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What happened to Hitler’s favourite artists?

They could have been tried for war crimes, but instead they enjoyed long careers as painters and sculptors.

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An exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum reveals the truth about the post-war careers of Hitler’s favourite artists. We speak to the curator about dog-whistle paintings, problematic murals and what to do with all those statues. The show runs until December 5.

It was the “call for youth, which was heard everywhere at that time”, explains Hermann Kaspar, as he recalls how he came to be chosen to design the swastika mosaics and friezes for Adolf Hitler’s New Reich Chancellery. In the taped interview, he comes across as a man wholly at ease, even a little smug – leaning back in his chair, smoking a big cigar and looking back at his early success as one of the Nazi regime’s favourite artists.

Kaspar is one of hundreds of artists at the centre of the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s exhibition ‘Divinely Gifted’: National Socialism’s Favoured Artists in the Federal Republic. It looks at artists bestowed with that status by Hitler and his minister for propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. The ‘divinely gifted’ were exempt from military duty and provided with well-paid and high-profile state commissions during the National Socialist regime. This is all well-documented, but what this exhibition reveals is that even decades after the war had ended, these same Nazi-approved artists carried on receiving lucrative commissions from state-backed municipalities.

There was a belief after the war “that the art of National Socialism had vanished without any trace, along with the Nazi leaders who fled to Argentina or Brazil or who died”, says curator Wolfgang Brauneis. “It was not until 1974 that the first exhibitions focusing on National Socialist art took place. And it took yet another generation for their careers after 1945 to be fully addressed.”

Hermann Kaspar was chosen to design the swastika mosaics and friezes for Adolf Hitler’s New Reich Chancellery.

Kaspar’s is perhaps one of the most fascinating careers. Right up until his retirement in 1972, he was awarded prestigious commissions and maintained his position as professor at Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts. In 1955, he was even able to finish his monumental wall mosaic for the Congress Hall of Munich’s Deutsches Museum – a project he’d started under the patronage of the Nazis in 1935.

Such were these artists’ ability to hide their pasts and reintegrate into society that some even went on to design public monuments in Germany commemorating the victims of World War II. In the western town of Düren, a famous memorial erected in 1962 honouring those killed by an RAF air raid was made by Adolf Wamper, a long-term member of the Nazi party.

Arno Breker, Hitler’s official state sculptor, did temporarily change his style after the war, but later reverted back to his glorified figurative sculptures. Breker attempted to separate his activities during the Third Reich from his subsequent career. But for Brauneis, it is impossible to disentangle his work from Nazi ideology: “Art was always connected to anti-Semitism, anti-modernism, anti-communism. And everyone knew it. They were painting figurative German landscapes, Aryan bodies and families, but it was also important to look at what they were not painting.”

Much of their artwork held subtle but pervasive “messages that people read and understood,” he explains. “After 1945, the painters would still use iconographic details, like that of Pallas Athena, the goddess of war, who was seen repeatedly on National Socialist posters. Kaspar even did a mural in a school of Pallas Athena in the 1950s!”

What should be done with the art that remains then? “We need to look at every sculpture, but I think we should let them stay,” say Brauneis. He does, however, believe that context is required, provided in the form of a plaque, for example, or even on augmented reality apps. “It is not just about the artists but the men commissioning these artworks too. They made a career during National Socialism and even profited from taking over Jewish businesses,” the curator adds. “There’s a great deal more research that needs to be done. Really, we are just getting started.”

‘Divinely Gifted’ National Socialism’s Favoured Artists in the Federal Republic Through Dec 5, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Mitte