Books: How America took on the propaganda war in occupied Germany

A study of US arts policy and the ideology of denazification in post-war Germany


For a period of four years following the end of World War II, Germany ceased to exist as a sovereign state, and was divided into zones of occupation administered by Soviet, American, British and French military government. The arts took on extraordinary importance at this moment, even considering the virtual disappearance of two generations of German artists; those who had been extinguished or forced into exile, and a younger cohort denied any chance to develop in the cultural vacuum of the Third Reich. The spiritual importance of the arts after 1945 among Germans was matched by their diplomatic importance for the occupying powers, increasingly as a medium of political confrontation between east and west. It is the second point that the political scientist Cora Sol Goldstein has addressed in her admirable book Capturing the German Eye: American Visual Propaganda in Occupied Germany, in which she traces the use made of images by the American occupiers in the “psychological warfare” that came to underpin the Cold War confrontation.

The background to Goldstein’s account is one of switching allegiances. “Re-education” informed the first measures instigated by the western Allies, principally the “atrocity propaganda policy”, entailing forced visits of German citizens to concentration camps before the evidence of mass extermination had begun to disappear. In hindsight this appears largely an act of vae victis, a revenge directed both at a German public, to dismiss any notion of victimhood and to reinforce collective guilt, but also to the American public (through photo reportage in illustrated magazines such as Life) to retrospectively justify the war. Goldstein shows fascinatingly how the history of such propaganda is implicated with colonialism, tracing the origins of atrocity exhibitions back to the use made of photography by the British evangelical movement around 1850 to expose the brutal forced labour imposed by Europeans in Africa. Goldstein’s purpose is clearly to set propaganda policy, rather than the Holocaust itself in historical perspective, although the comparative method is stretched by the suggestion that camps such as Wöbellin and Buchenwald were transformed into “didactic museums”, or “patrimonial sites” by the actions of the American army.

Atrocity propaganda was a short-lived, and largely ineffectual policy. It reinforced the division between Nazis and Germans, and alienated the latter, who were far more likely to respond to the positive, constructive tone of Soviet propaganda. The point is well illustrated by the history of the film “Todesmühlen” (Mills of Death), comprising footage of the concentration camps shortly after liberation, taken by Signal Corps camera units. The film was originally intended as part of the policy of confrontation, but by the time of its release in early 1946 had been significantly shortened, as the climate of opinion changed to an anti-Soviet tact.

The role of German-speaking exiles can also here be noted: the film was made by Hanus Burger, a Czech-born film director who had emigrated to America on the outbreak of the war, but it was Billy Wilder, another Jewish European exile, who was charged with editing the film from two hours to 22 minutes, and removing the most confrontational footage of the victims of Nazism. Émigrés played a crucial rule in post-war reconstruction. The swiftness with which the Soviets installed cultural organisations and events with covert political backing was due to the fact that so many functionaries in Berlin were German communists returning from exile in Moscow. Only the hard-core Stalinists survived the murderous Muscovite purges, and were thus willing to promote the line of Socialist Realism and classical heritage that marked cultural life in the eastern zone and then the DDR. Artists’ organisations, exhibitions and art publications began appearing in the Soviet sector from the summer of 1945, and it was in part in reaction to this precedent that American cultural propaganda was initiated (although the role of the French rayonnement culturel [cultural influence], and British promotion of artists such as Henry Moore, not covered by Goldstein, were also part of the cultural rivalry of the moment).

Goldstein’s account of the domestic political background to the American response is of particular interest. The lack of scholarship on American propaganda in post-war Germany is due, she writes, to an unwillingness to associate American with Nazi and Soviet propaganda. To rectify this omission she does not hold back with damning comparisons of propaganda techniques in America and Nazi Germany, and shows how both were determined by reactionary attitudes towards race, and also towards modern artistic styles. Spreading the words of freedom and democracy, American style, was compromised by institutional racism in the War Department and the Army, and by the persistence of lynchings and ghettoisation at home. A conservative alliance, backed by the Hearst newspapers, mounted an effective campaign to stop the first tour of an exhibition of American modern art, “Advancing American Art”, initiated by the assistant secretary of state, William Benton. Even more striking is the fact that the 79 works acquired for the exhibition, by artists such as Ben Shahn, Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe and George Grosz (by then an American citizen), were put on show as government surplus property at the Whitney Museum in September 1947 and sold at below-market prices by the War Assets Administration. It is difficult not to make a comparison (although Goldstein does not) with the famous Fisher auction in Lucerne in June 1939, where modern art looted by the Nazis was sold at severely undervalued prices.

Many accounts of post-war Germany are flawed by the tendency to read political divisions into culture, and to ignore the efforts being made by Germans to rebuild and reunite their country. Goldstein raises the question of an indigenous spirit of resistance to the Occupation with the case of the satirical journal Ulenspeigel, a “showcase of post-war German modern art”, mixing satire and politics with expressionist and surrealist stylistics. Ulenspiegel was edited by Herbert Sandberg, who was released in 1945 from ten years in forced labour camps for political dissent; and Günther Weisenborn, who had spent three years in Gestapo prisons. The journal showed how a left-wing, social-democratic spirit could thrive in the western zones, sponsored, initially at least, by the Americans.

The first two years of peace were in many ways a golden moment of tolerance and enthusiasm for reconstruction and freedom, before the mystique became mired in politique. In October 1947 “Operation Talk Back” was launched by the Americans, a measure to counter anti-Americanism in the Soviet-sponsored German press. The climate of the Truman Doctrine, announced earlier the same year, made left-leaning journals such as Ulenspiegel unviable, particularly in their portrayal of Germany as a victim and lackey of the Americans. The journal moved to East Berlin in October 1948, the same month that Melvin J. Lasky launched the pro-Western journal Der Monat. It folded the next year.

The events of the occupation contributed greatly to defining what Goldstein describes as the “parameters of the possible, the permissible and the desirable” in post-War Germany. It was in part as a counter-reaction to Nazi propaganda that modern art became a test-case for democratic adjustment in the post-war Federal Republic (and further afield), a circumstance rooted in the activities of Allied cultural policy. Notwithstanding several misinterpretations from an art-historical view (it is misleading, for example, to compare, as Goldstein does, the 1946 Soviet-organised “Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung”, a large exhibition of modern art, with the 1937 “Entartete Kunst” [“degenerate art”] exhibition—the former exhibition rather showed the openness of Soviet policy in the first years of the post-war period), this book is an important contribution to a growing field of study, and provides essential background to now classic surveys of the cultural Cold War, such as those by Serge Guilbaut, and by Frances Stonor Saunders.

The writer is a contributing editor for The Burlington Magazine, and the author of Fault Lines: Art in Germany 1945-55

o Cora Sol Goldstein, Capturing the German Eye: American Visual Propaganda in Occupied Germany (University of Chicago Press), 272 pp, £23.50, $40 (hb) ISBN 9780226201693

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'After the Nazis: how America took on the propaganda war'