When Adolf Hitler took charge of Germany 85 years ago this summer, he did not, contrary to popular belief, “seize power.” Rather, Germans elected him their Führer, or leader, in a referendum on Aug. 19, 1934 and subsequently chose to subscribe to the cultural narrative that he created: that Germany had become too open, too tolerant of cultural diversity in the early 20th century. This openness, Hitler argued, had caused their recent national identity crisis.
Hitler knew that to conquer the wounded hearts of a broken citizenry, he must first conquer culture itself. Dozens of artists faced his persecution when he pushed “Degenerate Art” out of museums and into a derisive exhibition in 1937, but very few tried to warn against it through their work.
One notable exception was George Grosz, a spirited rabble-rouser who risked his career, family, physical safety and mental health to sound the alarm as early as 1923, parodying Hitler’s view of aggressive nationalism in “Hitler the Savior,” a work that mocks Hitler as a Teutonic warrior in a one-shoulder tunic. In his 1926 painting “Pillars of Society,” the then-33-year-old artist warned his fellow Germans that, if petty government sniping and extremist Christianity were not nipped in the bud, Hitler’s rise would be the likely consequence. Grosz further warned against radical far-right religious views in 1927’s “Shut Up and Do Your Duty,” a work that shows Jesus Christ nailed to the cross wearing combat boots and a gas mask—a criticism of politicizing Christianity that drew praise from pacifist Quakers in the United States.
So why is Grosz’s heroic story not better known?
In Germany, the reasons are twofold. For most Germans, lauding the risks that Grosz took also involves acknowledging that others—perhaps their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents—enabled Hitler’s rise by not speaking out as the artist did. Secondly, while Grosz was able to escape with some documents that facilitate research, the Nazis destroyed copious works and documents left in Berlin.
Americans, on the other hand, have an uneasy, centuries-old relationship with failure. Millions grew up with the fairytale that if an individual is fighting for what is right, that individual will certainly win and be rewarded for it.
Yet it is critical that we heed Grosz’s warning in our own time: the dismantling of civil rights is portended by the dismantling of culture. It is critical that members of a society recognize that there are times when risking our careers, and even our safety, may be necessary to protect that society’s future.