IBDP History Papers on Operation Barbarossa

IBDP History Extended Essay

The Turning Point of Hitler’s War with the Soviet Union; August-October 1941

Abstract (word count: 255)
This essay concerns one of the greatest military reversals in history. After half a year of stunning victories, a dominant army was forced into retreat for the first time in its history. Being a German history enthusiast, the question of why the German Wehrmacht failed in its invasion of the Soviet Union by December 1941 has always been a topic I was very interested in, as I believe Operation Barbarossa to be one of the 20th, if not the 20th century’s greatest and most important military campaigns. The orthodox explanation for Hitler’s defeat in this crucial venture always seemed “too easy” to me. I knew there must have been more to the defeat of the Wehrmacht than simply mud, snow and logistical shortcomings. As I dove deeper and deeper into the mountains of research that has been made on this topic, I came across a book called Hitler’s Panzers East: WW2 reinterpreted, written by R.H.S Stolfi. This book explored a theory for Hitler’s defeat in the east that intrigued me. Coupled with the well researched and presented nature of the book, I came to take this theory to be the truth. The thesis of this book is that Adolf Hitler is the sole culprit of Germany’s failure to win the war in Russia, and as a consequence WW2 as a whole. At the focal point of this failure by Hitler lie a number of decisions he made from July to September 1941 (the turning point of Hitler’s War with the Soviet Union) which doomed the operation to failure. This is the thesis my essay follows.
Table of Contents
1. Introduction…(pg.5)
2. Start of Blitzkrieg in the East…(pg.5)
3. Mud, snow and bad weather…(pg.6)
4. My thesis…(pg.7)
5. Führer Directive 33-35…(pg.8)
6. Hitler disperses his forces…(pg.10)
7. The Kiev Encirclement…(pg.12)
8. The dangers of a war of attrition…(pg.14)
9. Failure of Operation Typhoon…(pg.15)
10. Hypothetical outcome of earlier German advance…(pg.17)
11. Significance of Germany capturing Moscow…(pg.18)
12. Conclusion…(pg.19)
13. Appendix…(pg.21)
14. Bibliography…(pg.23)
The “turning point” of a war is the point, after which, the course of the rest of the war is pre-determined and one side is assured victory. The Ostfront, or Eastern Front was, in my mind, the most important theatre of the Second World War in Europe. Inspired either by aspirations of world dominance, racial ideology or economic necessity, Adolf Hitler and the German High Command set in motion with their invasion of the USSR a conflict that would last four years, would take the lives of roughly 4,300,000[1] German and 11,500,000[2] Russian soldiers, and would feature some of the harshest fighting conditions and worst acts of brutality and savagery in history. Fall Barbarossa or Operation Barbarossa was the codename given to Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd. Named after the crusading German King Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire, this was the single greatest land invasion in history with regard to the amount of personnel and war material involved. This essay will answer the question of when the turning of this war was.
Start of Blitzkrieg in the East
On June 22nd approximately 4 million soldiers of Germany and her allies (most notably Hungary, Bulgaria, Finland and Italy) crossed the 2,900[3] km long frontier between Nazi Germany and Soviet-occupied Poland. The majority of this gargantuan force was organized into three army groups; Army Group North, Centre and South, with objectives Leningrad, Moscow and the capture of the Ukraine respectively (Appendix 3). By 1941, the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe had established themselves as being the most co-efficient and effective combined armed force in all of Europe, defeating and occupying Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands, France, and crushing the British Expeditionary Force. As the ferocity of Barbarossa unfolded to the eyes of the world, it looked as if the German war machine would again achieve success with their innovative use of deep-thrusting armoured spearheads independent of slow-moving infantry combined with superbly coordinated tactical air support offered by the Luftwaffe.
Mud, snow and bad weather
Despite numerous early warnings to Stalin, tactical surprise was absolute on the morning of June 22nd. Border defences were easily overrun and Soviet forces were thrown into disarray and confusion. By 3 October, when Operation Typhoon, the final assault on Moscow began, German armor had encircled huge Red Army forces at Minsk, Kiev, Smolensk and Uman, each time destroying or forcing the surrender of numerous Soviet field armies. The Kiev encirclement alone had yielded the massive number of roughly 600,000[4] prisoners, comprising four Soviet armies and virtually erasing an entire Soviet Front (1 Front consisted of roughly three armies). In light of these astronomical achievements, how was it possible that Hitler’s armies were stopped and eventually defeated by the Red Army at the gates of Moscow and beyond? Over the past 70 years following the conflict, most historians have come to agree that a combination of bad weather (mud, snow and freezing temperatures), Russian manpower and material stockpiles, and German economic shortcomings brought the formerly “invincible” German war machine to a standstill with reconnaissance units in December 1941 looking at the glinting spires of the Kremlin.[5]
My thesis
My thesis is not to discredit these reasons completely. In my opinion, these factors all contributed to the eventual German defeat in 1945. It was indeed the freezing cold and snow that played a major role in stopping Hitler from seizing both Moscow in 1941 and Stalingrad in 1942. Also, it was the vast reserves of manpower and industrial resources that made a German victory impossible after 1941. Lastly, I do believe that the very limited and underutilized German economy did prevent Germany from ultimately supplying their troops on the front lines of the Eastern Front with what they needed, and eventually the ability to fight a war on multiple fronts and in multiple theatres of operations. The thesis of this essay is that Barbarossa and the opening stages of this campaign were the turning point of the war and that they were of the utmost importance when considering the possibility of a German victory against the Soviet Union, and a favorable conclusion of the war as a whole.
Führer Directive 33-35
When considering turning points in the war in the East, turning points after which it is believed that Germany could not have won the war, the battles of Stalingrad (1942), Kursk (1943) and Moscow (1941) come to mind. These were all decisive battles in their own right that helped crush Hitler’s ambitions, but I believe the turning point of this war to be much earlier. I believe the turning point of this war to be in the period between August-October 1941, in the immediate wake of Barbarossa. In this brief time period, Hitler made what I believe to be the greatest strategic blunder in 20th century military history. On 19th July to 21st August Hitler issued his directives 33-35, dictating that the advance on Moscow was no longer to be the Schwerpunkt or focus of the army’s effort (as it had been before with most of Germany’s tank and mechanized forces being deployed in Army Group Center) and that the seizure of Leningrad and the Ukraine were now the priorities.[6] What this meant on the battlefield was that insurmountably valuable time and effort was wasted with, in my mind, fruitless ventures that did nothing to improve Germany’s strategic position in its war with Russia. With General Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group (The Panzer Groups held between 4 and 5 Panzer Divisions, and roughly 5 motorized infantry and regular infantry divisions) being diverted to the Ukraine and General Hoth’s 3rd Panzer Group being diverted to Leningrad, Army Group Centre would not continue its advance on Moscow until early October[7], having given Stalin two whole months to prepare for the resumed German onslaught, and wasted valuable men and equipment as a result of Hitler’s lack of strategic understanding and foresight. The simple delay of these two months meant Soviet defences around Moscow could be improved and prepared in more depth. I believe this to be the turning point of the Second World War’s Eastern Front since after this particular strategic folly Hitler’s and his armies would not be able to seize the heart of the Soviet Union in Moscow due to Soviet preparations and the onset of winter. This meant that all impetus and momentum gained from Barbarossa’s early successes was lost hereafter, making a German victory impossible.
Hitler disperses his forces
Having established the fact that the opening stages of the war were crucial, I believe the battle outside Moscow in the winter of 1941 to be the most important battle of the Nazi-Soviet war, although I believe its outcome was pre-determined by preceding events i.e. Directives 33-35 and Hitler’s meddling in military matters of which he knew little. As already discussed, the German war machine had made short work of all Soviet forces the Stavka (Red Army High Council) had thrown against it in the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa. Since the beginning of the campaign, Army Group Centre had always been the focus of the main German effort in Russia. It had been the most successful army group in terms of the number of Soviet units it destroyed and encircled, and the distance it had advanced into the USSR. Military wisdom dictates it also had the most important strategic objective; Moscow. Unfortunately for Germany, Adolf Hitler who had made himself the de facto supreme commander of the Wehrmacht, disagreed with the OKH (German Army High Command) and his generals over the strategic and operational objectives multiple times throughout the war. Most importantly, he suddenly, in the middle of the campaign, disagreed on the matter of Moscow as being the primary strategic object of Barbarossa..Hitler, instead, stressed and lectured his generals on the importance of seizing Soviet industry and economic assets to assist Germany’s already ailing economy, and depriving the Soviets of these same assets.[8] He therefore thought the objectives of the seizure of the Leningrad industrial region and the agriculturally rich Ukraine to be of more importance than, in his mind, the mere “trophy city” of Moscow. This culminated on July 30, 1941, with Führer Directive 33. It instructed the OKW to switch Army Group Centre to the defensive and for nearly all armoured elements of this army group to be transferred to assist in the seizure of Kiev and Leningrad. Bypassing military structure and professional military advice, Hitler personally ordered Generals Heinz Guderian and Hermann Hoth[9] to move their Panzer Groups 2 and 3, which were already exhausted and depleted from the heavy fighting around Smolensk, to the South and North respectively to satisfy Hitler’s thirst for economic conquest. Specifically, on the 15th of August Hitler ordered that Army Group Center’s advance on Moscow be halted and the 39th Motorized Corps to be diverted from the 3rd Panzer Group in the Centre to Leningrad. By the 24th of August, after both Guderian and Halder (head of the OKH) had tried in vain to persuade Hitler to reconsider his orders, Guderian had been forced to direct the whole of his 2nd Panzer Group to help Army Group South in its encirclement of Kiev. This is the decision which ultimately caused Hitler and Germany to lose its struggle with Joseph Stalin and the USSR.
The Kiev Encirclement
At the end of July, Army Group Center was stopped dead in its tracks just east of Smolensk and the Desna River, unable to advance and forced to switch over to the defensive.[10] This was not due to stiff Soviet resistance, mud, snow, cold or lack of fuel or supplies. No, this tragic waste of a golden opportunity to advance further and to capture Moscow after the Soviets had been so soundly beaten and routed after the Smolensk fiasco[11] was Hitler’s fault alone. But did Hitler’s economic obsession pay off? Some would say “yes”, as it did create one of the greatest military feats in history. The mechanized divisions which were dispatched to Army Group North played a largely minimal role, only helping to defend against increasing Russian counterattacks in the Staraia Russa region East of Leningrad and not bringing about the capture of Leningrad for which Hitler had hoped. 2nd Panzer Group, on the other hand, achieved astounding success on an operational level. After reluctantly starting his offensive to the south, Guderian met relatively light resistance penetrating the point between the Soviet Briansk and Southwestern Fronts. General von Kleist’s 1st Panzer Group had already gotten behind the Soviet Southwestern Front and on the 16th of September, both armored spearheads met in the town of Lokhvitsa, approx. 120 miles behind Kiev, encircling a force of roughly 5 Soviet armies and their equipment.[12] Despite a few thousand Russian soldiers escaping the ever-thin panzer defensive perimeter around the “Kiev Pocket” (See Appendix 4), this was the single largest encirclement and was one of the most spectacular single victories in history. 616,304 Red Army soldiers were either captured or killed in the encirclement[13] (compared with the comparatively feeble 90,000 German prisoners captured at Stalingrad in November 1942)[14]. As spectacular as the victory had been, encircling battles take time. As had been the case with previous encirclements at Minsk, Smolensk and Uman, once the enemy had been completely encircled, the mobile panzer and motorized infantry units had to wait and defend a defensive perimeter around the encirclement, as not to let any enemies escape, until the regular infantry units could march up with their artillery and reduce the trapped foe until he forced himself into suicidal frontal assaults or surrender. Although Hitler’s Southern venture and the ensuing battle won a clear victory for the Wehrmacht, I believe it was a victory that was at the wrong place and the wrong time.
The dangers of a war of attrition
With my argument claiming that this period was the turning point of Hitler’s war with the USSR, I must also disprove the arguments that the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk were the turning points of the war. Both battles were confrontations of huge proportion, but as in the case of the battle of Moscow, their outcomes were already determined before the first German soldier ever entered Stalingrad or the first tiger tank attacked at Prokhorovka. What we know today as “Blitzkrieg”, which more accurately was the way in which the Wehrmacht drastically and decisively destroyed (and not simply routed) its enemy’s armies in the opening battles was Germany’s secret to success in the Second World War. It was a way of waging war in which operational success, the art of winning battles, was everything and the economic effects of a drawn out, prolonged war were negated to a point where it did not matter that Germany had less industrial capacity compared to her enemies. What this meant was that in 1941, when the boost offered by “Blitzkrieg” was most needed by Germany to defeat the industrial giant that was the USSR, Hitler wavered and sought, instead of pursuing strategic goals such as the destruction of Soviet Armies and the capture of the Soviet capital, to pursue economic goals which would help him in the long term (a point at which Germany would lose the war anyway), he made the decisive mistake of the war. As soon as Hitler slipped into this mindset in which he was no longer trying to crush his enemy, but only trying to improve Germany’s long term economic position, victory was virtually impossible for the Wehrmacht, as Germany could not hope to match the USSR’s industrial capacity, let alone the massive support offered by “Lend-Lease” from Great Britain and the USA. The impact this had on the battlefield was that Russian superiority in both men and machines became apparent as early as 5 December when the Russians launched their own Winter offensive, immediately after six whole months of almost uninterrupted German offensive actions, which pushed Army Group Centre practically back to the positions where it had started Operation Typhoon in early October. As a consequence of this failure by Hitler, all future German offensive operations hereafter (Fall Blau (the 1942 Summer Offensive), Fall Zitadelle (Kursk)), were doomed to failure.
Failure of Operation Typhoon
During the generous time period of two months given to the Soviet High Command by Hitler through his diffusion of strategic objectives, the Stavka was able to raise and place no less than nine armies opposite Army Group Centre and mobilize thousands of peasant reserves (an ability the USSR had which would inexorably doom Germany’s efforts in the future) dedicated to the defence of Moscow. Knowing full well that an assault on Moscow was soon to commence, Stalin also employed thousands of Moscow civilians to dig anti-tank ditches, pillboxes, bunkers and trench systems for the defense of the capital. During this time the German tanks and mechanized units that would eventually be used to assault Moscow were being progressively worn down in strategic military sideshows in the north and south. The Germans did achieve notable success during Operation Typhoon, creating yet another enormous encirclement of Russian soldiers at Briansk-Vyazma and coming within artillery range of Moscow, but the Russian defenders had been given too much time to prepare and withstood the German onslaught. Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Army, which was the southern arm of the planned encirclement of Moscow, was repulsed three times from the key town of Tula and was then forced to give up the offensive.[15] Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Army fared slightly better and reached as far as Istra and a motorcycle patrol from Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzer Army reach as far as the town of Khimki (6km from Moscow outskirts) but came no further, condemning the northern pincer of the offensive to failure as well.[16]
Hypothetical outcome of earlier German advance
But what if the Germans had started their offensive on Moscow in early August, instead of October, and not diverted Army Group Centre’s tanks north and south? On 5th August, the Soviets could field an estimated 63 divisions in front of Moscow, 28 of which were fresh conscripts and 35 were remnants and escapees from the previous failures of Smolensk and Minsk[17]. Opposed to this were roughly 60 well-equipped, victorious and veteran German divisions poised to advance. Whereas on 2nd October the Russians fielded 100+ divisions supported by numerous tank brigades opposed to 70 German divisions, most of which had just arrived from the south or north and the rest of which had been sitting in waiting for the last two months[18]. Taking into account the contribution that mud, snow and the freezing cold had on the German offensive of October, which would not have been present in August, based on these figures it is hard to escape the conclusion that a German offensive launched in August 1941 would have fared far better than the one in October, and most probably would have captured the Soviet Capital and destroyed the 60 odd divisions defending it.
Significance of Germany capturing Moscow
What this would have signified for Joseph Stalin’s USSR is another question. Moscow is the quintessential heart of European Russia. It had been the Russian seat of Government since 1917, and housed the Politburo and the dictator, Stalin himself, in the Kremlin.  The Soviet State Committee of Defence and the General Staff of the Red Army were also located in Moscow during this time, including most other essential military organs of the country. Compared with Moscow’s infrastructural and industrial significance, the damage to the governmental structure and dictatorship of Stalin appear negligible. In 1941, Moscow was the communication and transportation hub of the USSR, being used to receive and re-direct most resources from the Far East and Asia and through its central position being the nucleus of the intricate web of rail lines that connected Leningrad, Moscow and the Ukraine. Besides it and its surrounding area accounting for more than 18%[19] of the industrial output of the entire Soviet Union, Moscow was also the most populated city. The psychological shock to government and people alone is worth taking into account when considering the effect the fall of Moscow would have on the USSR and its war-fighting capability. Undoubtedly, the fall of Moscow would have been a catastrophic blow to the Soviet Union and a monumental victory for the Wehrmacht. A blow that I do not think the USSR would have easily recovered from and might have spelt its demise as a free nation.
The reasons for Hitler’s August-October 1941 folly are mostly unclear, although it is clear from examining the decisions he made all throughout the war, most significantly in August-October 1941, Russia, but also in France (failure at Dunkirk) the year before and in the latter part of the war that Hitler was simply not the strategic mastermind of war he has been made out to be. He understood the necessities of starting wars while his Wehrmacht was in a dominant position, but did not grasp the necessity of clear objectives and deliberate aggressiveness on the battlefield, something his generals on the battlefield (Von Bock, Guderian, Hoth, Hoepner) and high command (Halder, von Brauchitsch) grasped very well, but whose efforts where ultimately undermined by Hitler’s paranoia and stubborn ignorance. Either because of his arrogance or his racial ideology, Hitler came to believe he had the leisure on the Eastern Front to pursue goals that would improve his own economy, while the enemy was left unbeaten! This was a mistake the Supreme-Commander of any armed force cannot make, especially considering the scale and gravity of the war with the USSR. Barbarossa was meticulously planned in every detail. I wholly disagree with the common belief that Germany’s invasion of the USSR was a mistake. The Wehrmacht was a superb fighting machine whose peak was July 1941, when innovative use of tactics and technology had made total domination of Europe a possibility by virtually opening the road to the Soviet capital Moscow and dealing blow after blow to the colossus that was the Red Army. It had the chance to defeat Stalin’s Union of Socialist Republics after the fall of Smolensk, and where it for one fateful decision probably would have done so. After August 1941, when Hitler had, perhaps inadvertently, changed the nature of the Eastern Front from a war of aggressive advance, into a war of attrition, the possibility of victory was lost forever and the turning point of the war with the Soviet Union had passed.
1. “After previous findings the importance of Moscow to the survivability of the Soviet Union has been put in third place.” – Adolf Hitler (translated) Conversation between Hitler and Chiefs of Staff at Army Group Center HQ 4. August 1941.[20]
2. “…1.The most important missions before the onset of winter are to seize the Crimea and the industrial and coal regions of the Don, deprive the Russians of the opportunity to obtain oil from the Caucasus and, in the north, to encircle Leningrad and link up with the Finns rather than capture Moscow.” – Adolf Hitler Order from the OKW to the OKH 21 August 1941[21]
3. German movements from June-September
4. The Kiev Encirclement
Carell, Paul. Unternehmen Barbarossa. Frankfurt/M: Verlags Ullstein GmbH, 1963
Downing, David. The Moscow Option. London: New English Library, 1980
Forczyk, Robert. Moscow 1941. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006
Glantz, David M. Barbarossa Derailed Solihull: Helion & Company, 2010
Glantz, David M. Before Stalingrad. Gloucestershire: Stroud, 2003.
Kirchubel, Robert. Operation Barbarossa 1941 (1). Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler 1936-1945 Nemesis. London: Allan Lane The Penguin Press, 2000
Kirchubel, Robert. Operation Barbarossa 1941 (2). Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2005
Kirchubel, Robert. Operation Barbarossa 1941 (3). Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2007
Magenheimer, Heinz. Hitler’s War - Germany’s Key Strategic Decisions. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003
Mitcham, Samuel W. The Men of Barbarossa Havertown: CASEMATE, 2009
Schramm, Percy E. Kriegstagesbuch des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht 1940-1941. Berlin: Bernard & Graefe Verlag GmbH, 1976
Stahel, David. Kiev 1941: Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012
Stolfi, R.H.S. Hitler’s Panzers East. Norman: Publishing Division of the University of Oklahoma, 1993
Swanston, Alexander/ Swanston, Malcolm. The Historical Atlas of World War II. New York: Chartwell, 2010
Overhues, Bernd. Die Wehrmacht – 5 Jahrgang, Nr. 10-20. Berlin: Eisnerdruck Berlin, 1941
Piekalkiewicz, Janusz. Der Zweite Weltkrieg. Duesseldorf and Wien: ECON Verlag GmbH, 1985
Piekalkiewicz, Janusz. Die Schlacht um Moskau. Regensburg: Gustav Luebbe Verlag, 1981
DVD. Through Enemy Eyes – A Newsreel History of the Third Reich at War Volume 5-6. Chicago: International Historic Films, 1995

[1] Overmans, Rudiger: Deutsche Militarische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg. pg. -
[2] Swanston, Alexander & Malcolm: The Historical Atlas of World War II. pg. 382
[3] World War II Chronicle, 2007. Legacy/ Publications International, Ltd. Page 146
[4] Stahel, David: Kiev 1941: Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East pg. 209
[5] Carell, Paul: Unternehmen Barbarossa pg. 186
[6]Carell, Paul: Unternehmen Barbarossa pg. 96
[7] Glantz, David M. Barbarossa Derailed pg. 396
[8] Carell, Paul: Unternehmen Barbarossa. Pg. 100.
[9] Mitcham, Samuel W. The Men of Barbarossa pg. 165
[10] Schramm, Percy E. Kriegstagesbuch des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht pg. 546
[11] Glantz, David M. Barbarossa Derailed pg. 329
[12] Carell, Paul: Unternehmen Barbarossa. Pg. 117
[13] Glatz, David M. Before Stalingrad. pg. 129
[14] Stolfi, R.H.S. Hitler’s Panzers East. pg. 225
[15] Piekalkiewicz, Janusz. Die Schlacht um Moskau pg. 234
[16] Piekalkiewicz, Janusz. Die Schlacht um Moskau pg. 222
[17] Stolfi, R.H.S. Hitler’s Panzers East. pg. 182
[18] Forczyk, Robert. Moscow 1941. Pg. 28-29
[19] Magenheimer, Heinz. Hitler’s War – Germany’s key strategic decisions. Pg. 143
[20] Piekalkiewicz, Janusz: Die Schlacht um Moskau pg. 58
[21] Glantz, David M. Before Stalingrad. pg. 281
[22] Opening stages of Barbarossa (14.11.2011)
[23] The Kiev Encirclement (14.11.2011)

Why was, in 1937 Nationalist Germany, Max Bergmann´s  painting “Frühling”, 1925, labelled as politically correct, while Max Bergmann´s “TanzBar in Baden-Baden”, 1923, labelled as Degenerate?


In this essay I will concentrate on the two National Socialist Exhibitions will attempt to prove that although the Nazi tried to manipulate public opinion by labelling Art politically, they were unable to curtail the creative spirits of artist like Max Beckmann, who had to go into exile after the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich 1937. However also Max Bergmann, who had official Nazi approval of being painter of the German “Volk” after the simultaneous Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung, also had a style, which the Nazi, had they known, would have found subversive.


         Can one put a political label on art? In National Socialist Germany during the 1930s, the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, devised a scheme to use art as a tool to spread Nazi ideology by labelling thousands of modern paintings as “Degenerate”.  The idea of “true art” enforced in form of two simultaneous exhibitions in 1937. In Munich the magnificent Haus der Kunst was built to house works marked as politically correct, while the “Entartete” exhibition took place in a small building nearby. The sheer difference of location conveys the National Socialist message. For my investigations, I have chosen two contemporary paintings, which were exhibited in each of the two venues.  Within the research question “Why was, in 1937 Nationalist Germany,  Max Bergmann´s painting “Frühling” (“Spring”) labelled as politically correct, while Max Beckmanns  “Tanzbar in Baden-Baden” (Dancing Bar in Baden-Baden”), 1923, as degenerate, I will investigate the justification of labelling art, and the choice of art and culture to represent Nazi Germany. My point of view is that art cannot fairly be designated as being the right or the wrong kind. Hitler specifically chose the traditional, classical artistic styles, whilst shunning diversions from the art he wanted to represent his ideology. As I have been living in Germany for several years and am very interested in Art as well as History, this topic is significant to me by giving insight  into both the development of modern art in Germany and the country itself.


Degenerate Art was the term used by the Nazis to denote everything in modern art movement. Modernism was being pushed by the likes of Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde. It took the form of Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism and Cubism, which had begun to emerge during the avant-garde years of the Weimar republic. The art blossomed into pieces containing the political views of the artist, his expressions and even pieces daring to criticize the government. However, Expressionism was shunned by the Nazi party, branded a threat to German culture and ultimately banned.  Over 20,000 pieces of art were removed and confiscated from galleries, museums and private collections. Some were then displayed in the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition that was made to insult and ridicule their style. The artists where also banned from painting and prosecuted. Max Beckmann escaped to London, while others, like Nolde, stayed but were banned from buying painting equipment.


Hitler’s statement “Anyone who sees and paints the sky green and fields blue ought to be sterilized”  (http://thinkexist.com) was far from exaggerated. The Nazi party went out of its way to ensure that the “original” German spirit of art was preserved and presented. The ideal, perfect picture, in Hitler´s and Goebbels opinion, was that it would contain the attributes of their ideology to portray, such as national pride, family, duty, discipline, heroism and moral purity. The paintings would often feature the countryside. Peasant life was displayed as wholesome and preserving rural values, the people typically beautiful, proud Aryans, or the “Volk”, Hitler’s perfect race, shown in everyday situations to display Germany as peaceful and traditional. The Nazi Party used Art as weapon to manipulate the public. It had essentially become propaganda. 

Haus der Kunst  is a huge museum in the centre of Munich.The venue was a masterpiece of German culture itself, built to house German art. It is an imposing building stretching down the prominent Prinzregentenstraße. However, if one is to walk a little further and cross into the narrow and well hidden Galeriestraße behind Hofgarten,  one will come across the inconspicuous, small building where the “Entartete” art was been carelessly, overcrowded and crammed into narrow rooms for public ridicule.

       Enartete opened 19th July 1937. The Nazi painter Adolf Ziegler announced in his in his opening speech that: “We now stand in an exhibition that contains only a fraction of what was bought with the hard-earned savings of the German people and exhibited as art by a large number of museums all over Germany. All around us you see the monstrous offspring of insanity, impudence, ineptitude, and sheer degeneracy. What this exhibition offers inspires horror and disgust in us all”.

      On the walls mocking, derogative messages and texts were scribbled around the paintings. These terms accused the paintings of insulting German War heroes, being anti-governmental and marked them as “Perverted Jewish spirit” and a danger to German culture. Five rooms within the exhibit had themes where pictures had been grouped. One room was preserved for the paintings guilty of insulting woman, another for farmers and German soldiers, in another the paintings were to have a religious or blasphemous theme, while a third contained specifically art by the Jewish painters, even though only six out of the selected 112 artist were Jewish. The show described the modern art movement as a conspiracy and tried to convince the German public that this art was inferior to that of the officially approved works by artists such as Adolf Ziegler and Arno Breker. The close proximity of the two exhibitions gave the public opportunity to experience the right and the wrong kind of art at the same time.

Interestingly, the “Entartete” Exhibition became a blockbuster, with around three million visiting Germans, three times as many as the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung. This could hint that the general public had a genuine interest in different, modern art, despite the opinions of the regime.


“Die Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung” was held in the House der Kunst, parallel to the exhibit of degenerate art and opened the day before. The magnificent building that was designed by Paul Ludwig  Troost housed the artwork approved by Hitler and Goebbels. As Hitler said, “With the opening of this Exhibition, the end of the cultural destruction of our people has started.” The museum is a monument to Nazi propaganda. Nazi symbols are still visible engraved into the marble inside the building.

   The building is still used today to house exhibits of mainly modern art. This shows Germanys evolution in art, and how modernism overcame the very forces that opposed them. These are now presented in the structure built to rival the degenerate art. When one inspects the avenues of presentation there are hints of the actual art and the difference between the two groups created in Germany. On one hand, there is the colossal majestic building, built in stone and with enormous pillars as show of power. The very ideals that the Nazi Party were trying to convey though architecture and many sculptures and paintings, were like those of ancient Rome, thus also the Roman, classical inspired temple design for Haus der Kunst. On the other hand it is a paradox that the “Entartete” building also contained massive amounts of German culture. This building is also symbolic for the art it presented, with both the exhibits and the way they were presented as being surreal and expressionistic. In both venues the visitor was experiencing the hidden ideologies.


         In my hunt to find paintings to compare I began to research types of Nazi art. Following research about the some of, I found that these paintings had been archived in different museums around German. I then searched for the triptych “The Four Elements” by Adolf Ziegler, which is in Munich city archive. After sending a letter to the “Pinakothek der Moderne”, the most important modern art museum in Munich, I discovered that these paintings where not allowed to be shown to the public because of the history behind them. The labelling of art by Hitler, and the act of forcing his ideology onto paintings, had caused the German government to stop these works of art from being seen in public..

       Fortunately, as I discovered, the grandson of Max Bergmann, one of the approved Nazi painters, lives in his grandfather’s gallery and studio, which lies just outside my home village. Although Max Bergmann was not part of the National Socialist Party, the Party approved his style of painting, accurate scenes of heroic farmers and rural beauty.  One of his paintings, “Frühling”, which I will discuss later, was exhibited in Haus der Kunst in 1937 and is now owned by his grandson. I was granted a visit to view this in his home.


To show the difference between the two types of arts, and why one was treasured by the Nazi party, I will compare the painting “Tanzbar in Baden-Baden” by Max Beckmann with the Nationalist Socialist approved painting “Frühling” by Max Bergmann. “Tanzbar”, now on display in Pinakothek der Modern in Munich, was painted in 1923. It is in oil on canvas and measures 100.5cm x 65.5cm making it quite a large piece.  “Tanzbar”, as well as other works by Max Beckmann, were hung in Room five in the “Entartete”, which catalogue described as: “This section of the exhibition affords a survey of the moral aspect of degeneracy in art. To those “artists” whom it represents, the entire world is clearly no more or less than a brothel and the human race is exclusively composed of harlots and pimps. Among these works of painted and drawn pornography there are some that can no longer be displayed, even in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition, in view of the fact that that women will be among the visitors.” It shows how the Nazi propagandists were imposing their uncompromising opinions on what harmful art.


      “Tanzbar” was painted during the Weimar Republic, at the time when the Expressionist style picked up in Germany. It shows a scene from the 1920s and depicts the upper social class. The format of the painting is high and narrow, showing two couples dominating the centre, with people squashed in around them, pressing against the frame. The figures fill the whole space, making it cramped and unnatural scene. The unreality is enforced with the multiple perspective being very steep and exaggerated. The figures appear like they are pushed towards the viewer. It is painted this way to make the viewer feel claustrophobic and uneasy, thus criticising the top of society, accusing the rich of inhabiting their very own little privileged world, not caring about, the bad things that happen outside, like the massive problems in society after the First World War.

        “Tanzbar” is painted in an expressionist style, which evokes mood and promotes feelings. The scene is non-fictional, but the reality is that it a political, emotional statement. The expressionist painters used these kinds of work to oppose the impressionist and realistic style of the Nazi artists, in order give social criticism. Looking at the painting, there are seven hands and arms are pointing to the bottom right corner, cutting the painting into diagonals. This is to give an idea of the rhythm and dance, portrayed in the piece. The angle of the floor and the man in the left bottom corner both act as counter movements to balance the picture. The red and black colours create another pattern. The red dress, then a black smoking, followed by a red bow tie and the red stocking with a white shoe all further create a cadence. The source of light in “Tanzbar” is rather diffuse. It seems that it comes from the left, even though there are no real shadows cast by the characters, making make them seem to float, all adding to the nightmarish feel. The couples are very close but it seems there is no real connection, shown by the woman looking away. It could be a comment on how the upper class was united only by their ego.

 “Tanzbar” was painted during the pinnacle of the Weimar inflation. Put together with the jewellery and clothes of the characters, it gives a sense of how well off and uncaring the upper class was about the people suffering outside and the massive problems in society after the First World War.

However, as the steep perspective indicates, which makes it look as though the character might slide off, their way of life is about to come to an end. Max Beckmann has made a very critical prediction of, what social instability would cause.


         The painting “Frühling” by Max Bergmann was painted in 1925 and exhibited in the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung. Painted in oil on canvas, like ”Tanzbar”, and measuring 120x90 cm, it depicts two cows dragging a load. In the background are trees. It is painted in an exact, naturalistic style, but with loose, energetic brushstrokes like the Impressionists. The cows are facing directly out of the picture. It is a classic Bavarian scene where the artist has attempted to convey the beauty of the farmland. On the right hand side, part of the farmer is seen. He is driving his cows in the lovely weather. The sun is shining, which is why he is wearing a hat and the shadows appear purple. The light is coming directly from the front, this is evident of the way the shadows hits the ground, emphasizing the highlights on the cows, and giving the scene a naturalistic feel. There is no sky to be seen, so it is a very intimate painting. Because of the extreme foreshortening of the cows and the linear one-point perspective it gives the viewer the viewer a sense of engaging directly with the scene and being, standing on the pathway, directly confronting the cows.

     It is important that the painting is painted outdoors or “en plain air” which means open-air, and derives from French impressionist artists like Monet and Renoir.  Hitler and Goebbels approved this style of art because it depicted the Völkisch tradition, is very rural, serene and adheres to the old traditional values of people tending to their own business. It also signifies that the Germans should get back to nature and basic existence. The Nazi party wanted these original peaceful scenes to represent their culture, in “Frühling” enforced by the fact how fat and well tended the cows are. The contentment on the farmer’s face shows there is no hint of war or tension outside the picture. These kinds of paintings were after all used by the National Socialists to deceive the public. They tried to convey that Germany was still beautiful and well tended, and the brutal acts, which they were committing, where not really happening. Or it could be an apology for committing atrocities in order to preserve these values from outside threats, like the Jews and the Communists.  Art was used as an illusion by Hitler created to convince the public that the goal was the old moral values, in comparison to the decadence of the Weimar culture.


      Both Max Beckmann and Max Bergmann were contemporary and practiced painting at almost to the same time.  “Tanzbar” and “Frühling” are similar in size, and both are painted in very traditional medium of oil on canvas. The oil medium means great artistic diversity and a beautiful shiny surface is created, also when it is dry. A multitude of tones and shades can be created. Both artists rely on “chiaroscuro”, which comes from the Italian and means strong contrast between light and shade. This effect is used to create depth and strong three-dimensional image. Max Beckmann uses this cleverly by having the woman wear bright colours in contrast to the gentleman’s black smoking, making the painting bold and striking. Max Bergmann likewise uses strong tonal contrasts to emphasize his figures in sunlight. Where               

      Beckmann uses multiple perspectives like the Cubists, making the scene unreal, while Bergmann uses one point perspective, which is very traditional and realistic. “Frühling” gives an atmosphere of rural peace while “Tanzbar” gives a noisy crammed almost eerie ambience. The painting by Beckmann seems to be swirling and contained, spinning in circles around itself, while Bergmann’s is open and free. It is interesting, however, that the viewer is unable to enter either painting. In “Tanzbar” entry is impossible because of the self-sustaining whirl and the naked arms, which are pushed against the picture plane, barring entry and only allowing the viewer to observe the decadent rich from the outside.  It is an obvious social criticism of a social world, which is only open to a few, selected and arrogant people. Equally in “Früling” the viewer cannot enter the painting. The cows, in effect a peaceful scene, faces the viewer straight on and approaches with what actually seems to be in a disconcerting, slightly threatening, way.  The noses of the animals are touching the picture plane, and if the viewer does not move he or she will be trampled on. It could be an image of the fact that rural life is perhaps not that romantic as the Nazi wanted people to believe, and everything is an illusion. The fact that the cows are so extremely foreshortened is first of all to show off the artist’s skill in drawing and observation, but also to create an unusual, staged atmosphere. Maybe this is an inherent criticism of the social conditions.


        Max Beckmann was born in 1884 in Leipzig and was the youngest of three children of a merchant family. After the death of his father he moved to Braunschweig, and went to the Art Academy in Weimar. In Berlin he encountered the emerging German impressionist painters and began to paint in this style as well. During WW1 he became involuntarily a nursing officer on the Eastern Front. In 1915 he had a nervous breakdown because of his war experiences and was sent to a Hospital in Frankfurt. The paintings he did during the War were exclusively Expressionist, which he continued after discovering “Die Brücke”, an Expressionist movement from Dresden. It became a way of expressing the horrors of the War, no longer realistic but with more extreme emotions and scenes. 1925 he married Quappi, who features in a lot of his paintings. He taught at the art academy in Frankfurt and became quite famous, with exhibits in America and in Europe. In 1933 with the Nazi Party taking power, he lost his job, was banned from painting and his art labelled as Degenerate. Between 1993-1936 over 800 of his works were confiscated from exhibits all over Germany. One week after the exhibition in Munich he felt forced to flee to London. He passed away December 1950 in New York, but as a very famous, renowned artist.


      The German artist Max Bergmann was born the 2nd of December, also in 1884, in Fürstenberg. His parents owned a dyeing factory and were quite wealthy. He started painting early and quickly became very good at portrait drawings. He visited the “Fine Art Academy Schalottenburg” in Berlin where he could further progress in his work.  In 1907 he studied figure drawing and animal painting at the Art Academy in Munich. Like Bergmann, he was also sent to the Front during WW1. In his house his I saw old photographs of him as a dashing young officer, a post he became straight away because family’s social standing. Unlike his artist colleague, he came out of the War unscathed, but with a lot of sketches of the local people in Hungary. Bergmann then began to travel to Paris, where he became a close friend of Marcel Duchamp, the later famous Dadaist. In Bergmann’s house, I was allowed to see original postcards and sketches, which Hans Peter Bergmann’s grandfather had received from Duchamp. Later he married Dorothea Karstadt, heiress to the huge Munich Karstadt dynasty. They moved to Haimhausen, my village, where he formed an art school, focusing on painting outside in the open air. Bergmann is probably mostly known within Germany, but his paintings stand now in high regard. Because of his impressionist style and content of his paintings he was presented in the first Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung. It was his life on the country that inspired his paintings. Max Bergmann did not have his work confiscated, but was made to report many times during the War to an “Internat”, checking if his art appropriately conveyed the message that the National socialists wanted it to.


        I visited the grandchild of Max Bergmann, Hans Peter Bergmann, on Monday 10th August 2011. He still to this day lives in the house, where Max Bergman lived and worked. The old, imposing artist villa, which before 1919 belonged to the well-known landscape artist, Buttersack, is local Haimhausen. Max Bergman wanted to be away from the bigger cities and have freedom and peace to paint. The huge garden also allowed him and his art student to paint outside. Hans Peter Bergmann allowed me to see the original, amazing art studio which still stands like it has done for almost over ninety years.  The paintings he had inherited from his grandfather were displayed everywhere and were absolutely incredible. Max Bergmann had an unbelievable skill of direct observation of nature and people, and he used very rich and colourful oil paint. His style was often sketchy, where only a few brushstrokes indicated his subject, capturing the form and colour and giving a realistic and lively effect . The figure paintings, his portraits and his nudes were powerful, several almost expressionistic in colour and brush strokes and with strong emphasis on light and shade. Some of the works, like “Salome “ and “The Sirens” were staged with a gloomy, sinister, frightening theme.  The expression of obvious, aggressive female sexuality was rather striking, considering the time, when they were painted. These two paintings, as the grandson said, would have been just as extreme and outrageous for the National Socialists as Max Beckmanns paintings. In comparison, Beckmann´s “ Parisian Carnival”, which was also included in the Degenerate Art Exhibition, likewise shows female promiscuity. This painting is just as constructed and theatrical with extreme colour scheme as the “Salome” painting. Looking at the two works in Max Bergmann’s studio, you got a feeling that he artist was perhaps not quite the artist that Hitler perceived him to be.  Most of his landscape and animal works were done in an impressionist style, mainly because of the influence from Paris. He also confirmed that his grandfather publicly remained with his well-known impressionist style, which he exhibited in Haus der Kunst, but kept, during the time, when artists were in danger of having their works confiscated, the more extreme and expressionist paintings hidden from the authorities. During the 1930s and until the end of the War Bergmann continued to paint as the Nazis wanted. This was for financial reasons and to secure that he and his family were left in peace. The Nazi party approved of him as an artist because they did not know about his private works, and because he was already been included in the Große Kunstausstellung to denote true German art, they never ransacked his home. His grandchild also showed me his sketchbook, which was a present to his father. This sketchbook showed the talent of the artist, he had 500 sketches of characters in restaurants, farm animals and caricatures. It was very interesting to see the environment he painted in how he recorded his experiences and his life of an artist. I also saw photos of Max Bergmann that he was able to sustain a comfortable life during the War as an artist and was able to exhibit and sell his own painting and those of his art students.


The reason why Max Bergmann he was never thoroughly investigated by the Nazis, although the farming community of Haimhausen apparently found the wild parties and the nude models running around outside, rather outrageous, was that his landscape paintings had got a certain status in promoting the true Völkish tradition. In contrast, Max Beckmann was disgraced as a German artist and had to escape to London in order to avoid being arrested and sent to concentration camp. Interestingly, as the grandson mentioned, the paintings of Max Bergmann and Max Beckmann both increased and kept their values also after the War, especially because of the, in our eyes nowadays, controversial cultural politics of the National Socialists. The inclusion of  “Frühling” as true to German, Aryan values and the “Tanzbar” as dangerous, subversive and degenerate for the German spirit, secured the fame and value of both artists until our present day. It also means that the Nazi labelling of art is not effective. They selected art which did not adhere to classical or traditional moral valued, using the two contrasting exhibitions in 1937 purely for furthering their own apology for exterminate what they saw as threatening to Germany. It is nice to see, however, that the artistic spirit, in both Max Beckmann´s case, who continued his work abroad, and in the case of Max Bergmann, who like Emil Nolde, continued his passionate work in secrecy, cannot be broken by any political censorship.

Peter-Klaus Schuster: “Die “Kunststadt” München 1937, Nationalsocialismus und Entartete Kunst”, Prestel Verlag 1987

Steve Barron: “Degenerate Art, the Fate of the Avantgarde in Nazi Germany,” Los Angeles Museum of Art, 1991

Birgit Schurerth: Geniewahn: Hitler und die Kunst, Böhlau 2009

George Heard Hamilton: “Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880 to 1940”, Pelican 1983

Royal Academy of Arts: “German Art in the 20th Century” Prestel Verlag  1985

Stephen Lackner: “Max Beckmann”, Dumont 1979

Wilhelm Weber: “Max Bergmann”, Pfälzer Kunst, 1984