Why Did Arno Breker Decide to Collaborate with the Nazi Cultural Programme?

Nazi Propaganda in Germany 1939-45

Essay, 2011

12 Pages, Grade: 72.0%



According to Jonathan Petropoulos, Arno Breker was arguably the artist most admired by the Nazi leaders and most celebrated by the Nazi regime.[1] As such, Arno Breker does not represent a simple cog in the National Socialist cultural machine, but rather, occupies a position of almost unrivalled prominence and esteem in the cultural history of the Third Reich. Importantly, within recent academic analysis of art and culture under the National Socialist regime, there has been an ostensible recognition among historians and art historians alike that our manner of approaching figures such as Breker must be altered significantly. Speaking in 1942, Hitler stated his essential conception of the role of culture in National Socialism: ‘Politics for me is merely the means to an end … Wars come and go. All that remains is the value of culture’.[2] Culture, and especially art, thus occupied a position of unique significance in Nazi Germany, and the cultural policies of National Socialism worked to aestheticize politics and ideology.[3] Indeed, Taylor and van der Will argue that under Adolf Hitler, Fascism came to represent a form of government which depended on such aestheticized politics, whereby the cultural programme was transmogrified into the ‘aesthetics of political symbolism’.[4] It is within this vital framework of understanding that one must approach the multifarious motives for Arno Breker’s acquiescence with the Nazi regime after 1936-7. Although Breker possessed a truly impressive artistic pedigree prior to his ascent to fame in Nazi Germany, he did choose to continue his career, arguably in a different artistic style and approach, under the Nazis. It is in this decision that historians claim can be found Arno Breker’s ultimate undoing as an artist.[5] The palpable changes evident in the sculptor’s artistic style raise the issue, as elucidated by Alan E. Steinweis, of the distinction between artists’ ‘passive compliance’ and ‘active collaboration’ with the regime’s cultural policies.[6] However, the case of Arno Breker raises problems beyond Steinweis’ significant, but simultaneously constricted, scope of approach. The very motivations for his collaboration are overshadowed by the politically-dictated culture of which he became an indispensable part. Indeed, one must question to what extent Arno Breker was transformed under National Socialism from a sculptor and an ‘artist’ into a purely political artist functioning to propagandize the ideological tenets of the Nazi regime. Petropoulos argues that “the study of the art world during the Third Reich cannot be separated from ethical considerations”, and indeed, such a sense of morality is foundational in our own judgement and definition of Arno Breker’s role as an artist in the Third Reich.[7]

Prior to his artistic collaboration with the Nazi regime, Arno Breker was an accomplished sculptor, who had already been accredited with critical artistic acclaim. Indeed, Petropoulos asserts that by the late 1920s, Breker was integrated into an international artistic culture, with its creative hub located in France.[8] Blessed with a privileged artistic education, the German sculptor spoke French fluently, and was part of an elite artistic circle which included Hubertus Netzer, Wilhelm Kreis, and the famous French sculptor Aristide Maillol. Indeed, Maillol famously conferred the moniker ‘the German Michelangelo’ upon the young Arno Breker during his time in France.[9] Furthermore, recognition of Breker’s artistic pedigree is offered by Albert Speer, a close friend of the sculptor, who refers to him as ‘the pupil of Maillol’ in his memoirs.[10] Although produced in 1936 in Germany, Breker’s work Zehnkämpfer, reflects the sculptor’s earlier artistic style, a style much closer to naturalism, and even mild expressionism, than his later monumentalism under the Third Reich. [11]

In this manner, as Petropoulos very aptly highlights, Breker certainly had opportunities for alternative employment as a sculptor outside the Third Reich. [12] Indeed, Breker’s decision to continue his career in Germany rather than elsewhere is most surprising considering the pre-eminence of monumentalism in Germany at the very juncture of Breker’s decision. The years 1936-7 witnessed the crystallization of the Nazi policies towards art and culture, whereby all ‘isms’ were abolished to facilitate the rise of an altogether more ‘monumental’ style. [13] Petropoulos suggests that Breker in fact chose to abandon his previously naturalist tendencies in his style of sculpture in view of the success of monumentalists, such as Josef Thorak, in Germany. For this reason, Petropoulos argues that “[l]ike Faust, Breker was prepared to sacrifice his soul for what he thought was a higher ambition”. [14] Whether he did indeed enter into such a Faustian bargain as Petropoulos suggests, it is evident that at the critical juncture in the development of Nazi policies towards art, Arno Breker turned away from his artistic beginnings in France and took ‘the major aesthetic turn’ needed to succeed in the new regime. [15]

Arno Breker thus collaborated with the National Socialist regime at the critical turning point in the Nazi cultural programme, when “Nazi art, with its stilted, monumental figures, was thrust before the public with all the propagandistic energy that the government could muster”, and the sculptures produced by Breker and other prominent sculptors throughout the years 1937-45 manifestly reflect this transition. [16] Depicting a band of unclothed, muscular figures ready to depart for battle, Departure for Battle, a monument created by Breker in 1939 for the Soldiers’ Hall, shares much with the monumental sculptures of classical antiquity, of the Doric and Classical Greek eras. In this manner the work reflects the monumentalism in sculpture that pervaded the Nazi culture at this time. [17] Indeed, Breker’s work is of striking similarity to a sculpture entitled Monument to Work, produced in the same year by his fellow German sculptor, Josef Thorak. [18] Both sculptures depict ‘musclemen of iron with grim expressions’ and the self-same stilted, monumental figures, which Peter Adam perceives as ‘telling examples’ of the new style of monumentalism which characterized the Nazi cultural programme. [19] However, as earlier discussed, the National Socialist leadership viewed culture in a primarily political sense, and as such, it represented an artistic parade ground for the aesthetic propagation of its own ideological convictions. Indeed, Alfred Rosenberg, a high-ranking Nazi official involved in the early development of such aestheticized politics, elucidated that Breker’s monumental figures communicated ‘the force and willpower’ of the age. [20] Rosenberg’s reference to force and willpower reflect the overriding ideological impetus from which such sculptures were commissioned by the National Socialist regime, and even more importantly, reflect the entirely ideological framework in which such art works were interpreted. Indeed, as Peter Adam suggests, one must question whether the myriad of Arno Breker’s monumental sculptures represent to the historian little more than “the whole gamut of the philosophy of the Third Reich”. [21]

The works of Arno Breker hence came to occupy a position of particular propagandistic importance in the cultural programme of the Nazis. Dr Werner Rittich, a contemporary German critic, wrote in Die Kunst im Dritten Reich that ‘the devastating effect of these works lies in their all-embracing symbolic impact’. [22] As Rittich suggests, Breker’s works came to represent various aspects of the Third Reich, of the ‘new’ Germany which was being created under the Nazis, and as Jonathan Petropoulos argues, they in fact evolved into “the artistic embodiment of the National Socialist ideology”. [23] The extent of the ideological transformation of Arno Breker’s work under the Nazi cultural programme is clearly illustrated by one of Breker’s most well-known works, two statues which greeted visitors to the Reich Chancellery, The Army and the Party. [24] Originally entitled the Torch Bearer and the Sword Bearer, Breker himself discussed his motivations in the design of such sculptures: ‘I have chosen the two pillars upon which each state is built, the man of the spirit represented by the torch, and the defender of the Reich by the man with the sword’. [25] Clearly, Breker’s impetus for the design and creation of these sculptures is rooted in ostensibly ideological sensitivities. However, the ideological message was re-styled by Hitler himself, who in 1939 renamed the sculptures The Party and The Army. As such, Breker’s 1938 works, vacant of ideology in their appellation, although not necessarily in their inception, became entirely expressive of the central ideological tenets of the Nazi regime (although to what extent the roots of such an overtly propagandistic message lay with Breker himself is debatable).

In fact, a great number of Breker’s wartime sculptures were expressive of elements of National Socialist ideology, particularly in their exaltation of warfare. Readiness, a sculpture created by Breker in 1939, is pervaded by a clearly military propagandistic message. [26] Peter Adam very simply perceives the message to be that the man, with his sword half-drawn, is ready for battle. [27] The aesthetic propaganda-value of such a sculpture is clearly rooted in the year of its release, 1939, the sculpture symbolic of how the German people must prepare themselves for war. Similarly, a 1940 sculpture entitled Comradeship , is rooted in a similar vein, propagandizing a military rhetoric which, according to Berthold Hinz, conveys a propaganda-message of ‘self-sacrifice and valor in battle’ to Nazi Germany. [28] As such, Arno Breker’s work came to be representative of the ideology of the National Socialist regime, and were utilised in such a way as manifestly propagandistic devices. Forty-two of Breker’s sculptures were displayed in the Great German Art Exhibition in Munich between 1937 and 1944. Further, his works were included several times in Das Bild, the journal of the German Art Society, which according to Joan L. Clinefelter, repeated the ‘official doctrine’ of the Nazi cultural programme. [29] In this manner, Arno Breker’s work became absorbed into the monolithic cultural programme of the Third Reich, and was utilised by the Nazi regime, in a propagandistic sense, as a manifestation of official National Socialist ideology in stone. Indeed, Jonathan Petropoulos argues that Arno Breker, throughout the course of his gradual collaboration with the Nazi cultural programme, in fact sacrificed his own aesthetic project and became ‘a tool of the regime’. [30]


[1] Jonathan Petropoulos, ‘From Seduction to Denial: Arno Breker’s Engagement with National Socialism’, in Etlin, R. A. (ed.) Art, Culture, and Media under the Third Reich (Chicago, 2002), p. 205.

[2] As quoted in: J. Huener and F. R. Nicosia, ‘Introduction. The Arts in Nazi Germany: Continuity, Conformity, Change’, in Huener, J. and Nicosia, F. R. (eds.) The Arts in Nazi Germany. Continuity, Conformity, Change (New York, 2006), p. 1.

[3] John Heskett, ‘Art and Design in Nazi Germany’, History Workshop, 6 (Autumn, 1978), p. 147.

[4] Brandon Taylor and Wilfried van der Will, ‘Aesthetics and National Socialism’, in Taylor, B. and van der Will, W. (eds.) The Nazification of Art: Art, Design, Music, Architecture and Film in the Third Reich (Winchester, 1990), p. 1.

[5] See: Jonathan Petropoulos, The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany (London, 2000).

[6] Alan E. Steinweis, Art, Ideology, & Economics in Nazi Germany: The Reich Chambers of Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts (London, 1993), p. 2.

[7] Jonathan Petropoulos, ‘The Art World in Nazi Germany: choices, rationalization, and justice’, in Huener, J. and Nicosia, F. R. (eds.) The Arts in Nazi Germany. Continuity, Conformity, Change (New York, 2006), p. 147.

[8] Petropoulos, ‘From Seduction to Denial’, p. 208.

[9] As quoted in: Ibid., p. 208.

[10] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York, 1997), p. 145.

[11] Arno Breker, Zehnkämpfer, 1936. Viewed at: http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/art-history/werckmeister/May_11_1999/1122.jpg; Peter Paret, ‘Three Perspectives on Art as a Force in German History’, Central European History, 34 (2001), p. 88.

[12] Petropoulos, ‘From Seduction to Denial’, p. 206.

[13] Christine Fischer-Defoy, ‘Artists and Art Institutions in Germany 1933-1945’, in Taylor, B. and van der Will, W. (eds.) The Nazification of Art: Art, Design, Music, Architecture and Film in the Third Reich (Winchester, 1990), p. 101.

[14] Petropoulos, ‘From Seduction to Denial’, pp. 208-9.

[15] Caroline Fetscher, ‘Why Mention Arno Breker Today? The work of the Nazi sculptor is on exhibit’, Aug. 2006, http://www.atlantic-times.com/archive_detail.php?recordID=602 (viewed 27 April, 2011).

[16] Jonathan Petropoulos, ‘A Guide through the Visual Arts Administration of the Third Reich’, in Cuomo, Glenn R. (ed.) National Socialist Cultural Policy (Basingstoke, 1999), p. 121.

[17] Arno Breker, Departure for Battle, 1939. Viewed at: http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/art-history/werckmeister/May_11_1999/1126.jpg.

[18] Josef Thorak, Denkmal der Arbeit an der Reichsautobahn, 1939. Viewed at: http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/art-history/werckmeister/May_11_1999/1125.jpg.

[19] Peter Adam, Art of the Third Reich (New York, 1995), p. 197-201.

[20] As quoted in: Petropoulos, ‘From Seduction to Denial’, p. 212.

[21] Adam, Art of the Third Reich, p. 198.

[22] As quoted in: Ibid., p. 197.

[23] Petropoulos, ‘From Seduction to Denial’, p. 212.

[24] Arno Breker, The Army and the Party. Viewed at: http://nseuropa.org/English/Art/art8.htm. For individual images of each of these sculptures, see: Arno Breker, Partei, 1939. Viewed at: http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/art-history/werckmeister/May_20_1999/1413.jpg; and Arno Breker, Wehrmacht (Army) , 1939. Viewed at: http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/art-history/werckmeister/May_11_1999/1123.jpg.

[25] As quoted in: Adam, Art of the Third Reich, p. 199.

[26] Arno Breker, Bereitschaft [Readiness ], 1939. Viewed at: http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/art-history/werckmeister/May_11_1999/1124.jpg.

[27] Adam, Art of the Third Reich, p. 200.

[28] Arno Breker, Kameradschaft (Comradeship), 1940. Viewed at: http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/art-history/werckmeister/May_11_1999/1127.jpg; Berthold Hinz, Art in the Third Reich (Oxford, 1980), p. 184.

[29] Joan L. Clinefelter, Artists for the Reich: Culture and Race from Weimar to Nazi Germany (Oxford, 2005), p. 99.

[30] Petropoulos, ‘From Seduction to Denial’, p. 211.

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Why Did Arno Breker Decide to Collaborate with the Nazi Cultural Programme?
Nazi Propaganda in Germany 1939-45
Durham University
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James Pinnock (Author), 2011, Why Did Arno Breker Decide to Collaborate with the Nazi Cultural Programme?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/413468


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