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.

'The Genius Was Allowed to be Above Morality'

SPIEGEL: Could Hitler seriously have considered himself a genius? His talent as a draftsman was moderate at best.

Schwarz: He apparently felt differently, and it was important for his ego that he was self-taught. After the humiliation of being rejected by the academy, he developed an aversion to all professors, and to all academic study. He referred to himself once as a minor painter, but that was at a time when he believed he was a great architect. On the whole, he saw himself as a creative genius. You mustn't forget that the concept we have today of a genius is so much more harmless than it was back then.

SPIEGEL: In what sense?

Schwarz: We define a genius on the basis of his talent. At the time, talent was not the main focus. A genius had to have a strong personality. He was a larger-than-life talent who was permitted to do anything, including evil things. The genius has outstanding ideas, and they must be implemented, even if they are completely amoral. Hitler admired the work of dour philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. One important aspect is often overlooked, namely that the concept of genius had long been colored with racism. Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a Briton by birth who had married into the family of Richard Wagner, was a significant figure. He published his views in a book, which became a bestseller. Chamberlain, who promoted the great Aryan personality, was a key figure for Hitler.

SPIEGEL: Are you going so far as to draw a line between the concept of genius and the Holocaust?

Schwarz: Let me say it one more time: The genius was allowed to be above morality. The amorality of the Nazis represents taking this position to its unthinkable extreme. Goebbels wrote the brutal sentence: "Geniuses consume people." Part of Hitler's concept of a genius was the image of an enemy. In his case, it even needed to be a mortal enemy.

SPIEGEL: But his worldview was strongly influenced by World War I and his own drastic experiences at the front. 

Schwarz: Naturally that was a turning point. However, he believed that the world war proved that it was possible to overcome all odds. But I don't see an absolute shift in his life. Even before World War I, he had the self-image of a genius, and he kept it up after that. That's continuity. In the early 1920s, he even declared that what was needed was "a dictator who is a genius." Of course, the population also yearned for a genius.

SPIEGEL: But shouldn't the word "genius" be replaced with "Führer" ("leader")?

Schwarz: No. The Führer concept arose from the genius concept in the first place. Once again, too great a distinction has been drawn between Hitler the artist and Hitler the politician until now. The research describes Hitler as a man who was a failure during his first 30 years before suddenly, as if in a new life, managing to captivate the masses as a politician. It's a divided biography, in other words. But the question is: Where did he get his self-confidence, and the certainty that he was an exceptional figure?

SPIEGEL: Hitler himself described a split in his biography, "Mein Kampf," in which he famously wrote: "But I decided to become a politician."

Schwarz: It wasn't a split, but a development. His career as a politician doesn't contradict his self-image as a genius by any means. And that was what he considered himself to be, first an artist, and then a politician and strategist. But without the self-image as an artist, he would never have been able to see himself as a genius. That's why he constantly had to reaffirm his love for art.

SPIEGEL: You describe which paintings Hitler hung, re-hung or removed in his private and official rooms, including works by the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin and the German painter Carl Spitzweg. These two painters represent very different styles: overblown and aggressive versus detailed and contemplative, respectively. And then there were the neo-classical portraits of women by painters like Anselm Feuerbach. How does all this fit together?

Schwarz: It doesn't fit together at all. I have reconstructed his collection of paintings, including the ones in his private rooms. Hitler's taste cannot be pinned down. There is no aesthetic lowest common denominator. But what his favorite painters do have in common is that Hitler saw them as misunderstood geniuses.

SPIEGEL: Does a genius need a muse? If so, was Hitler's muse Eva Braun -- or perhaps his favorite architect, Albert Speer?

Schwarz: Perhaps an artist needs a muse, but a genius doesn't, because a genius's creative strength comes from within. And a genius, as Hitler explained to his secretary, could not have any children. However, he did have role models, including Frederick the Great, who became increasingly important to him. Hitler felt that he was an incarnation of this art-loving ruler, who was both a collector and a military strategist. He imitated everything about him, including his love for dogs and, later, his shuffling walk and stained uniform. It was even obvious to the terribly banal Eva Braun, who chided him for his excessive efforts to imitate Frederick. In the end, he insisted on having a portrait of the king nearby at all times, even in the bunker. Academics are familiar with this adoration and with how alarmingly deep it went, but it probably hasn't been adequately studied.

SPIEGEL: In the end, how much did he retain of his belief that he was a genius?

Schwarz: It was everything at the end. In fact, Hitler, in his delusions of being a genius, is best understood by studying the last months of his life. The period in the Führer's bunker is very illuminating. It was only a few steps from his quarters to the cellar of the New Reich Chancellery, where the model of his architectural plans for Linz was displayed. He had to reaffirm his status as a genius, and he could only do so through his close connection to art and architecture. These final attempts at creating a certain image for himself had a fatal effect. He made a strong impression on many of the people around him. Many believed that Hitler would succeed in the end, just as his role model and supposed fellow genius Frederick the Great managed to win certain battles, even emerging from wars as the victor despite having suffered military defeats.

SPIEGEL: So art never opened Hitler's eyes -- he saw only what he wanted to see?

Schwarz: That was always his intention, right from the start.

SPIEGEL: Ms Schwarz, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Ulrike Knöfel
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