist programs. But even as they allowed for a more or less free marketplace of images, the allied countries still turned to artists to create propaganda to enlist support of the war. Images, insofar as they interact with our right brain rather than our left brain, have that power of speaking directly to our emotions by circumventing our logical faculties. And however useful the images of World War II were, they seem directly linked to the widespread suspicion of images, particularly war images, that many people feel today as the boundary between journalism and propaganda becomes more blurry.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.