Why are Nazi sculptures still on display in Germany today? – DW – 12/01/2023

Berlin’s Spandau Castle has added two Nazi-era statues to its permanent collection of antiquities. Nazi artist Josef Thorak created two “new horses” (known in German as “Schreitende Pferde”) for Adolf Hitler’s New Reich Chancellery in Berlin.

Both statues need restoration. One of them has already been placed in the permanent exhibition, where visitors can view the statue and watch the restoration process first hand.

Commissioned by Hitler at the height of his power, the massive twin “Striding Horses” stood in the garden of Hitler’s seat of government from 1939 to 1943. They were part of thousands of bronze works designed for the Nazi regime in its quest to transform Berlin into the capital of the global empire of “Germania”.

Who is Joseph Turak?

Josef Thorak was born in Vienna on 7 February 1889 and attended the Vienna Academy of Arts, eventually transferring to the Berlin Academy of Arts in 1915. After his studies he established himself as a sculptor of monumental works such as the four-meter-high gable figure for the Reichsbank building in the western German city of Buer. His style secured him numerous government commissions, and he became internationally known when, among others, he worked on the Security Monument in Ankara, Turkey, in 1934.

Josef Thorak sculpts a bust of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels
Josef Thorak sculpts a bust of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph GoebbelsImage: Austrian Archives/brandstaetter images/images alliance

From 1937 onwards, Thorak became one of the Nazis’ favorite sculptors, being commissioned to create countless propaganda sculptures emphasizing the supposed power and glory of the Nazi regime.

While Hitler and his regime persecuted Jewish and contemporary artists who they claimed produced “degenerate art” and plundered the collections of Jewish art collectors, Thorak flourished. He divorced his Jewish wife and accepted a prestigious position at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. After the end of World War II, he continued to create undisputedly until his death in 1952.

Why display Nazi sculptures?

“Striding Horses” were only rediscovered in 2015 after a series of stunning raids on an extraterrestrial art trade ring operating in Germany. The police secured the double statues as well as sculptures of Fritz Klimsch and Arno Breker, two of Hitler’s favorite artists.

The works are likely to be sold on the black market, because Nazi art remains taboo on the official market, art historian Christian Formeister explained to DW in 2015. “There are some private collectors in Germany, the United States or Russia,” he said. People are excited about it.”

According to the official website of Spandau Castle, a former Renaissance castle turned exhibition space, the purpose of displaying the sculptures is to illuminate how “the desire of the relevant state authorities to shape the cityscape of Berlin” through the monuments they commissioned. The collection includes monuments created from 1849 to 1986, covering the German Reich, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, and East Germany.

Nazi sculptures in German public spaces

He states on his website that the sculptures are “testimonies of German history”, and the museum considers the featured antiquities to be “great symbols” of German history. The adjective “great” may raise eyebrows, but the museum claims it aims to transform itself into a center for the study of “poisonous” antiquities. The federal government also supported the acquisition of Striding Horses.

The new Chancellery in Berlin, in front of which is a horse statue
One of Josef Turak’s “Cascade Horses” outside the New Chancellery in Berlin in 1939Photo: akg-images/picture alliance

Previously, displaying Nazi art had led to fierce protest. Last year, the Pinakothek in Munich was criticized in an open letter for showing a painting by Adolf Ziegler, another Nazi artist. Georg Baselitz, one of the world’s most influential living artists, has called for its removal. Baselitz wrote: “It is appalling that Nazi propaganda was possible in such an abominable way in the Munich Museum”. He added that it was “intolerable” that the works of artists who were persecuted by the Nazis should be hung next to the work of an artist responsible for their persecution.

In fact, many Nazi propaganda sculptures remain in public spaces, such as the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, commissioned by the Nazi regime for the 1936 Olympics. Ahead of the 2006 World Cup, of which the stadium was one, some activists called for the statues to be removed. However, the city refused on the grounds that removal would be a denial of Germany’s history.

Editing: Brenda Haas

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