National Socialism

Influenced by Marxist theory and the Frankfurter Schule, the nGbK also saw the post-war generation address the social conditions that facilitated National Socialism: “We, who were not involved, must find the answers to two questions which our parents generally were not able to give us. Why was a fascist system possible in Germany and how did it function?”1 Until then, post-war society in Germany had resolved questions of “guilt and punishment” in smug Heimat films. It was the “68er” generation that first prompted society to address the spiritual and political causes of National Socialism. The repressed images emerged again.

Considering the politically charged atmosphere at the time of nGbK’s establishment, it seemed logical for the art society to devote its first exhibition the Dadaist John Heartfield in 1969, whose political photo-montages satirised the pre-fascist era the 1920s. What Heartfield expressed with his legendary photo-montages retained its validity for decades to come thanks to the “inadequate treatment of the past”. For some members, the prints of the photo-montages, which were on sale, were as “important as the first books after the war in 1945 or 1946”.2 The launch of the newly-founded institution’s programme, as contemporary witnesses noted, drove with an accentuated incisiveness – like a goading trumpet solo – into the heart of the sedate routine of the West Berlin art world.“3

Marked by the basic stance that “the danger of fascism always grows when the abolition of basic rights progresses”4, the nGbK realised its first ambitious educational project in 1976, in co-operation with the Kunstamt Kreuzberg. The cultural-historical exhibition Renzo Vespignani – Über den Faschismus showed about 80 works by the Italian artist, whose paintings addressed personal experiences in occupied Rome. The works of art were complemented by contemporary materials and documents. Using thematic keywords such as church, justice, culture, administration, concentration camp, Deutsche Arbeiterfront or economy, the accompanying catalogue offered a detailed analysis of the structural, economic, social and ideological conditions under National Socialism. The exhibition catalogue sold 120,000 copies and was even used for pedagogic purposes in school lessons.5 That not everybody would be enamoured with efforts to address that which had been collectively repressed for so long became apparent when the performance of Alain Resnais’ haunting documentary film Nacht und Nebel had to be interrupted due to protests. Like no other film before it, Resnais’ film about the extermination machinery of the concentration camps made clear the terrible scale of the horror.6

The exhibition 1933 − Wege zur Diktatur marked the 50th anniversary of the seizure of power by the National Socialists in order to “awaken and keep awake the memory that there was something and that that something might return, albeit in a different form. Because he who does not learn from history, as someone once expressed it, is doomed to repeat it.”7 In terms of content, the exhibition − as part of a larger-scale programme of events, financed by the municipal government and organised by the Berliner Kulturrat – focussed on the overall societal developments in the transition from Weimar Republic to NS state. The exhibition, which traced the causes of the destruction of the Weimar Republic and sought answers to the question of how Hitler’s seizure of power could even come about, drew harsh criticism with its conceptual approach: “Too much plays out on the level of curiosities: shop window dummies stand around in SA and SS uniforms, an empty pub symbolizes ‘Nazi terror’ and ‘anti-fascism’ before ’33, a tired replica of Chaplin’s ‘Great Dictator’ with globe, mirror for practising poses […] and a grand piano with Nazi flag illustrate the bourgeois ambience as opposed to the proletarian.”8

The makers of the exhibition Inszenierung der Macht in 1987 performed a self-declared break with taboo aimed at transcending “the frontiers of enlightened anti-fascism”9. In contrast to previous projects, this exhibition was not about revealing the repressed images of violence, terror and resistance but to examine the aesthetics of National Socialist power politics. The exhibition addressed this topic, which had hitherto been neglected in NS research10 and was confronted with criticism that alternated between the two poles of “belittlement and ignorance”.

It was not until 2003 and Wonderyears that an exhibition was first realised that used artistic means to facilitate a debate about remembrance and historical knowledge of the NS era and Shoah “beyond the victim-perpetrator dichotomy”. The exhibition had to be stopped in Israel due to protests and was moved to Berlin, where it was supposed to rebel against entrenched cultures of commemoration. The exhibition comprised 23 works by Israeli-Jewish artists who consciously moved in an “apolitical and ahistorical grey area”11 and worked with the means of overpainting, pastiche, mocking satire and irreverent, pop-cultural distortion: “All these means are used to reflect our darkest chapter, the zero hour of human evolution as a society.”12

Eylem Sengezer, 2015, revised 2019

  1. AG-Renzo Vespignani: Vorwort, in: Faschismus – Renzo Vespignani, hrsg. v. NGBK und Kunstamt Kreuzberg, Elefanten Press, Berlin 1979, S. 5. 

  2. Peter Pfefferkorn, in: 69-99, NGBK, Berlin 1999, S. 14 

  3. Wolfgang Ludwig, in: 69-99, S.11. 

  4. Einleitung, S. 5. 

  5. Vgl. 21 Jahre – was nun? Zwei Jahrzehnte Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst, Berlin S. 107. 

  6. Mathias Apel in einem Augenzeugenbericht, 7.9.1976. 

  7. Vorwort, in: 1933 – Wege zur Diktatur, hrsg. v. Staatliche Kunsthalle Berlin, 1983, S. 11. 

  8. Vgl. Ernst Busche: Bilder der Denunziation, in: Die Zeit, 21.1.1983,, zuletzt abgerufen am 17.1.2016. 

  9. AG-Inszenierung der Macht: Vorwort, in: Inszenierung der Macht. Ästhetische Faszination im Faschismus, NGBK, Nishen 1987, S. 10. 

  10. Vgl. Alexandra Offermanns: „Die wußten, was uns gefällt. “ Ästhetische Manipulation und Verführung im Nationalsozialismus, illustriert am BDM-Werk ’Glaube und Schönheit’, Reihe: Texte zur Theorie und Geschichte der Bildung, Bd. 22, 2004. 

  11. Arbeitsgruppe: Vorwort, in: Wonderyears, NGBK 2003, S.7. 

  12. Avi Pitchon: Blitzkrieg-Bopper, Orgasmus-Junkies und gruselige Monster. Die künstlerische Gemeinschaft hinter „Wonderyears“. Ein Manifest, in: Wonderyears, NGBK, Berlin 2003, S. 26.