Contending with Herbert Bayer’s contributions to Nazi propaganda
For the Aspen Times Weekly
As Aspen takes part in the global celebration of the Bauhaus centenary, this is an opportune moment to consider a less-known aspect of the school’s history. After the Bauhaus’ closure in 1933, several of its leading members — including local hero Herbert Bayer — went on to execute projects for the Nazi regime. It is an uncomfortable aspect of their careers, one which historians have preferred to treat gingerly or not at all.
Bayer’s case in particular demands a reckoning because he created graphic designs for at least three Nazi propaganda campaigns: “German People, German Work” (1934), “The Miracle of Life” (1935), and “Germany” on the occasion of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A fourth project was an English-language brochure for foreign distribution, “German Youth in a Changing World” (1936). Each of these projects conveyed a specific propaganda message: Germany’s economy was thriving as it rid itself of international Jewry, its population was growing ever more robust through the science of eugenics and its military prowess had restored the country to the status of a European great power.
We can say with certainty that Bayer had no sympathy for these ideas. In a thorough examination of his diaries and personal statements, the historian and Bayer expert Patrick Rössler found nothing that could be interpreted as an endorsement of Nazi racialist or eugenic policies. When he accepted propaganda commissions, they came from intermediary agents and not from Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. And he had compelling personal reasons to reject Naziism. His wife and daughter were Jewish, and he maintained a network of left-wing and Jewish friends. Once he fell into disfavor with the Nazi Party in 1937, he seized the opportunity to flee. Bayer was not, in short, a proponent of the regime. How, then, did he allow himself to contribute to these exhibitions? How did Bayer not see the true nature of the Nazi movement and maintain a distance from it while others in his profession did?
The attempt to address these questions must remain speculative, but we can look to historical context for partial answers. By the time Bayer did his work for the Nazis, he had to be familiar with and perhaps inured to extreme right-wing ideas. The National Socialist call for the purging of racial contaminates, the desire to expand the territorial state into a greater Germany and the affirmation of a native German culture: these ideas had been part of the national political discourse his entire adult life after the brutal experience of World War I and its geopolitical aftermath. While a student and then master at the Bauhaus in this decade, Bayer had witnessed the school’s leader, Walter Gropius, parry attacks from cultural conservatives who accused the school of fostering “Bolshevik culture” and undermining German values. When the Nazis seized power in 1933 and began to institute their policies, Bayer might have found them repugnant, but he would have been familiar with their ideological foundations.
Nor would anyone at that time and place be ignorant of anti-Semitic discourse. Bayer would have encountered it according to its general prevalence in European society, that is, not just from the nationalist right but among gentiles of all political stripes. Politicians across the spectrum established a solidarity with a working-class electorate by condemning foreign Jewry. Again, Bayer did not share in these prejudices but nor was he of the temperament to raise his voice against them. His fault was to remain apolitical at a moment when he could have rejected an association with the state, as did other designers.
“Bayer was instrumentalized by National Socialism until 1936 — and he let himself be instrumentalized,” Rössler said in a 2013 interview. “Thus, despite the Bauhaus past and the Jewish origin of his wife, he was able to continue his aesthetic program relatively undisturbed even after 1933.”
Working as an independent director at the Berlin branch of the advertising firm Studio Dorland, Bayer built a reputation as the country’s most innovative graphic designer. Like many of his Bauhaus peers, he rode out the transition from the democratic, multi-party Weimar Republic to a one-party dictatorship with a fatalistic resignation, even as the regime showed itself to be serious in its intentions to “purify” German society of racial and cultural contaminates. The clandestine program to surgically sterilize hundreds of thousands of “defective” individuals — those afflicted with congenital, mental and other diseases — would not have been visible to the average citizen, but one must wonder what Bayer witnessed of those measures that pushed Jews and other ethnic minorities to the extreme margin of German society. He must have seen Jewish businesses “aryanized,” that is, seized from their owners and transferred to gentile ownership. It is reasonable to suppose that Bayer had Jewish clients and friends who were systematically excluded from working in their professions, deprived of their civil rights and stripped of their citizenship. Any business relations that Bayer had with Jews became illegal.
That he lived in Berlin meant that his chances of seeing their effects on the Jewish population was much greater than if he had been in any other German city. Nationally, Jews represented less than 1% of the total population, but in Berlin the Jewish community represented almost 4%, or about 160,000 people. Was Bayer so focused on his work, so preoccupied by the effort to further his art and his career, that he was oblivious to the impact of the Nazi persecution on this community?
Turning from what Bayer might have seen on the street and in his office, there was the content of the exhibitions themselves. Especially of interest are those graphics that he produced for “The Miracle of Life,” the exhibition that rationalized the Nazi program to strengthen and purify the German populace through the pseudo-science of eugenics and, most brutally, involuntary sterilization. Some 18 images by Bayer represented the soft version of the Nazi vision. In Bayer’s graphics there were no representations of the targeted minorities and no references to biological or cultural threats to German purity. Such imagery appeared elsewhere in the exhibition, as in a poster the purported to demonstrate the deterioration of the German populace if the “lesser people” were allowed to procreate at higher rates than “higher people.” It was instead Bayer’s task to present an idealized vision of the human figure which, when viewed in the context of eugenic theory, stood for the superior Aryan and in implicit contrast to inferior races. A visitor to the exhibition would see Bayer’s classicized nudes in juxtaposition with images of “inferior” individuals. Seen on their own, Bayer’s images appear innocent of malevolent content, and perhaps in their making he pushed out of his mind the reality that they were one component in a larger system of eugenic theory.
We know little about Bayer’s state of mind in the 1930s. In the years after the Second World War and in the midst of a renewed career in Aspen, Bayer was unwilling to reflect on that period, referring to it as his “advertising purgatory,” and one which he would prefer to forget. When he did discuss the propaganda graphics, he focused on their formal qualities without mention of the content. Rössler concludes that while Bayer did not affirm Nazi ideology and policy, neither did he resist it, choosing instead to further his artistic practice in whatever circumstances he found himself. Bayer perhaps shared with Mies Van der Rohe — also a willing servant of the Reich — the self-understanding that they were revolutionary modernists whose innovations in art, design and architecture superseded whatever was transpiring in the world of politics.
“Bayer was detached,” said Richard Carter, Bayer’s studio assistant in Aspen from 1972 to 1978. “He was all about the art. He gave little consideration to the social implications. Like all artists, he was under pressure to make a living, and was glad for the work.”
We must also consider the possibility that Bayer feared that he could not turn down these assignments without putting himself or his family at risk. He had gained enough notoriety in his profession that a refusal might be taken as a snub. Perhaps he sensed that his time as an instrument of the regime was finite, and in this he would have been right. In 1937, the Nazis suddenly had no further use for his modernist brand. Having understood better than most the importance of his media to Hitler’s propaganda, he also understood how threatening a dissenting artistic practice might be.
Bayer also produced in this period graphic designs for magazines and book covers, advertisements for clothing, resorts art exhibitions, and a toothpaste company, among others. The Nazi commissions represented only a small fraction of his work. He found in this wider success a degree of financial security and an appreciation of his artistic modernism. He was also a young man, reputedly a bon vivant, enjoying the amenities of a cosmopolitan city. How much he connected the dots between his work for the Nazi exhibitions and the wider implications of its ideology we cannot know. We can, however, see him not as a moral aberration but as a cautionary tale for our own times.
Timothy Brown writes on history, literature and culture. He welcomes comments and questions at email@example.com.
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