The Dark Side of Classicism
Hitler, the German dictator who in his youth had aspired to be an artist, favored classicism and disdained experimental styles. “He considered the ancient Greeks to be ‘Nordics,’ ancestors of the Germans. ‘It is therefore no surprise,’ he declared in one of his first speeches as chancellor, in September 1933, ‘that each politically historical epoch searches in its art for the link with a period of [an] equally heroic past. Greeks and Romans suddenly stand close to Teutons.’” Art’s function, he said in 1935, was to be the model for racially pure humans— “to create images which represent God’s creatures, not miscarriages between man and monkey.”
After assuming power, the Nazis moved quickly to “perfect,” in their words, German culture. In November 1936, they banned all art criticism, and in 1937 confiscated virtually all modernist works in German museums—nearly 5,000 works in the first seizure—and presented 650 of them in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art, 1937) show to demonstrate the perverted nature of modern art. The exhibition traveled throughout Germany and Austria, attracting more than two million visitors, and featured many artists who are now considered masters of 20th-century art, including Marc Chagall (1887–1985), Max Ernst (1879–1976), Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944), and Paul Klee (1879–1940), among others.
The Nazis also planned to demonstrate its efforts at remaking the National Socialist body in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “Although African American track star Jesse Owens [1913–1980] won four gold medals (rendering Hitler’s claims of Aryan superiority somewhat shaky), the German team overwhelmingly dominated, winning 89 medals.” With a stadium and pageantry that mimicked the ancient Greeks, the games provided an opportunity for the Nazi Reich to associate itself with classical antiquity.
Hitler set about creating a genetically specific classicism. “‘The new age of today is at work on a new human type,’ he told his countrymen less than a year after the Olympics had finished. ‘Tremendous efforts are being made in countless spheres of life in order to elevate our people, to make our men, boys, lads, girls, and women healthier and thereby stronger and more beautiful. . . . Never was Mankind closer than now to Antiquity in its appearance and its sensibilities.’”
The official poster for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was chosen through a competition. Franz Wu?rbel, a Berlin painter and graphic artist, won, and his poster included the Brandenburg Gate as the landmark of the host city, Berlin, with the figure of a wreathed victor with his arm raised in the Olympic salute. The five rings were also included in the background and the words, “Berlin 1936, Olympic Games, 1st–16th August,” were inscribed in capitals on the Brandenburg Gate. The poster was distributed and displayed around the world.
- Ask students to describe this poster. What information does it communicate? Include ideas that are conveyed through text as well as the visual components.
- The poster contains several symbols, the Brandenburg Gate, the Olympic rings, and a laurel wreath. Research these symbols. How does knowing their meaning influence the class’s understanding of the poster?
- On the Internet, research posters that have promoted the Olympic Games over the past century. How have the designs changed? How have they stayed the same? Do you think the Berlin 1936 poster could be used for a 21st-century Olympics? Explain.
- The word “propaganda” is used to describe “the systematic manipulation of public opinion and political beliefs, generally by the use of symbols, such as flags, monuments, speeches and publications.” Do your students consider this poster propaganda, a marketing tool, and/or advertisement for an upcoming event? Explain.
- The Nazis hoped to show German superiority to the world during
the 1936 Olympics. Although German athletes won many medals,
Owens, an American track and field athlete, achieved international
fame by winning four gold medals. It can be argued that there has
never been a more important sports story than his performance in
Berlin. Research his life. What insights, conflicts, and ironies do your
- The 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London will occur 100 years
after the first official Olympic poster (for the 1912 Olympic Games
in Stockholm) was created. The host country generally sponsors a
contest to choose the official poster. Using either traditional art
materials or digital tools, the class can design a poster for the
upcoming games. What images, symbols, colors, and composition
will best express the ideals of these events? Once completed,
discuss your designs and motivations with the class. For more
information, download the Olympic Museum’s resource guide
Olympic Games Posters at multimedia.olympic.org/pdf/en_
- Research the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition, which showcased
work that the Nazi government found objectionable. What threats
to their ideals did the Nazis see in modern art? Explain.
- One of the most blatant and successful uses of classicism in the
service of Nazi propaganda was the film Olympia (1936–38). This
controversial documentary, directed by Nazi sympathizer Leni
Riefenstahl (1902–2003), was commissioned by the regime and
focused on the 1936 games. Segments of the film are available on
YouTube. View clips and then discuss the class’s response to the
artistic, political, and social implications of the director’s approach.