“Documents of Oppression”: Nazi Art and Vergangenheitsbewältigung in Frankfurt, 1974, Abstract by Jennifer Gramer

Frankfurt, 1974: Over a period of eight weeks, 36,000 visitors streamed into a show, “Kunst im 3. Reich: Dokumente der Unterwerfung,” presented by the Frankfurter Kunstverein and members of the Marxist-leaning Frankfurt University. The exhibition was organized as a direct response to a wave of nostalgia in Germany for the past called the “Hitler Welle”, expressed in a spate of films and publications that used imagery produced in the Third Reich for purely illustrative, not analytic, purposes. According to the fears of the Kunstverein, the propagandistic image that the Nazis created of themselves could be preserved in the consciousness of a generation that was removed from the realities of atrocities of the Third Reich. They hoped the exhibition of Nazi artwork would summon the controversial subject matter into the open for the first time since the end of the war in 1945, inviting critical discussion on a national, even international, scale.

Numerous groups protested, worried that placing artwork in the context of an art museum defied social necessity, and that the exhibition would incite fascist sympathizers. Emotional documented reactions to the exhibition, from the contemporary press, visitors, (foreign and otherwise), and even those who never stepped foot into the museum, are a microcosm for the generational and political debates occurring at the time in Germany (and coinciding with the violence of the Radical Left) over how the Nazi past should be discussed and commemorated. Reading this “reception history” of viewers and critics during the infamous exhibition provides insight into contemporary concerns about the visual resurfacing of the Nazi past at a cultural site, and provides a point of reference for examining how reactions to – and exhibition methods of – art created under the Third Reich have changed since then. This paper will not only analyze the myriad cultural, social, and political responses to the seminal 1974 show, but also place them in the context of contemporary exhibitions of Nazi art, tracing the attempts to “come to terms with the past” in the sacred world of high culture and the museum. As such, the paper will address broader interdisciplinary problems of how to understand and frame the scholarly study of Nazi that continue to plague the fields of both history and art history today. Finally, this paper fits into a larger dissertation project analyzing how the afterlife of works of art produced during the Third Reich has been articulated and contested in the context of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, and offers new understandings of how this art, so intimately linked to the traumas of the twentieth century, continues to haunt Germany, as it reappears in the public realm. This past seems ever nearer as the timeless challenges of immigration, impending war, and extremism reemerge in the twenty first century.


Gramer, JenniferJennifer Gramer is a Ph.D Candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with advisor Dr. Rudy Koshar. Broadly, she is drawn to the relationship between art, architecture, and politics under the Third Reich. More specifically, her research interests focus on the afterlife of art, architecture, and cultural relics relating to Nazism in post-1945 Germany, and how memories and treatment of these physical objects by governmental and cultural institutions have shaped the concept of “coming to terms with the past” in a post-unification, democratic Germany. Her current research also addresses the treatment of Nazi artwork by the United States following World War II, and how U.S.-German foreign relations in the postwar period have shaped this treatment. She was in Munich from 2014 on a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct dissertation research, and remains there today on a University Fellowship from Wisconsin.


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