Beuys Biography Book Accuses Artist of Close Ties to Nazis
Part 2: Life as an Artistic Creating
For Beuys, a personal life story was something that could be shaped retroactively, like a malleable social sculpture. It was probably even surprising for him how easily he got away with his reinterpretations and ambiguities.
When Beuys talked about World War II and the Third Reich, it always sounded as if he had experienced a different dictatorship and a different war. It was as if everything hadn't been quite so bad and as if Kleve, the industrial town in the Lower Rhine region where he grew up, had not been quite as pervaded by Nazi mania as the rest of Germany. The way he talked about the war, one had the impression that soldiers tended to engage in philosophical discussions rather than to commit gruesome atrocities. In actual fact, though, Beuys was temporarily stationed near a concentration camp and, especially during the final weeks of the war, experienced fierce fighting with the bloody carnage of man-to-man combat.
At the same time, however, he drew attention to his wartime bravery. He later recounted that he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class, which, as Riegel writes, can hardly be true. Beuys liked to give the impression that he had been a pilot rather than merely a radio operator.
There is no doubt that Beuys belonged to a generation that revered heroes, went to war with blind enthusiasm and was then traumatized. Many of them had blood on their hands but refused to admit it to themselves or others. It was a deeply conflicted generation.
Riegel says that people overlooked these contradictory aspects of the artist's personality for a long time. Perhaps this was because Beuys, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, didn't try to keep his past a secret -- neither the fact that he volunteered for military service, nor that pacifism is cowardice, in his opinion. He appeared to stand by the controversial aspects of his personality, and that made him seem more honest.
Nazis in His Entourage
Beuys spoke a great deal, but he was not a gifted public speaker. Art was his substitute for rhetoric, and both thrived on a certain amount of ambiguity. One could interpret them to suit the occasion. Consequently, Beuys was stylized as an authority on coming to terms with the past. In 1968, he produced a work called "Auschwitz Demonstration." It consists of a glass case with several objects selected to convey the horror of the Holocaust. The work shows a diagram with the layout of the barracks at Auschwitz, plus the heating elements of an electric stove and large cubes of fat. Once again, everything is gray, brown and grim.
This vitrine belongs to a large number of works that were acquired by German entrepreneur Karl Ströher. Born in 1890, Ströher became one of the main artistic patrons and collectors of Beuys' works in the late 1960s. Ströher's family owns the famous Wella hair cosmetics company, which has its headquarters in the western German city of Darmstadt.
Not much is known about Ströher's activities during the Hitler years. At the meeting in Zurich, Beuys biographer Riegel opened an envelope and pulled out a copy of a court decision from 1949 that declared Ströher to be a Belasteter (or "offender," the second-most damning category of Nazi sympathizer according to the classification system used by denazification tribunals at the time) and sentenced him to 10 months in prison. The entrepreneur had donated large amounts of money to the Nazi Party and benefited from defense contracts awarded to his companies.
Ströher once wrote to Hitler, noting that, as a Freemason, he was not granted "the finest honor befitting a German, (namely) to be able to serve in the new army," yet he was determined to help "build the new Reich." After 1945, Ströher kept quiet about his Nazi past and even today, over 25 years after his death in 1977, he is still widely viewed as a generous supporter of avant-garde art.
Many such figures have surfaced in Beuys' entourage. Whether he did it on purpose or not, he opened the doors to society for many people. Thanks to Beuys, the public took note of these individuals; thanks to him, they were on the right side. Riegel discloses additional documents that prove, for example, that Erich Marx was a member of the Nazi Party. Today, Marx is one of the leading patrons of the arts in Berlin. He was a real estate developer, and his company built and operated a number of clinics. What's more, his name as a supporter of the arts is primarily linked to Beuys' name. His collection is housed in the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art in Berlin.
Forming Groups with Former Nazis
Or take Karl Fastabend. He joined the Nazi Party in 1932, became a member of the SS in 1933, and later was promoted to the rank of Hauptscharführer (literally "head squad leader," the second-highest enlisted rank in the SS). Decades later, he wrote texts for Beuys and acted as a kind of press liaison for him. Fastabend wrote and spoke about "matters of survival for the people" and the "will of the people." In 1971, with Fastabend's help, Beuys founded the Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum.
Or take August Haussleiter, a journalist who embraced Nazi ideology at an early date. In the 1960s, he founded a right-wing political party called the Action Association of Independent Germans (AUD). Beuys ran for the party as a candidate for the Bundestag, the German parliament, in the 1976 general elections. Beuys and Haussleiter were also among the founding members of the Green Party.
Haussleiter and his wife, who was a former district leader in the League of German Girls (BDM), which was the girl's wing of the Nazi Party youth movement, had also founded the so-called Democratic Movement for the Protection of Life (DLB). Starting in 1974, one of the movement's ambassadors was Werner Georg Haverbeck, another dubious character whose career with the Nazis began years before the fascists seized power when he was active in the National Socialist German Students' League (NSDStB). Later, Haverbeck joined the SS and was appointed the Third Reich's head of training for the Hitler Youth movement. After the war, he became a priest and, in 1963, founded the Collegium Humanum, which was banned many years later, in part for denying the Holocaust. Like many long-time right-wing extremists, he discovered the issue of environmentalism and even became a consultant on related issues for Egon Bahr, a member of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD) who held two ministerial positions at the federal level. Beuys and Haverbeck worked together in a number of groups and committees.
These were confusing times. Old Nazis rubbed shoulders with Green Party environmentalists, while diehard right-wing extremists embraced anthroposophical notions. In the southern German town of Achberg, not far from the Austrian border, a movement was founded that was a unique combination of anthroposophical concepts and very traditional German values, and that supported by people like Haussleiter. And then there was Wilhelm Schmundt, an anthroposophist and former Nazi, whose brother was Hitler's military adjutant, whereas he pursued a career as a scientist in Peenemünde, on the Baltic coast, where the Nazis developed their deadly V2 rocket. Decades later, he spoke of the great mission that Germany had "in the choir of nations" and urged new monetary and social systems. Beuys called him "our great teacher."
- Part 1: Book Accuses Artist of Close Ties to Nazis
- Part 2: Life as an Artistic Creating
- Part 3: Exalting the Germans