The Führer's Obsession with Art 'Hitler Considered Himself an Artistic Genius'

Art historian Birgit Schwarz talks to SPIEGEL about why Adolf Hitler saw himself as a genius and how his obsession with art affected his political views.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Schwarz, countless books and academic papers have been written worldwide about Hitler, the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Now you are claiming that it's time to correct our image of Hitler. In what sense?

Birgit Schwarz: In my opinion, people have underestimated the notion that Hitler considered himself an artist, in fact, an artistic genius, and that much can be deduced from this self-image, this overheated artist's ego. However, this has hardly played a role in the research to date. That's the starting point, from my perspective, because it can help us gain a better understanding of Hitler as a person, as well as his system of power. Hitler's deluded view of himself as a genius is based on the confused system of thought emerging in the late 19th century, which centered on the idea that a genius -- a strong personality who outshone everything else -- could do anything and could do anything he pleased.

SPIEGEL: That sounds like a debatable view. Historians will complain.

Schwarz: Perhaps. But I believe that it's important to amend the history of his personality. Aside from that, I'm looking forward to the debate.

SPIEGEL: Hitler's relationship with art is well-documented. He earned money with his watercolors and wanted to become a painter. Later he became an insatiable collector, a passion which turned into the most brutal art theft of all time. All of this is well known. What, then, is supposedly incorrect about the current image of Hitler?

Schwarz: There is a widespread view that he was not truly fascinated by art, and that although he collected art and used it to cultivate his image, he then hid it away in basements and mines. Someone like Göring was constantly bragging about his collection, but many believe that Hitler wasn't actually that interested. But it was very deeply ingrained in his personality.

SPIEGEL: What makes you so certain?

Schwarz: The previously underestimated observations of his contemporaries, for one. For example, there was the Italian archeologist and art historian Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, an accomplished expert who was not on Hitler's side. He became one of Italy's great intellectuals after the war. In 1938, Bianchi Bandinelli was asked to play the role of tour guide during one of Hitler's state visits, and Hitler spent hour after hour admiring paintings. According to Bianchi Bandinelli, it was evident in Hitler's body language that he was truly entranced by the art.

SPIEGEL: But Mussolini was simply annoyed by the time Hitler spent looking at art.

Schwarz: Yes, but sources like Bianchi Bandinelli's account show that there is something important missing from our picture of Hitler, something we still need to understand and that hasn't been taken into account until now. In fact, a very different image was built up over decades, namely of Hitler and his fight against so-called degenerate art.

SPIEGEL: But that too is an important part of his relationship with art.

Schwarz: Of course, and it was probably fueled by real hatred. At the same time, art was very important to him throughout his entire life.

SPIEGEL: Doesn't the perception of Hitler as an artist make him seem less evil?

Schwarz: No. In fact, his love of art led directly into the heart of evil. But neither is it the root of everything else. His fanatical pursuit of his own cause, and his self-image as a genius, contributed to his powers of persuasion and, therefore, his success. Art was part of his life until his last hours, even playing a role in his private will, in which he mentions his collections. This was someone who issued the so-called Nero Decree (Ed's note: Hitler's Nero Decree, issued in March 1945, ordered the destruction of any infrastructure which could be of use to the Allies.) while at the same time making sure art treasures were rescued. But no one is willing to admit to his obsession with art.

SPIEGEL: But the story of how Hitler flew to occupied Paris and visited the main sights at dawn is legendary.

Schwarz: This obsession with art was interpreted as nothing but a cultivation of his image and propaganda. When you look at his biography, you understand that art was vitally important to him much earlier, and that he needed it for self-affirmation.

SPIEGEL: Prominent historians, particularly the brilliant Ian Kershaw, see the young Hitler primarily as a failed painter. He wanted to study painting, but he was rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts twice, in 1907 and 1908. Why don't you accept this interpretation?

Schwarz: Of course, being turned down was a fundamental shock to him. But the Hitler research community believes that he accepted his failure, and that he gave up the artistic world. But in reality he always retained his self-image as an artist and as someone obsessed with art. The rebuff from the academy was probably what prompted him to consider himself a genius.

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, he saw himself as someone who had been underestimated. But where is the difference between "failed" and "underestimated," which is so critical to understanding Hitler?

Schwarz: If he had seen himself as failed, he would have had to abandon his idea of being an artist. That's what Ian Kershaw, for example, claims. And (German historian and Hitler biographer) Joachim Fest didn't take Hitler's self-image as a genius seriously enough. Many believe that Goebbels didn't start consistently referring to Hitler as a genius until later on.

SPIEGEL: And that was indeed the case.

Schwarz: But for Hitler it was more than a propaganda strategy. He seriously believed he was a genius, long before Goebbels referred to him as such. And it makes sense that Goebbels constantly described him as a genius. A genius shouldn't refer to himself as a genius. He needs a community of admirers. His conviction that he was a genius, in my interpretation, was at the center of his entire worldview.

SPIEGEL: For a time, Hitler survived by painting watercolor scenes of Vienna. He was apparently fired by an architecture firm where you believe he worked, because his performance wasn't good enough. He then moved to Munich, where he hung around in cafés. That doesn't sound like someone with the creative urges of a genius.

Schwarz: On the contrary. Let me give you an example. A competition for an imposing building project of the late Kaiser period was announced in Berlin. The opera house was going to be rebuilt. We don't know if Hitler attempted to officially enter the competition -- in fact, it's unlikely -- but it appears that he did draw some of his own designs. He believed that he could hold his own with the most famous architects.

SPIEGEL: Why didn't he seek public attention?

Schwarz: A genius can shine in secret, hoping that he will make a big splash one day.


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