The Dark Side of Classicism

Each politically historical epoch searches in its art for the link with a period of [an] equally heroic past. Greeks and Romans suddenly stand close to Teutons.1

In some cases art was used for propaganda both in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler (1889—1945), who had aspired in his youth to be an artist, favored classicism and disdained experimental styles. The Nazis banned all art criticism, and in 1937 confiscated virtually all modernist works in German museums-nearly 5,000 works in the first seizure-and presented 650 of them in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art, 1937) show to demonstrate the perverted nature of modern art. It featured artists including Marc Chagall (1887—1985), Max Ernst (1879—1976), Vasily Kandinsky (1866—1944), and Paul Klee (1879—1940), among others.

The Nazis also planned to demonstrate its efforts at remaking the National Socialist body in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. With a stadium and pageantry that mimicked the ancient Greeks, the games provided an opportunity for the Third Reich to associate itself with classical antiquity. Spain joined other countries in supporting the movement to boycott the Olympic Games, since the National Socialist Party's idea of the superior race was incompatible with the Olympic spirit. A People's Olympiad was organized as a parallel event in Barcelona, but was called off with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936—39) just one day before the event was to begin.

The official poster for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was chosen through a competition. Franz Würbel, a Berlin painter and graphic artist, won, and his poster included the Brandenburg Gate as the landmark of the host city, Berlin, with the figure of a wreathed victor with his arm raised in the Olympic salute. The five rings were also included in the background and the words, "Berlin 1936, Olympic Games, 1st-16th August," were inscribed in capitals on the Brandenburg Gate. The poster was distributed and displayed around the world.

1 Adolph Hitler, speech at Nuremberg, September 11, 1935, quoted in Kenneth E. Silver, "A More Durable Self," in Silver, Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918—1936, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2010), p. 46.

2 "Olympic Games Poster 1936 Berlin," Olympic Games Museum,


Show: Berlin Olympics poster (Dutch version), 1936

  • Ask students to describe this poster. What information does it communicate? Include ideas that are conveyed through text as well as the visual components.
  • The poster contains several symbols, the Brandenburg Gate, the Olympic rings, and a laurel wreath. Research these symbols. How does knowing their meaning influence the class’s understanding of the poster?
  • On the Internet, research posters that have promoted the Olympic Games over the past century at How have the designs changed? How have they stayed the same? Do you think the 1936 Berlin poster could be used for a 21st-century Olympics? Explain.
  • The word “propaganda” is used to describe “the systematic manipulation of public opinion and political beliefs, generally by the use of symbols, such as flags, monuments, speeches and publications.”1 Do your students consider this poster propaganda, a marketing tool, and/or advertisement for an upcoming event? Explain.

    1 Columbia Encyclopedia, s.v. “Propaganda,”