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The Art of the Terrorist

Field Museum Exhibition Looks at Nazi Propaganda

It’s profane to even call it “art.” Art usually inspires a viewer to think deeply. But this art wasn’t about inspiring -- it was about conspiring.

“Propaganda is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert,” wrote Adolph Hitler in the decade before he rose to power.

While the Nazis banned masterpieces of modern art they called “degenerate,” they promoted a strategy of artistic corruption. Aided by artists, designers and filmmakers, the goal was to deceive people into accepting the oppression of their Jewish neighbors. The leaders needed accomplices and scapegoats for the war they were about to wage. Their success was deadly.

A new exhibition at the Field Museum, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda, is a smaller version of a show that originated at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve read the companion book. To see a profusion of pictures and disinformation used to facilitate mass murder – including coloring books for children – is still shocking.

The opening this week coincides with the 75th anniversary of the notorious Kristallnacht, the wave of anti-Jewish violence that swept across Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in early November, 1938.

In an era when biased messages are still rampant and Holocaust denial continues, “State of Deception” is a cautionary reminder of the power of poisonous words and images.

[NOTE: The German government announced this week that over 1,500 modernist works of art looted by the Nazis have been confiscated from an apartment in Munich. Works by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall had been stored in a kitchen pantry. It’s being called the biggest artistic find of the postwar era.]