Adolf Hitler is one of history’s most infamous dictators. After coming to power as Führer of Nazi Germany, he and his followers were responsible for the deaths of millions, not to mention the world’s greatest mass theft and destruction of priceless artworks. However, what you may not know is that Hitler originally dreamed of being an artist and actually created art, mainly paintings.
As a young kid growing up in Linz, Austria, Hitler knew he wanted to be an artist. He even received substantial encouragement from his doting mother in his pursuits. However, the stereotypical artist’s life is not one most parents want to see their children fall into, especially an ill-tempered, stern, civil servant like Alois Hitler, Adolf’s father. Alois probably shared some of the aforementioned sentiment. He frequently beat his son and refused to acknowledge his artistic ambitions. In an attempt to put Adolf on a more stable path, he enrolled him in a technical school.
A few years into the program, Hitler’s father died. While there was probably temptation to leave technical school in his father’s absence, he completed the program with an average record. He graduated in 1905 and remained in Linz to care for his ailing mother until she passed in December of 1907.
Hitler Moves to Vienna
It was then in 1908 that 18-year-old Hitler moved to Vienna – the beautiful, art-centric capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hitler saw Vienna as the ideal place to pursue his childhood dream. While his longtime friend and roommate, August Kubizek, was immediately accepted into a music conservatory, Adolf struggled to find the artistic success he had hoped for.
Before moving, Hitler had already applied to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He passed the initial exam but the admissions committee found his drawing skills unsatisfactory. Naturally, Hitler wasn’t a fan of rejection and became upset at this news. In the meantime, he kept busy sketching, rubbing elbows with other artists in the city, studying, and attempting to earn a living as a worker and artist.
During the fall of 1908, Hitler applied to the Arts Academy once more, only to be rejected again. The professors suggested he apply to architectural school instead as his skills seemed better suited to that field. However, Adolf was not fond of that idea; he was fixated on becoming an artist. In his autobiography, Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that the rejection came “as a bolt from the blue.” He was so sure he would succeed. Alas, the universe had other plans for Adolf Hitler.
While recent research suggests he may have received a substantial loan from his family to cover his living expenses, Hitler spent much of the next year without a permanent place of residence. He moved from one inexpensive room to another and even lived in a homeless shelter for a bit.
In 1909, Adolf finally began to get his feet under him. He had reasonable success selling his small watercolor and oil paintings depicting landmarks and city-scapes of Vienna to tourists and frame-sellers. Ironically, these were paintings he copied from postcards, not wholly original creative content. Regardless, the funds he accrued from his sales allowed him to trade his spot at the homeless shelter for a room in a men’s home.
While he was continuing to draw and paint, Adolf became increasingly frustrated with art and took a fateful interest in politics. In Mein Kampf, Hitler states this period gave rise to his Antisemitism. While his time in Vienna greatly shaped young Hitler’s world views, historians doubt this simple explanation, perhaps placing more weight on his tumultuous family life. One of the greatest contradictions of this period is his admiration for Vienna’s then-mayor and known anti-Semitic, Karl Lueger and the fact that Hitler’s primary patron in Vienna was Samuel Morgenstern, a Jewish store owner. One possible explanation could be desperation. Perhaps, Hitler was in such dire need of income or a feeling of success, he resorted to doing business with the very people he would one day try to wipe from Germany.
On to Munich
In May of 1913, Hitler moved to Munich. He found success in a similar fashion, selling small watercolor and oil paintings depicting cityscapes and landmarks of Munich. Adolf also found several wealthy patrons who kept him afloat by commissioning works from him. But that all came to a screeching halt in 1914 when the Munich police tracked him down for failing to register for the military while in Linz.
But young Hitler also failed his military fitness exam. The examiners declared he was “unsuitable for combat and support duty, too weak, incapable of firing weapons.” However, in August of that year, Adolf Hitler voluntarily enrolled after World War I broke out, bringing an end to his career as a struggling young artist.
Adolf Hitler’s Art Vendetta
Without a doubt, the time Hitler spent in Vienna and his derailed art career contributed to the theatrical myth-making Hitler and his followers used to fuel his rise to power. His desire to purify the German state did not stop at exterminating Jews, Gypsies, people of color, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, and Nazi dissenters. He also sought to purify the culture by rallying against modern art, calling it a “degenerate” product of the Bolsheviks and Jews. Perhaps this is only conjecture, but one could assume his own artistic tastes and shortcomings could have played a part in his views of modern art.
In 1937, Hitler had about 16.ooo “degenerate” works of art gathered up from German museums by his henchmen. Among them were abstract, non-representational, and modern works by some of art’s most famous names, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, as well as works by Jewish artists. The exhibition booklet dictated that the aim of the show was to reveal the “philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement and the driving forces of corruption which follow them.” The show appeared thrown together with little care; the walls were plastered with graffiti, the artworks were arranged in a crowded manner, and the paintings hung crooked. All to reinforce the belief that this art was disreputable. The museum even hired actors to mingle in the crowd and criticize the art.
Ironically, the exhibit attracted nearly 2 million viewers, even though its primary intention was to create disdain. The show then went on tour in Germany, where at least a million more people had a chance to see it. While some attendees sided with the Nazi’s disapproval of this work and some that went simply for the scandal of it all, there were just as many, if not more, who attended the show because they felt it could be their last chance to see this type of work in Germany.
At the same time, Hitler had arranged a juxtaposing, more superior art exhibit, The Great German Art Exhibition. This showcase of Hitler-approved-art included picturesque blonde nudes as well as idealized landscapes and soldiers, reflecting Hitler’s own traditional, unoriginal tastes. However, this show had a much lower attendance rate, which could be opposite of Hitler’s vision for these shows. Perhaps it is safe to say this left Hitler’s ego a little damaged.
The Paintings of Adolf Hitler
After coming to power in Germany, Hitler supposedly had most of his art collected and destroyed. However, there are still several hundred in collections around the world. Four of his watercolors are now owned by the United States Army after being confiscated during World War II. In addition, the International Museum of World War II in the U.S. houses one of the largest collections of Hitler’s art.
In Germany, it is in fact legal to sell works bearing the infamous dictator’s signature so long as they do not depict Nazi symbols. When they do come up for sale, they are guaranteed to stir controversy. In a 2015 auction in Nuremberg, fourteen works by Hitler sold for $450,000. While many do not agree with the sale of items directly related to a dark, troubling historical period or figure, the auction house defended their decision by arguing the historical importance of the works.
However, historical and moral controversy isn’t all these paintings gather when they do come up for sale. Questions regarding their authenticity frequently arise, too. Just last year, two sales of Hitler’s work failed due to forgery concerns. In January of 2019, police raided Berlin’s Kloss auction house and seized three watercolors believed to be forgeries. About a month later, more suspicions arose during a sale of Nazi memorabilia, including five paintings attributed to Hitler. The rumors of fraud and high starting prices ($21,000- $50,000) scared off potential buyers, leaving the paintings on the auction block. Nuremberg’s mayor condemned the sale, stating it was “in bad taste.”
Heinz-Joachim Maeder, a spokesperson for Kloss auction house, once said the high prices and media interest surrounding Hitler’s work are simply due to the name signed on the works, suggesting they have little, if any, artistic or art historical value.
Why is it so hard to verify Hitler’s work?
Stephan Klingen of Munich’s Central Institute for Art History states Adolf’s work is hard to verify because his style is that of a “moderately ambitious amateur.” Therefore, his creations do not stand out among hundreds of thousands of similar works from this period. After all, Hitler was, for the most part, copying work he saw on postcards, art done by painters of the German school, and practicing what little technique he learned on his own. This means there are very few ways to go about identifying elements that are unique to Hitler’s style while simultaneously making it that much easier for skilled forgers to copy his work.
In 1936, American art critic, John Gunther, wrote the following on Hitler’s paintings:
“They are prosaic, utterly devoid of rhythm, color, feeling, or spiritual imagination. They are architect’s sketches painful and precise draftsmanship; nothing more. No wonder the Vienna professors told him to go to an architectural school and give up pure art as hopeless.”
Today, critics are still giving Hitler’s work negative reviews. Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic, Jerry Saltz, said the following to NPR regarding Hitler’s work in 2019:
“Physically and spatially dead generic academic realism, the equivalent of mediocre exercises in aping good penmanship. He was an adequate draftsman, utterly unimaginative, and made the equivalent [of] greeting cards.”
During 2002, Frederic Spotts, author of Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, showed an art critic several of Adolf Hitler’s paintings, without telling him who the artist was. According to Spotts, the critic’s first remarks were that the works were “quite good.” He then commented on the manner in which the humans in the paintings were portrayed, stating this suggests the artist’s “disinterest in the human race.” After researching Hitler and his psyche for decades, scholars believe his paintings nod towards his sociopathic tendencies. Marc Fisher of the Washington Post wrote:
“Is it possible to look at these antiseptic street scenes and see the roots of Hitler’s obsession with cleanliness and his belief that his mission in life was to cleanse Germany and the world of Judaism?”
Hitler continued to paint as Führer but kept his work private. In his book, Spotts writes that Hitler had artistic talent, albeit small, lacked the technique of a trained student and frequently failed to capture passion in his work. Regardless, it was a hobby he genuinely enjoyed and felt he was quite knowledgeable about. He may have been delusional about art, as well as several other things, but he was not hypocritical or certifiably insane regarding art. Spotts presents a large documentary record of letters, journals, and enlightening illustrations which make Hitler’s seriousness and dedication to art quite clear.
The determination and dedication glimpsed in Hitler’s artistic oeuvre provide us with scenes we can interpret as visions of the purified state he fantasized about. On the flip side, his fluffed, mellow landscapes of old stone churches, country houses, castles, bouquets of flowers, famous landmarks, and snowy countrysides bring to light one of the most troubling facts of all: one of history’s greatest monsters was a human, too.