George Grosz and Adolf Hitler were equally traumatized by Germany’s defeat—but they coped in wildly divergent ways.
One afternoon in or around 1920, during the nascent days of Germany’s Weimar Republic, artist George Grosz paraded through Berlin with a poster aimed at recruiting “well-built young society girls” for a party at his studio, beginning at 8 p.m. Roughly 100 guests flooded the studio for a rollicking two-day bacchanalia. This and other alcohol-fueled festivities were, Grosz readily admitted, escapes from the trauma and violence that the artist, then in his mid-20s, had experienced throughout the First World War. He called it “contentment and suicide in high style.”
Grosz had voluntarily enlisted, as had a fellow artist four years his senior named Adolf Hitler, because they genuinely considered military service to be an opportunity for artistic inspiration. Growing up in a society that glamorized war, both were utterly unprepared for the unprecedented levels of carnage that new military technology had enabled in the 1910s.
Though Grosz and Hitler were equally traumatized by Germany’s defeat, they coped in wildly divergent ways. Hitler, an aspiring dictator, adopted a pernicious form of nationalism. He diabolically understood in 1919—a full 14 years before coming to power—that quashing the growing cultural diversity in the Fatherland was vital to carrying out his genocidal agenda. By the early 1920s, the failed artist argued that the Nazis should control German culture before attempting military expansion.
Grosz, however, learned from World War I that the very origins of Germany’s defeat were rooted in bellicose nationalism, and that conquering this would be the key to his nation’s rebirth. Putting his mental health, career, and physical safety at risk, he launched a decade-long crusade in Germany through the most popular method of cultural expression at the time: visual art. Long before Hitler ever did, Grosz became a household name in Germany through his widely published satirical artworks mocking the growing radical right and skewering the government and judicial system as incompetent.
Consequently, though Hitler and Grosz never met, Grosz earned a permanent place in Hitler’s political crosshairs. A few days before Hitler came to power in January 1933, Grosz, his wife, and their children fled to New York after receiving death threats from the Nazis. His instinct to flee, like his social commentary, was on target: a few days after the Führer’s ascent, Nazi hooligans raided his empty home and studio in Berlin.
Grosz continued his criticism of the Nazi Party from his new home in the United States. Yet the man who was once the most famous artist in Germany never again regained that renown. After the war he returned to Berlin, but struggled with drinking. In 1959, at age 65, it led to his death there, in the nation he had so vividly tried to warn about the perils of fascist and racist policies. ✯
George Grosz, here in 1928 with his Scottish Terrier, believed that an artist’s most important contribution was in social criticism. (bpk Bildagentur/Ewald Hoinkis/Art Resource, NY)
PILLARS OF SOCIETY (1926): Grosz's most iconic work reflects the artist's worries that politicians, the clergy, and the media will be Germany's downfall. In the foreground, a Nazi politician's head is cut off to reveal horses of the apocalypse. To his left, a journalist is depicted with a chamber pot on his head. This work came to define Grosz's career in the eyes of both his supporters and his detractors. (bpk Bildagentur/Nationalgalerie, Staaliche Museen, Berlin, Germany/Art Resource, NY)
SHUT UP AND DO YOUR DUTY (1927): One of Grosz’s most misunderstood and controversial works depicts a crucified Jesus wearing a gas mask and combat boots. In 1930 the artist was tried for blasphemy; his supporters, though, knew the artist, a Christian, was deeply disturbed by the prospect of mixing religion with war. Grosz even earned the support of American Quakers, who defended his push for pacifism. (bpk Bildagentur/Kufferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany/Art Resource, NY)
HITLER THE SAVIOR (1923): Grosz sounded the alarm about Hitler early on. Roughly a decade before Hitler came to power, the artist parodied the future Führer, obsessed with Teutonic warriors, as the hyperbole of the archetypical Aryan fighting man, with a muscular physique far unlike his actual build. Grosz took the drawing's title from Hitler's supporters, who had brazenly compared him to Christ. (Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Erich Cohn, © Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)
ECLIPSE OF THE SUN (1926): A veteran of the First World War, Grosz depicted a Germany consumed with plotting a new war. An aging President Paul von Hindenburg and headless bureaucrats surround a bloody sword and a cross painted in German national colors. A war profiteer whispers in Hindenburg's ear as a blindered donkey—representing the public—eats from a precarious manger. Meanwhile a child—Germany's future—peers through a grate in the floor in horror. ((The Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY)
THE PIT (1946): Created after the artist fled Germany for the U.S., this five-by-three-foot work was, to Grosz, the most significant of his American-made paintings. In the lower left corner, a maimed German soldier carries his own leg under one arm; around him nightmarish scenes swirl. "My drawings and paintings were done as an act of protest," Grosz once wrote. "I was trying by means of my work to convince the world that it is ugly, sick, and hypocritical." (Wichita Art Museum, Roland P. Murdock Collection)
A GLIMPSE INTO THE NEGRO SECTION OF DALLAS (1952): When the owner of a major Dallas department store invited Grosz to create a series of paintings, the artist accepted because he needed the job. At some point Grosz strolled into Dallas's segregated black community: this vibrant watercolor was the result. Grosz's German roots allowed him to see Dallas's African American community in a way that a native-born citizen could not at the time. (Dallas Museum of Art, Gift of A. Harris and Company in memory of Leon A. Harris, Sr. © Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)
This article was published in the February 2020 issue of World War II.