Poster to the exhibition in the year 1938

Poster to the exhibition in the year 1938

A critical reconstruction of the Düsseldorf exhibition of 1938
Created by Albrecht Dümling and Peter Girth


I. The Nazi Exhibition

When in 1933 the Nazis became rulers of Germany, they regarded this as the beginning of a political as well as a cultural revolution. In order to overcome the “chaotic” artistic pluralism of the Weimar republic they persecuted as different artists as Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, who as “non-Aryans” did not meet the requirements of the racial laws. They attacked also “Aryan” artists that – like Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky – had close contact with Jews or were married to Jewish partners.

The town of Weimar (Thuringia) had already before 1933 been infiltrated by Nazi ideology. In 1930 Paul Schultze-Naumburg, the new director the school of arts, gave orders to remove the paintings of Bauhaus artists. Other prominent Nazis in this town were Baldur von Schirach, Heinz Drewes and Hans Severus Ziegler. Drewes, director of the music department of the Ministry of Propaganda, organized the first “Reich Music Days” of the new state, opening in Düsseldorf on May 22nd, 1938, Richard Wagner’s 125th birthday. As part of this music festival Ziegler, General manager of the German National Theatre Weimar, opened the propaganda show “Entartete Musik” (Degenerate Music), which he himself had arranged, following the example of the “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) exhibition (Munich 1937).


II. The reconstruction

Whereas the art exhibition had already been reconstructed several times, the music show was nearly forgotten. The musicologist Albrecht Dümling encountered the historic exhibition in 1986/87, when he arranged several concerts accompanying a “Degenerate Art” Festival in Düsseldorf. Peter Girth, then General Manager of the Düsseldorf Symphony, had stimulated that project.

Cover "Jonny spielt auf"

Cover "Jonny spielt auf"

Besides the attempt of a reconstruction of the propaganda show the new exhibition demonstrates, how the musical life of the Weimar Republic was destroyed, and offers – like the “Reich Music Days” – an overview of the German musical life in the Thirties. This included the “racial research” of prominent German musicologists, who lectured during the Reich Music Days.
For the brochure with Ziegler’s opening speech the Nazis used the black musician Jonny from Krenek’s popular opera “Jonny spielt auf” (1927); the musician’s carnation they turned into a Star of David.

Katalog zur Ausstellung 1988

Exhibition catalogue 1988

The poster of 1988 combines this manipulation with Anton Bruckner’s silhouette (using the famous portrait by Kaulbach). [Cover des Katalogs 1988] For those in power Bruckner represented the genuine German composer; several of their Party Rallies ended with a movement of a Bruckner symphony, and a Bruckner fanfare was chosen as the musical symbol of the “Days of German Art 1937” in Munich.

Fifty years after the propaganda show of the Nazis the new exhibition opened in Düsseldorf. Further venues were already in the first year of its existence the festivals of Vienna and Zurich and the centenary of the Concertgebouw Amsterdam. In winter 1989/90 the exhibition travelled to the Germanic National Museum Nuremberg, where it was combined with an extensive program of concerts and discussions.

As a complement to the exhibition the film “Verbotene Klänge. Musik unter dem Hakenkreuz”, (Forbidden Sounds. Music under the Swastika) was created, showing for example Ernst Krenek remembering the hatred against his opera “Jonny spielt auf”.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association arranged an English version of the exhibition that opened in March 1991 at the Music Center Los Angeles.

In 2006/07 also a Spanish version of the exhibition was created for the University of Seville.

Katalog zur Ausstellung 2007

Exhibition catalogue 2007

Considering new findings that led to a more differentiated picture of the Nazi’s music policies, a new German version of the exhibition seemed necessary. Thus in 2007, sponsored by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tonhalle Düsseldorf, the exhibition  “Das verdächtige Saxophon. ‘Entartete Musik’ im Dritten Reich”.  (The ominous saxophone. ‘Degenerate Music’ in the Third Reich) came into being. There, as already in the exhibition of 1938, jazz and operetta gained greater prominence. The panels and showcases are complemented by audio guides and a
new catalogue.



It was a chilling reminder that such a thing could happen. I only wish we could have had this exhibit last year. It could have been a reminder of what happens when a government starts making artistic judgments.

A landmark exhibition.

The exhibit documents the Nazi’s scurrilous, illogical slander of musicians as disparate as Krenek, Bruno Walter, Richard Tauber and Josephine Baker, and shows with sickening clarity how susceptible music is to political ideology. As an audio tape plays, you tap your foot to a catchy march until you realize it was composed for some brownshirt rally. Then a chill goes up your spine.

The exhibition stands as a worthy tribute to a lost epoch of music and a reminder that freedom of the arts cannot be taken lightly.