Absolutism, Totalitarianism and the Arts

People lining up to enter the "Degenerate Art" (Entartete Kunst) exhibition in Munich sponsored by the Nazi government.

People lining up to enter the "Degenerate Art" (Entartete Kunst) exhibition in Munich sponsored by the Nazi government.

When Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, he bequeathed to the young King Louis XIV his ablest assistant, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Together Louis and Colbert established one of the most thorough absolutist governments that has ever existed since the days of the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian states. In fact, the term "absolutism" has come to be specifically asso­ciated with the monarchical structure of the reign of Louis XIV as the clearest and nearest example of a king who ruled by divine right all aspects of his nation. "Naturally the fine arts were not exempt from this uni­versal direction, and their history in this period is one of the closest and most complete state control ever exercised before the present century." (1)

It was Colbert who eventually controlled all of the titular positions and financial sources of state patronage, which enabled him to establish his virtual dictatorship over the arts. But this dictatorship was differ­ent from what we have come to associate with the term. There is no serious doubting the absolutist nature of France under Louis XIV; but in origin, sentiment, structure and effect, the relationships of the government to the fine arts were utterly different from those prevailing under 20th century totalitarian dictatorships.

Left: Jean-Baptiste Colbert     Right: King Louis XIV

Left: Jean-Baptiste Colbert     Right: King Louis XIV

In contrast to late 17th century France I would like to discuss briefly Italy under Mussolini, Russia under Stalin, and particularly Germany under Adolf Hitler. Germany is the only example of a 20th century nation in which the artists and their production were subjected to inten­sive totalitarian control for a significant period of time and then freed suddenly. After twelve years of almost complete cultural dictatorship, the catastrophic defeat of the Third Reich provided a clinical example for studying the effects upon the arts of such a program. Unfortunately (but only from the point of view of the student of history) these conditions are changing rapidly as Germany has become both Americanized and re‑integrated into the cultural life of Europe. Last month in Berlin, I spent an evening in the new City Opera House...of most modern design, heard an Italian opera, saw abstract painting and sculpture in the foyer, and was among a crowd of people, many of whom, it occurred to me, must have been supporters or followers of the Nazi government that denied precisely those things in which they were now expressing such obvious joy.

To ask how this can happen is a question that goes beyond the limits of art history, but it should be a question constantly borne in mind. There was very little of intrinsic merit in the artistic production of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and it was several years after the war before artists again began to make contributions of significance. Therefore, a survey of this period would be extremely depressing, were it not that certain typological aspects of the phenomenon of Nazism and its undeniable (if primarily negative) effect on the arts are- historical facts, which is worthy of investigation and requires the close consideration that only politically disinterested scholarship can provide.

The structural similarities between Nazi Germany and the State of Louis XIV should be obvious. Both were highly centralized, authoritarian governments, whose functions reflected directly the will of one man. The men in question, Hitler and Louis, were very different in character and situation: Louis was born to be king, Hitler was a failure as an architect and fought his way to power by shrewd and diabolically effective politics; Louis reflected the tastes of his court even though that taste gradually came to be identified with Louis' own personal taste, whereas Hitler's aesthetic ideas were those shared by the great mass and majority of German people, and further, reflected the taste of a whole century of the "booboisie," to use H. L. Mencken's happy term.

The means by which the aesthetic will of the two rulers was imple­mented also reveal striking similarities. Both created and engaged a vast army of bureaucrats, some of whom were artists, organized into a rigid and complex hierarchy. But a study of these respective structures reveals distinctions which force one to arrive at very different evalua­tions of the nature of state control over the arts in the two periods. The historical situations of the two nations, it should be unnecessary to point out, were utterly dissimilar; and more importantly the character of the art which each nation produced as well as the merit of that art suggest the limits that should be considered while following the analogy. But it may be that by juxtaposing the ideas toward art and the ways in which these ideas were effected, we can arrive at a better understanding of the distinction between "absolutism" and "totalitarianism" in the arts.

The Palace of Versailles, the royal palace of Louis XIV.

The Palace of Versailles, the royal palace of Louis XIV.

In France the arm of the state that reached out for the arts was draped in a toga, which eventually became an "Aristotelian straitjacket" in Professor Lee's words. (2) The French Academy (Academie Royale de peinture et de sculpture) was established in 1648, but without royal financial sup­port, and against the professional opposition of the guilds. It only became the means of transmission of an absolutist art doctrine with the reorgani­zation of 1663 under Colbert (who had been elected Vice-Protector in 1661) and Le Brun (who was by then Premier Peintre du Roi. and Chancellor of the Academy). The absolutist aspects of the French state were reflected in many ways in the Academy. Le Brun was appointed director of the Manufacture royale des meubles de la Couronne, the Gobelins factory, in 1663, and until the death of Colbert twenty years later directed from there the entire production of state-sponsored art. From his position at the Academy Le Brun controlled the theoretical aspect of French art life, and between the Academy and the Gobelins, virtually all of the artistic education in the nation was under strict direction.

This centralization was geographical as well as structural. Versailles was the prime object of attention, for in the decoration and construction of the royal palace Le Brun and Colbert attempted to utilize, organize and urge on all of the artistic talent and wealth France could provide. Thus, any provincial artist of aspiration would inevitably be drawn to Paris. Titles were granted by the Crown to members of the Academy; rank and social standing as well as riches were to be gained by the artists who were willing, and few were not willing to devote their inspiration and labor to the glorification of their king. The creative forces of the nation were drawn in toward the center in order to produce works destined to be incorporated into a grand scheme by the coordinating genius of Charles Le Brun.

This vortex in France may be contrasted to the structure and function of Nazi art policies in that Hitler had no central unifying project. In­stead of the glorification of the person of the ruler, Nazi art doctrine stressed the glorification of the race, in which (ostensibly) every artist and architect was as much involved as the Fuhrer. To be sure, pictures of Hitler appeared on the wall of every German home and were ubiquitous in public places, but it is just this that distinguishes the technique of implementing a myth from that of Louis XIV. The French myth of the divine relationships of their king was merely the extension of an old metaphor. Almost every king of note since Alexander the Great has compared himself to the Greek-Macedonian monarch, and Louis was no exception. Apparently he played with this idea since the early fifties,(3) and by the time the iconography of Versailles was established he had extended his relation with Alexander to kinship with, if not identification with Apollo. This provided a central theme which united a rich variety of inventions, variations and conceits. Within this program, and within the rather flexible limits of stylistic execution, virtually all of the French creative effort was channeled to achieve a very high level of medi­ocrity. Superior talents were not discouraged from developing in the theoretical view, but in point of fact few did. Those in opposition to the official style in many respects (Ansard, Coysevaux, and in some senses Le Brun himself) violated the theoretical strictures of the Academy only in actual practice; and Mignard actually opposed Le Brun in theory, though this did not show in his works.

In Germany under Hitler, the direction was centrifugal and de­structive rather than centripital and constructive. The theoretical bases of Nazi art policy are found in three major sources: racism, the neo-classic revival, and a tradition of 19th century burgeoise art criticism. The effect of this theory was calculated to destroy what had been done in the arts in Germany since the first years of the century, namely the work of Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter, the Bauhaus and the Neue Sachlichkeit. Included in the category of entartete  Kunst ("degenerate art") were the cubists, Nabis, Fauves, eoplasticists, Constructivists, Orphists and almost any other group, but particularly the Dada and Surrealist painters. With a very few exceptions every artistic movement of significance of the preceding fifty years and any painter or sculptor whose work derived from it were objects of censure that were threatened with, and often experienced, annihilation. This was distinctly a reaction, in contrast to a response under Louis XIV.

Influence over the arts - Left: Artist and theorist Charles Le Brun, Right: Nazi architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg.

Influence over the arts - Left: Artist and theorist Charles Le Brun, Right: Nazi architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg.

The theoretical bases for racist doctrine have been traced through Count Gobineau and beyond. In Germany before Hitler rose to power there were revivalists of these ideas. Hans F. K. Gunther published Rassenkunde  shortly after World War I, in which he stressed the supposed connection between the German people and the ancient Greeks that had been toyed with since the 18th century German archaeologists aroused the public's interest. The connections with art were made explicit in another of Gunther's books, Passe und Still which came out in the mid-twenties, although racist notions were always likened in some way to classical art and architecture. In 1928 a landscape architect, Paul Schultze-Naumburg published Kunst und Rasse in which the absurdities of the thesis are presented in clinical form. One of the major figures in the control of the fine arts and the products of craftsmanship in Germany was Alfred Rosenberg. He published Per Mythus  des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts in 1930, and later became director of the "entire intellectual and spiritual training and education of the party and of all coordinated associations" (Uberwachung der gesamten geistigen und weltanschaulichen Schulung und Erziehung der Partei und aller gleichgeschalteten Verbande,) (4) The "Myth" cited three specific styles to be emulated in Nazi Germany: Greek sculpture and architecture, the German Gothic, and the Italian Renaissance. Rosenberg's position enabled him to impose these criteria with an absolutist effect at least equal to that of Colbert and Le Brun. But Rosenberg and Hitler were building no Versailles.

The neo-classical Nazi Reichs Chancery (Reichskanzlerei) before World War II.

The neo-classical Nazi Reichs Chancery (Reichskanzlerei) before World War II.

The neo-classicism in Nazi art theory seems incompatible with the element of the German Gothic. This should be an indication that the aim was not to create a new style particularly, but to fill up the gaps left when all the "degenerate" art had been condemned or destroyed. There were certain styles with which it was permissable to fill this hiatus, but these bore no relationship to the artistic development in Germany before Hitler's accession to power that the production of Le Brun did to the general current of mid 17th century Baroque. The very synthetic and stop-gap nature of what was approved in Germany shows that it was not a style in the same sense that we can speak of le style Louis XIV.

In fact, the careful stylistic analysis of Nazi art and architecture reveals some rather surprising results. The Reichskanzlerei suggests architecture of the ancient Assyrian despotisms, (5) and as such it is an example of the revival of specific architectural forms for iconographic reasons. The psychological problems involved in the process of linking artistic and architectural styles with extra-artistic notions have not yet been fully studied, but the general principle that highly centralized, totalitarian governments of the 20th century have preferred the neo-classic style is obvious. (The exception is Japan, where traditional, nationalistic forms and styles were revived, much in the same way that the Gothic was revived in Germany). In both Italy and Russia (after 1932) there was a conscious attempt to express the ideals of the government in architecture that was neo-classic in style.

Italian totalitarianism was never as strongly rooted as it was in Nazi Germany, and the attitude toward the arts was a good deal more tolerant. (6) Actually, Mussolini sponsored some daring and effective architecture. Russia also originally extended her patronage to modern artists and archi­tects. The Constructivists Gabo, Tatlin and Devesner were held in high favor in the twenties, and Le Corbusier built the outstanding Centrosoyus between 1929 and 1935. But Le Corbusier's plans for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, submitted in 1934 were rejected, as the Communists moved toward that attitude which caused them to condemn "modern art" at their next International Congress. (7)

The Nazi German treatment of the Bauhaus was not so ambiguous. The school was closed and all of the German Expressionists (with the exception of Emil Nolde) were in disfavor from the beginning. It was not until the 1937 exhibition in Munich, however, that modern art was officially declared "degenerate" and its practitioners were to be treated as criminals and frauds. Hitler's pronouncements were carried in every news­paper, and now provide one of the best sources for a reconstruction of "the Nazi aesthetic." But Hitler was anything except original in his aesthetic ideas. He merely reflected the sort of bourgeoise art criticism that had flourished in Europe for over a century. One of the sources of this type of criticism was Diderot, whose moralistic attack and defenses today we take very lightly. The reception of Olympia and Dejeuner sur l'herbe were typical of this narrow-minded, poltroonish, moralizing assessment of works of art. Of course these attitudes were not restricted to any one particular social class. The Emperor himself had pronounced Manet's Dejeuner as "immodest", (8) but it was the public that wanted to destroy both paintings.

It is this frightening aspect, the psychopathological aspect, that was developed under Hitler. He was a perfect representative of the mass-man, and he was dilligently followed and supported by all the mass-men in Germany. But the international character of his mass-man traits becomes evident the minute we begin to examine some of the critical writing that appeared in periodicals in the United States. Our nation boasts such rabid and preposterous figures as F. Wellington Ruckstuhl and Charles de Kay, whose Art World began to be published in 1916, the proto-Nazi character of which is easily seen in the editorial "The Artist, Pilot or Parasite" in the first issue. Theodore Roosevelt's reactions to the Armory Show, and the more recent rantings of Congressman Pondero from Michigan also deserve notice.

From the editorial "The Artist, Pilot or Parasite" in the first issue of  Art World,  published in the United States in 1916.

From the editorial "The Artist, Pilot or Parasite" in the first issue of Art World, published in the United States in 1916.

The distinguishing characteristics between "absolutism" and "totalitarianism" in the arts can be discovered, then, in the structural organizations of the state whose business is the control of artistic production, but also in the ways in which the aesthetic attitudes of the ruler reflect those of his subjects. In one sense, Hitler was mach more "democratic" than Louis: at almost any time before the Second World war appeared to be finally lost, Hitler, in a free election, would probably have scored a heavy triumph. The absolutist nature of the two governments is clear: both Hitler and Louis intended to control all aspects of life, which included all phases of artistic production. But this worked in different ways: Louis (really Colbert and Le Brun, of course) induced artists to follow their leadership. When artists did not agree in style (Mansart and Coysevaux as contrasted to Le Brun and Girardon) or in theory (Mignard as opposed to Le Brun), or where the practice of one artist did not always agree with his theory (under Le Brun every attempt was made to rectify the disparities and to integrate all factors into a coherent unity, but no art nor artist was directly persecuted. Philosophically, the France of Louis XIV was large enough to hold both Descartes and Pascal, and Descartes' own philosophy was of enough flexibility to contain more dichotomies and contradictions than is generally thought by college freshmen.

The effect of art control in Germany was the opposite of a vortex. Intolerant agencies spread to every corner of the country hunting heretics. There was not nearly the inducement to follow the official style as there was the certain penalty for not doing so. The totalitarian state is generally absolutist in function, but not necessarily absolutist in theory. Hitler never claimed to be the Sun King, nor descended from the gods (although Hirohito did...but this was a surviving tradition in Japan that was used). The destructive aspect of totalitarianism, however, permitted no Mignards, no Mansarts, no duplicity of theory and practice, no philosophical pedants like Pascal. Absolutism is primarily an organizational reference to the right of rule in one sense, and in the other a reference to the centralizing effect of the exercise of that right. But totalitarianism, as we have seen, is concerned first of all with the extent and effect of rule, and has, as its primary concern the monopoly of the totality of life and art.


1.  Anthony Blunt, The Art and Architecture of France, 1500-1700, Baltimore, 1953, p. 184.
2.  Rensselaer Lee, "Ut Pictura. Poesis, the Humanistic Theory of Painting," The Art Bulletin, 1440.
3.   Blunt, op.. cit., p. 194 and p. 280, note 43.
4.  Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, Art Under a Dictatorship, New York, 1)54, p. 69.
5.   I am indebted to Dr. Sauerlander for this suggestion.
6.  George P. Mras, "Italian Fascist Architecture," The Art Journal, Fall, 1961, (v. 21, no. 1), pp. 7 ff.
7.  Francoise Choay, Le Corbusier, New York, 1960             p. 12.
8.   John Rewald, The History of Impressionism, 3rd ed., pp. 71 f. and pp. 107 ff.

The best available study on art under Hitler is by Paul Ortwin Rave, Kunstdiktatur im Dritten Reich, Hamburg-Berlin, 1950. Also of great value for research purposes is the series Die Kunst im Dritten Reich, an official publication of the time. Hitler 's speeches are best consulted in contemporary periodicals, eg. Frankfurter Zeitung. The Library of Congress also contains many valuable documents.

Kurt von Meier