The chief propagandist was dissatisfied – as a father. “Professor Ziegler shows me the pictures he painted of Helga and Hilde,” Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary on the night of November 28, 1936: “But I don’t like them yet. Too naked and clear. Helga, in particular, is much more dreamlike.” Apparently, he disliked how freely the artist had portrayed his two little daughters, aged four and two and a half at the time.
In today's Germany, Adolf Ziegler was practically forgotten. In any case, by the beginning of October 2022, the painter Georg Baselitz wrote a letter and demanded that a triptych entitled “Four Elements” – also very revealing, but painted after young women as models instead of children – be taken down.
So who was this Adolf Ziegler? How did Goebbels come to let him portray his daughters? The diaries of the propaganda minister, which were always written as raw material and reminders for planned future book publications (as Goebbels had done in his bestseller “Vom Kaiserhof zur Reichskanzlei” in 1933), provide information.
Born in Bremen in 1892, Ziegler initially studied painting with Max Thedy in Weimar and Angelo Jank in Munich and completed his studies in 1924 after military service. "Even at a young age he turned away from modern art movements, which he did not credit with any style-forming power," wrote the historian Volker Dahm (1944 to 2020).
Instead, Ziegler dealt intensively with the manual methods of painting, on the one hand with regard to his own artistic development, on the other hand with the intention of "laying a foundation for the coming German culture", as Dahm noted.
In the second half of the 1920s, Ziegler became associated with the NSDAP, which was still a splinter party at the time, and joined it in 1929. Ziegler was an “old fighter”, as the National Socialists proudly called themselves, who had been members before the breakthrough of the Hitler movement in the Reichstag elections in September 1930.
At this time he was also appointed to the Reich leadership of the NSDAP as a consultant for fine arts; So Ziegler was a party artist. As such, after Hitler came to power in 1933, he received a professorship for painting techniques at the Munich Art Academy. But he was not appointed to the leadership of the Reich Chamber of Culture - probably the result of internal friction, especially between Reich Minister of Culture Bernhard Rust and Goebbels.
It was not until 1934/35 that Ziegler moved up to the Presidential Council of the Kunstkammer, of which he became President at the end of 1936. This made the painter, whose pictures were characterized on the one hand by extreme naturalism and on the other hand by a strong tendency towards liberality, and who was therefore mockingly called the "Master of the German Pubic Hair", the most important functionary of the visual arts in Nazi Germany.
As early as 1935, Ziegler had started a campaign against "degenerate art", which he continued in the years that followed. Goebbels, always intent on expanding his power in the Nazi system of rule, won Ziegler over to his side – this may have resulted in his two daughters being commissioned to paint a portrait. But once you got involved with the Minister of Propaganda, you had to work by his standards, and those varied wildly. Anyone who didn't do this had to reckon with malice at the very least, but often also with everyday pitfalls.
For example, Goebbels called Ziegler “a camel” (diary, July 29, 1937), “weak” (July 31), a “compromising nature” (August 3), “completely confused” (August 4), a “strange Saints” (August 7) or on September 25, 1937: “Professor Ziegler is crying to me. He's going on vacation. Let him go!” However, Goebbels was quite satisfied with the result of the painter's “work” in the summer of 1937, the notorious “Degenerate Art” exhibition.
After the "Day of German Art" in 1937 and the traveling exhibitions on "Degenerate Art" and "Degenerate Music", Ziegler's importance in the power apparatus of the Third Reich steadily decreased. In 1943, in the words of Volker Dahm, he fell "as low as one could only fall in the Third Reich: from the Olympus of the Reich Chamber of Culture to the concentration camp".
He had argued with some acquaintances about the need to start peace negotiations and had been denounced. Ziegler then spent a good month in the Dachau concentration camp from mid-August to mid-September 1943. When Goebbels found out about this, he dictated to his secretary (he no longer wrote the diary entries himself) that Ziegler was "one of the dumbest of the stupid".
A few days later he stated: “Ziegler completely forgot the sympathy of the Führer with his nonsensical rhetoric. The Führer had him arrested. He doesn't want to put him before a people's court, but he does want to give him a lesson." In fact, the painter was released from Dachau after a good month, but of course he lost his job - Goebbels took care of it: "I'm glad I got a man like that in this way to get rid of incompetent slobs and cowardly wretchs like Ziegler.”
The former top functionary kept a low profile, temporarily moved to tranquil Constance and survived the end of the Third Reich. Referring to his weeks in Dachau, he even managed to be denazified as a "follower". WELT reported at the time: "The 57-year-old, white-haired, obviously very depressed professor behaved very modestly and reservedly."
He was always against the persecution of artists and only considered certain styles to be wrong, the newspaper wrote, quoting Ziegler: "I still reject all abstract and dissolving art." In his youth he himself "painted landscapes that could have been mistaken for Nolde's paintings, but I have outgrown them".
WELT commented unequivocally on this self-portrayal: "Perhaps this statement by Ziegler is really a measure of how far one can call him guilty. A man who does not understand the difference in value between Nolde's visions and his own technically brilliant but sweet magazine painting was entrusted with a task that he was not mentally up to.” Adolf Ziegler died in Baden-Baden in 1959, where he lived with his sister.
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