Solving the mystery of "Degenerate Art" in Berlin

[Video Link] Is anyone surprised that when the Nazis rose to power, they burned a bunch of interesting paintings and other art? (For a taste of pre-Nazi German erotically-tinged art, check out the book Voluptuous Panic).

Recently, construction workers dug up some ash deposits during a subway excavation in Berlin. Dr. Stadelmann of the HTW University of Applied Sciences in Berline used x-ray spectroscopy to look for trace elements that would indicate whether the ashes were from paintings or photographs.

Museum Secrets TV team caught up with Dr. Stadelmann where he looks under a microscope to determine what properties the paint contains. With this he is able to determine exactly what they’re made of and what era they are from. The video is part of our web series on, where we feature 14 episodes at the world’s best museums and over 90 objects in our object navigator – with mysteries revealed from different geographic locations and time periods.
Solving the Mystery of 'Degenerate Art' in Berlin


  1. Watching The Rape of Europa , I am fascinated for these kinds of footnotes to history. It puts the NEA controversy into a new kind of context!

    I wonder, if they hold onto these ashes long enough, if some kind of transhumanist technology would some day allow images to be pulled off these fragments?

    1. Story seems to suggest the paintings were in storage and burned during bombing raids. I’m not surprised the artworks were in storage, the Nazis were quite pragmatic on occasion. They probably hoped to trade them for swiss gold, or Swedish iron and aircraft parts.

      And yes, I understand the Nazis were not really that efficient. Aside from a few good economic policies  in the mid 30’s and putting younger officers in charge who understood what their technology could do, they were actually poor managers.

  2. Yes, but are we any better? Much of the art that the national socialists themselves created, or art that was created during the Third Reich era and sanctioned by the German government of the time, was destroyed after the war by the Allied powers. What remains is secreted away in a few museum basements and almost never sees the light of day. We’re doing the same thing: banning art that is anathema to current political thought.

    I wish we were more enlightened and allowed all art, even art that is politically objectionable, to exist and be seen and discussed.

    1. Setting aside the questionable idea that there’s a conspiracy to hide Nazi art…

      The Third Reich destroyed art that was made by artists, real people, most of whom didn’t have a political agenda. You’re talking about propaganda artifacts manufactured for the Third Reich. Maybe it’s not widely displayed because it’s garbage.

      1.  “propaganda artifacts”…as opposed to paintings of religious figures or ideological symbology? I’m sure the Nazis would’ve burned Picasso’s anti-war Guernica if they could’ve got ahold of it. All art is propaganda, unless you’re talking about a bowl of fruit of puffy clouds.

        1. You can’t distinguish between a Picasso painting and a painting made to order for the Third Reich? The latter is sofa art. Make it seven feet long with lots of blue. I want it to match the couch.

          1. I’m not comparing the artistic merits. I’m just saying that political agenda or lack thereof shouldn’t enter into a criteria for what is art and not, or we enter the realm of censorship. And a lot of ‘good’ art certainly wears political agenda on its sleeves. I don’t think you were directly implying that, but you were trying to draw a contrast between “real people” and nazi artists.

          2. There is a difference between a work of art that springs from the mind of an artist and a work that’s made from a laundry list of client demands.

          3. Considering that philosophers of aesthetics have not come up with any bright-line distinction between “art that springs from the mind of an artist” and “art that’s made to a client’s specifications”, you might might sitting on a gold mine here. Do you care to explain the difference in 100 words or less? Though it would be understanable if you didn’t want to give away the secret here — that’d make it harder to cash in on your discovery later.

          4. Is that a considered response or did it just ‘spring from your mind’? Thanks Zachary_Bos!

    2. I think it was Wilhelm Reich who said that Fascism was amazingly sterile.  Mostly it kept the population jumping from one phony “crisis” to the next for 20 years, but when it was all over, all that was left was rubble.   There is no legacy of fascist philosophy, fascist literature, or fascist art, and hardly a single thought remains.  

    3. Let’s put some things into context here. A lot of nazi endorsed art from ’33-’45 is still around somewhere. 2011 was a big exhibition.
      It is just unpopular, because it is completely boring and kitschy. Imho Thomas Kinkade is avant garde in comparison, but google and judge for yourself.

  3. I went to this exhibition last year which was specifically about art of the period. Very interesting indeed.

    Mel: it’s called revenge. Not all art has value – a work’s creation in and of itself is not enough of a reason for the work to be considered valuable or significant. The National Socialists destroyed art they did not agree with based on political and social ideology while the allies destroyed National Socialist works (and not to the same scale as the Nazis) because they were a commissioned representation of the Nazi’s hateful ideology and a symbol of their power. The act of destruction was likely as cathartic for the Germans as it was the allies. Should we have left all Sadam’s murals and statues intact? Most people would say no.

    Do you place advertising on the same plane as art? Notional Socialist works were basically advertising.

  4. There was a great exhibition of  banned “degenerate art” from the Third Reich in DC about 20 years ago, which included a lot of wonderful abstract stuff.  Hitler wanted Valkeries and Teutonic knights, not all this egghead Jewish stuff.  The deeply ironic part was that the Nazis took the “degenerate art” out of the galleries and put it into storage so it did not get firebombed by the Allies or looted by the Russians, so the Nazis protected this art for post-war viewers.

  5. You know, the Nazi purge of so-called degenerate art reminds me a little of the snide derision that pops up here whenever an artwork or artist statement doesn’t quite square with a given commenter’s idea of what art ought to be. 

    1. Yeah. It is easy to dismiss Nazi art simply as propaganda and to say true art is essentially timeless and finds its context wherever it is located. This is a very recent notion. What is the difference between the need for a political context and a religious context? Etymologically speaking a museum is a place for the study of the arts. Was the original Greek conception devoid of any religious context? To deny that art is both timeless and requires a political, religious, etc. context sounds like typical bougeois intellectual evasion to me which has infected our thinking in order to avoid unsettling questions and to keep prices high.

      1. Well, the Nazis declared all art was propaganda, so that’s hardly a recent notion. 

        Notice how wingnutty Gov. Paul Lapage in Maine got into a weird controversy as soon as he was elected by taking down a well known mural about the labor movement, because he did not feel that this art served the state.

Comments are closed.