Book Review: Geniewahn: Hitler und die Kunst, by Birgit Schwarz

Although he was turned down twice at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, the Reichsführer believed he was a genius

Hitler’s Artistic Eye

All his life Hitler was fascinated by art. When he was young he taught himself to sketch and paint; he believed in his talent and longed to study at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna. As all students of history know, he was turned down, not once but twice.

But, according to Vienna art historian Birgit Schwarz, he believed he was a genius. And it was this belief that was the unifying thread through his entire life.

“Most historians have looked at Hitler’s biography and seen a break, a cleft; you have 30 years of his life as a failure, a good-for-nothing, and then you have 26 years of this unbelievable career.

Until now, no one has really been able to find the connecting link. I think you can find that link in his art,” she said, “in his conviction that he was a genius.”

Schwarz has made a decade-long study of the role of art in the life and ideas of Adolf Hitler, son of a customs official and failed farmer who became chancellor of the Third German Reich.

Examining both Hitler’s personal collection and the public collection assembled for him by the distinguished Dresden curator Hans Prosse, revealed in the photo albums she discovered in the in the offices of the Finance Ministery in Berlin, recording the art being assembled for planned Führermuseum in Linz.

It was like looking at two worlds.   The art Posse had collected included a large collection of old masters and a second collection of leading German and Austrian painters of the 19th century Biedermeier and Romantic eras. There was no contemporary art and no propagandistic bucolic panoramas of buxom maidens in angel braids or blond Adonises marching of victory.

In Hitler’s private collection, however, was something else altogether: a collection of unknown painters, as forgotten today as they were overlooked in their time.

“Hitler was drawn to these unrecognized artists, because he identified with them,” Schwarz said. “That was how he saw himself. It had little or nothing to do with aesthetics. And it was this model of an ‘unrecognized genius’ that came to define his image of who he was.”

The idea of ‘genius’ in Hitler’s lexicon differs from how we understand the word today, which has to do with art and creativity but not generally with public life. Hitler understood the word in the sense of Nietsche – the idea of the Superman – with a genius as someone whose greatness puts them beyond the rules and limitations that define the lives of ordinary mortals.

The genius is larger than life, a Napoleon, or a Wagner – someone Hitler greatly admired. He looked to the writing of philosopher Emanuel Kant, that only an artist could be a genius. Thus it was essential to Hitler that he saw himself as an artist.

As time passed, this self concept only hardened; he was misunderstood on all sides, but his general staff and by the people.

“But as a ‘genius,’ he was convinced he knew what was necessary, regardless of whether anyone agreed with him or not,” Schwarz said. “It was unbelievable arrogance, but when you look at it in this way, it suddenly becomes understandable.”

 

Dr. Birgit Schwarz will be reading from her latest book Geniewahn: Hitler und die Kunst, (in German) at Shakespeare and Company Booksellers on Sept 24. Reservations necessary, at booksellers@shakespeare.co.at.

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