Adolf Hitler and the Ghosts of the Great War: Otto Dix (S2E5)
Updated: May 31
After serving in WWI, German painter Otto Dix rose to fame in the 1920s partly through his unflinching portrayal of modern warfare and the toll it took on the human body. However, these themes landed him on the blacklist following the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. After a no-name carpenter masterminded—and nearly pulled off—a daring attempt on Hitler’s life in 1939, the Nazis came knocking at Dix’s door, suspecting that he aided the would-be assassin. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Prague Street (1920). Oil and collage on canvas. Stuttgart: Kunstmuseum Stuttgart. Wikiart. Public Domain in United States.
1912 self-portrait of Dix with a carnation in hand. The painter drew inspiration from Renaissance artists for this picture, often considered an early masterpiece. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Robert H. Tannahill, 51.65. Public Domain in United States.
Otto Dix, Metropolis (1927-28). Mixed technique on wood. Stuttgart: Kunstmuseum Stuttgart. Wikipedia Commons. Fair use.
1918 photograph of Anita Berber, notorious cabaret artist. She shocked audiences with choreography about such taboo subjects as drug use and suicide, among others.
A placard advertising Hitler's address at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich on November 8, 1939. The speech celebrated the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, led by Hitler and a band of local Nazis.
The Bürgerbräukeller reduced to rubble after George Elser's failed attempt to blow up Hitler and as many Nazi bigwigs as possible with a bomb in 1938. Elser's explosive detonated thirteen minutes after the dictator left the building.
For an image of Dix's War triptych, visit https://rb.gy/1d15x.
To view Otto Dix: "The Painter is the Eyes of the World," visit https://shorturl.at/lnGM4.
---Apel, Dora. “‘Heroes’ and ‘Whores’: The Politics of Gender in Weimar Antiwar Imagery.” The Art Bulletin 79, no. 3 (1997): 366-84.
---Barron, Stephanie, ed. “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum, 1991.
---Cohen, Deborah. The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
---Fox, Paul. “Confronting Postwar Shame in Weimar Germany: Trauma, Heroism and the War Art of Otto Dix.” Oxford Art Journal 29, no. 2 (2006): 247-67.
---Gutbrod, Philip. Otto Dix: The Art of Life. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2010.
---Karcher, Eva. Otto Dix. Translated by John Ormrod. New York: Crown Publishers, 1987.
---Moorhouse, Roger. Killing Hitler: The Plots, the Assassins, and the Dictator Who Cheated Death. New York: Bantam Books, 2006.
---Weitz, Eric. Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
The saxophones blare. The bass drum thumps. It’s sometime in the ’20s, and we’re somewhere in Germany, maybe Berlin or another major city. A group of musicians are entertaining a roomful of swank ladies and gentlemen with a fashionable export from the American south: jazz. They’re playing in a private salon by the looks of it. Directly in front of them, a man and a woman are dancing with each other. With a head of brown hair that ends in a widow’s peak, he’s dressed to the nines, sporting a black tux with a matching bow tie. Meanwhile, his partner, elegant and svelte, is wearing a shiny, white silk dress with golden frays. Short, sleeves, and nearly backless, the garment leaves little to the imagination. The couple lock eyes as their feet fly across the floor, his right hand nestled in the small of her back. Young, handsome, healthy, and well-off, they’ve got all just about anyone could ask for.
At the same time, a dog is barking out on the street, a world away from the party indoors. A solitary fellow with two wooden peglegs clicks and clacks his way along cobblestones in a back alley, evidently a veteran given his shabby gray uniform. He catches sight of a sex worker, blonde and rouged, one of her legs bared all the way to her thigh. She sneers at the ex-serviceman, as if to say, “Don’t bother.” She can tell just by looking at him that he can’t afford her services.
German painter Otto Dix created these scenes in his 1927-28 triptych, Metropolis. The first can be seen in the central panel, the latter on the left wing. Together, they juxtapose the lived experiences of the haves and the have-nots in postwar Germany—the carefree merrymaking of high society versus the lonesome poverty on the margins of society. It’s a sobering study in inequality.
Dix achieved international fame in the 1920s, partly for confronting his audience with the grim realities of modern life. Some of his most potent—and controversial—works variously reminded viewers of the international cataclysm that had rent apart Europe the previous decade, World War I. Dix was in a position to record the daily Armageddon of that conflict accurately. He had witnessed the wanton slaughter himself while fighting for the Fatherland.
It was Dix’s unflinching portrayal of war and the toll it took on the human body that landed him on the blacklist in Nazi Germany. He knew he had run afoul of the National Socialists almost as soon as Hitler became chancellor in 1933, but Dix never could have imagined the bewildering and no less grave accusations the Nazis would make of him six years later, in 1939. That year, police took him into custody to question him in connection with an assassination attempt that had come within whiskers of killing Hitler. Today, we’ll hear the story of how the Great War haunted Germany, how Dix’s depictions of that conflict came back to haunt him, and how a no-name carpenter devised an ingenious plot to assassinate the Führer. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 5 of Assassins . . .
Adolf Hitler and the Ghosts of the Great War: Otto Dix
Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix came into the world on December 2, 1891. Born in the German village of Unternhaus, near the town of Gara, he grew up in a working-class family.
He discovered his love of the arts during childhood. His cousin, Fritz Amann, thirteen years Dix’s senior, worked as a painter and introduced him to the craft. Dix paid regular visits to his studio, serving as Fritz’s model, surrounded by canvases, brushes, and paints. He later recalled the “wonderful smell of oil paints and lacquers.”
From that point forward, there was never much question as to what Dix would do for a career, and he explored various ways of painting throughout adolescence. In September 1910, aged eighteen, Dix received a stipend from Prince Heinrich XXVII of Reus to study at the School of Arts and Crafts in Dresden. It was in this city that he developed his personal style, inspired by avant-garde exhibitions at galleries in town. And it was from this city that he would ship off to the bloodiest war the world had ever seen.
“This is What I Looked Like as a Soldier”
On August 4, 1914, German soldiers marched into Belgium without a declaration of war, in violation of international law. Two days later, Kaiser Wilhelm II portrayed the invading nation as the victim of unprovoked aggression and spurred his subjects to battle: “To the German people . . . In the midst of peace the enemy attacks us. Forward! To arms! Every moment of wavering, every hesitation, is a treason against the Fatherland. The existence or destruction of our recreated empire is at stake, the very existence of German power and customs.”
Dix answered the kaiser’s call to action, though not for reasons old Wilhelm had in mind. After getting drafted as a reservist in August 1914, Dix volunteered to fight straight away when he could have stayed off duty—and out of harm’s way—until the military summoned him to the frontline. Dix hadn’t enlisted out of a jingoistic commitment to defending the Fatherland. Like many other Germans in his generation, he hungered for adventure and held a firm yet nebulous belief that the conflict would change the world for the better—who knew how, but time would tell. Like everybody else, Dix had no idea that he was signing up for years of pain, not least because an industrial-grade propaganda machine was reassuring soldiers as well as their families that the war would be over by Christmastime. In his 1920 book, Storm of Steel, veteran Ernst Jünger described the excitement that coursed through him and many of his contemporaries as they left home for battle: “We had come from lecture halls, school desks and factory workbenches, and over the brief weeks of training, we have had bonded together into one large and enthusiastic group. Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war.”
After training, Dix was deployed to the Western Front, where he served as a machine gunner in France and Belgium. Later, he would fight briefly on the Eastern Front. We can easily envision his appearance in the early days of his military career thanks to a 1924 self-portrait, This is How I Looked as a Soldier. Dix stands in profile, uniformed and unshaven, carrying a gigantic machine gun in both hands, the barrel of the weapon drawn to his chest. Fastened to his belt are a couple of cylindrical hand grenades. He’s already set foot within range of enemy fire, judging from a tear in his tunic and a dent in his helmet, caused by a bullet. The fixity of his gaze and the frown on his face evoke an iron resolve, a readiness to confront the perils of battle. As art historian Paul Fox notes, however, the self-portrait may represent an idealized version of Dix as a soldier, conveying a stoicism that he strove to project even after war’s end. For Fox, the artist might have titled the drawing “‘this is my façade as a veteran.’”
It would take great courage to meet the history-making brutality of World War I with such self-possession. The modern world had industrialized warfare, engineering heavier weaponry that yielded greater fatalities. Dix remained reticent about his personal actions at wartime, at least with the public, so we have few specifics about the dangers he faced and the damage he doled out with his machine gun. However, he did record more generalized experiences of the bloodletting. In his diary, for instance, he listed the component miseries of war: “Lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, dugouts, corpses, blood, schnapps, mice, cats, gas, artillery, filth, bullets, morters, steel. That’s what war is. It’s all the work of the devil.”
There was more to warfare than fighting, however. Because of the stop-and-start rhythm of the conflict, bursts of carnage gave way to periods of prolonged inaction and even boredom. When they weren’t firing bullets and mustard gas, everyone had plenty of time on their hands. Wherever the call of duty took him, Dix brought a small yet rich collection of books, which included the Bible, Goethe’s Faust, and Thus Spake Zarathustra by Nietzsche. If he wasn’t thumbing pages, he was often making art, producing a massive amount during his downtime. By candlelight in his dugout or by daylight in the trenches, Dix completed more than 500 drawings, watercolors, and gouaches. They depict explosions lighting up the night, mangled animals, injured soldiers, shell-scarred landscapes, as well as peaceful scenes from life in the dugout. He wrote a lot as well. Between 1915-18, Dix mailed some 300 military postcards to his sweetheart back home, Helene Jakob, the daughter of a custodian at the School of Arts and Crafts in Dresden. She wrote back and sometimes enclosed a book of her choosing for his perusal. One of Dix’s postcards features an oil-and-pencil image of a bomb crater, a ruined fence in the background. In the accompanying text, he calls such holes “the eye sockets of the earth.”
The war would give Dix bad dreams for years, but as far as I know, he never regretted volunteering. Later in life, he maintained that the madness of it all had revealed precious truths about human nature: “The war was a dreadful thing. But there was something awesome about it. I didn’t want to miss it at any price. You have to have seen people out of control in that way to know anything about man. I think you have to have been right there in the thick of it.”
Economic Meltdown Number One
Dix was dismissed from military service on December 22, 1918, having attained the rank of staff sergeant, a senior NCO. He made his way to Gara, arriving in time to celebrate Christmas with his parents, no doubt relieved to have their son back safe.
Dix came home to a nation transformed. Like other countries around the globe, Germany was going through political upheaval. Weary and humiliated after four long years of savage warfare, Germans revolted in the fall of 1918. November 9 of that year witnessed a series of momentous events: the abdication and voluntary exile of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany’s formal surrender to the Allies, and the proclamation of a new republic with its capital in Weimar. Modern historians refer both to the fledgling government as well as the fifteen-year period between its founding and the rise of the Nazis in 1933 as the Weimar Republic. To build a quick bridge to contemporary events covered earlier this season, the November Revolution of Germany took place toward the end of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) and one year after the Russian Revolution of 1917, both of which we talked about in the first episode of this season, on David Alfaro Siqueiros.
During its infancy, the Weimar Republic experienced economic growing pains of excruciating intensity. Inflation started to pick up speed while the nation’s sons were still dying in the trenches, with Germany borrowing colossal sums to finance the war effort. It did so, naturally, under the assumption that the Central Powers would prevail in the end and reap the rewards of greater influence across the continent. Needless to say, the Great War would not turn out the way they wanted. By 1918, Germany had racked up mountainous debts and suffered from dire shortages of life necessities as well as the most basic materials for production. The government faced the enormous challenge of reintegrating millions of soldiers home from the killing fields into society, a challenge that would eat up a good deal of the budget. More on that in a minute. On top of it all, as stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was saddled with reparations owed to the victors. Prices skyrocketed in the summer and fall of 1921, and blue- and white-collar workers alike, from coal miners to accountants, took to the streets demanding higher wages. Without a viable alternative, the government responded by printing more currency and pouring it into the economy, which only exacerbated matters. Then, in the summer of 1922, inflation swelled to catastrophic proportions, resulting in hyperinflation that beggars the imagination. A loaf of bread could set you back more than 400 billion marks, and many households considered it more economical to burn money rather than spend it on kindling or coal. To keep pace with soaring prices, the Reichsbank issued bills with ever greater denominations. On November 2, 1923, it brought out a 100 trillion mark note. Hyperinflation placed large swathes of the German populace under strain. Families saw their savings rendered worthless overnight. The jobless occupied municipal offices and queued up outside soup kitchens. Absent other means of nourishing themselves, swarms of city-dwellers flocked to the countryside and plundered potatoes and chickens from farms. Wildcat strikes broke out in all manner of industries, and crowds fought with police in the streets.
Disability, Dada Dix, and the Sights to See on Prague Street
Though perpetually strapped for cash, Dix squeaked by throughout this period. In 1919, he relocated from Gara to Dresden to study further at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste. Over the next few years, he would make a name for himself as a painter and eke out a living in that profession.
Dix stood out from other artists partly by taking up uncomfortable subject matter. For example, he called attention to a demographic ostensibly hard hit by the economic meltdown: disabled ex-soldiers. Within a year or two of the Great War’s end, handicapped paupers in military uniform had become a common sight on the streets of Germany’s urban centers—they multiplied “like mushrooms after a warm rain,” according to one commentator.
Dix underscores the degradation of disabled ex-servicemen in one of his best-known paintings, Prague Street, completed in 1920 and currently held by the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Germany. Named for one of the most fashionable shopping boulevards in Dresden, Prague Street confronts viewers with a scene not of thriving commerce but of abject poverty. Two veterans are panhandling in a front of as many shop windows, one of the men seated and the other one supine. The first wears a pair of darkened glasses, presumably war-blinded. Two wooden peglegs protrude from his trousers while a wooden prosthesis with a claw at the end of it sticks out of his left sleeve. The second has likewise lost his legs. He appears to be attached at the waist to a small trolley. In either hand he holds a wooden pole, which he uses to push himself around on his scooter. These severe disabilities have rendered them unemployable, Dix implies, forcing them to beg. Together, moreover, disability and penury have dehumanized these men. A dachshund pokes its head out of the lower lefthand corner of the painting, and a leaflet in its mouth declares, Juden Raus! (“Jews out!”)—an allusion to the period’s rampant antisemitism, which held Jews responsible for losing the war as well as the subsequent economic turmoil. Chronic privation and unemployment have robbed the ex-soldiers of their dignity, Dix suggests, dragging them down to the same level as a dog.
Yet disability has done more than reduce these former soldiers to beggars. It has fundamentally altered the nature of their bodies. Consider the ex-serviceman with the prosthetic arm. He’s become an amalgam of the organic and artificial, the human and inhuman. Far less compassionate than we might like him to be, Dix portrays the veterans’ composite bodies as grotesque and disquieting. In the words of his biographer, Eva Karcher, the Prague Street mendicants resemble “clockwork puppets, put together out of spare parts and leftover bits of human debris.” To fit with this theme, Dix has made a painting that itself is a hybrid, a hodgepodge of various artistic media. Employing collage, he has stuffed the shopwindows in the background not with painted wares but real printed materials such as stamps, money, and newspaper clippings.
Prague Street offers a grim portrayal of what it was like to live in Germany as a disabled ex-soldier, as does work by several other contemporary artists. However, as historian Deborah Cohen reveals in her book, The War Come Home, these images exaggerate the extent of the problem. In 1919-20, alarmed by Germany’s “mass epidemic” of begging veterans, welfare officials investigated the crisis and made a shocking discovery: the majority of these unfortunates hadn’t served in the war. Subsequent inquiries supported these findings. In truth, many of these panhandlers became handicapped in peacetime and discovered that they could ratchet up their takings by donning a uniform and exploiting public sympathy for the war-disabled. There were a few World War I veterans among these mendicants, yes, but they hadn’t turned to beggary as a last resort. Many held steady jobs during the week and panhandled on Saturdays and Sundays as a way of supplementing their income.
As Cohen makes clear, most disabled World War I veterans rejoined the workforce and did so thanks to state-sponsored support. By way of example, she recounts the story of Christian Wilhelm, an Augsburg resident blinded by a Russian hand grenade in July 1917. Years later, he recalled how he first felt about losing his eyesight: “I thought that the world and everything that it had to offer, were lost to me. I could not comprehend what it was like to be condemned to complete inactivity, not to be able to move about freely.” As he recovered from a head injury sustained at the same time as the blinding, Wilhelm passed sleepless nights learning to read braille. In 1919, he applied through the state welfare office to study stenography and typing at the Berlin School for the War-Blinded. The state agreed not only to pay for his training but also to hire him if he proved capable. He excelled in his new trade, and the welfare office gave him the job. In the beginning, Wilhelm took dictation using machines specially equipped with braille keys. One promotion led to another, and by 1932, Wilhelm had become one of the highest-ranking employees at the welfare office, charged with the management of career counseling, job training, health care, and housing for his fellow ex-servicemen. He consulted law books written in braille and only required the help of an assistant while reading incoming and outgoing mail. In an article about his achievements, Wilhelm declared that he had demonstrated his “independence to the greatest possible extent.”
Likely without knowing it, Dix fell short of capturing the experience of most disabled veterans with Prague Street. At the same time, the painting unsettled pro-war narratives about the glory of having served in battle. Look at what it gets you when you make it back home, Dix seems to say.
Otto, Martha, and the Roaring Twenties
As severe as Germany’s financial troubles became, there was a flipside to Weimar distress. Indeed, while the mark nosedived in value, pleasure-seekers reveled with blissful abandon, eager to forget the anxiety of wartime. Like other countries across the world, Germany was enjoying the Roaring Twenties. Dix took part in the excitement, of course, and he did so alongside the love of his life, Martha Koch.
Dix met Martha in 1921. He knew before long that he wanted her as his wife; all she’d have to do was ditch her husband, Hans. Dix made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. Koch in their hometown of Düsseldorf. Hans commissioned him to paint his portrait and further permitted him to crash at their place. A romance flowered between the artist and Martha, a beautiful, dark-haired metalsmith by trade who hailed from an upper-class household. The lovebirds nicknamed each other Jim and Mutzli. Punch-drunk in love, Martha left Hans in a matter of months, but you shouldn’t feel too bad for him. After all, Hans was having an affair with Martha’s older sister, whom he happily married after the separation. Dix wed Martha in 1923, becoming Hans’ brother-in-law. Throughout his marriage, Otto philandered on many occasions, but Martha remained his one true love. The couple stayed together for the rest of his life and had three children. Otto embraced fatherhood and painted loving portraits of his daughter and two sons as they grew up.
Before becoming parents, Jim and Mutzli partied hard. They adored music along with dancing. “We drank as well,” Martha recalled. “From great, big glasses, holding a quart of a liter of wine.” They busted their boozy moves at home, having bought a phonograph, as well as out on the town. The Weimar Republic saw a surge in night life, with Germans cutting loose in clubs and cabarets of every variety. By all accounts, Otto in particular could tear up a dance floor. He had a special talent for the shimmy, another phenomenon that had crossed the Atlantic from the United States. While dancing this shimmy, you rolled your shoulders backward and forward in alternating patterns while keeping the rest of your upper body stationary. These movements were meant to simulate a trance state that Haitian Voodoo practitioners entered during sacred ceremonies.
Otto and Martha also relished the delights of a newly sexed-up society. As Eric D. Weitz writes in his fantastic monograph, Weimar Germany, “It’s always difficult to say, but at least in the major urban areas, and Berlin in particular, it does seem that a sexual revolution was under way.” Sex reformers advocated the use of contraceptives, and Germans on either side of the political spectrum called for women’s access to abortion. Meanwhile, medical doctors published sex manuals meant to help husbands and wives satisfy each other in the bedroom. The sex trade prospered, too. Dix frequented brothels in the Ziegelgasse, the red light district in old-city Dresden, fascinated by the idea of sex as pure commodity.
Sex assumed a new prominence in mass entertainment as well. Scantily clad, high-kicking line dancers such as the Tiller Girls became crowd-pleasing attractions on the cabaret stage. More risqué diversions were also on offer. In June 1925, the Dixes took in one of them at a Düsseldorf venue called the Kabarett Jungmühle. There, they feasted their eyes on the voluptuous Anita Berber, the Expressionistic dancer hailed as “the Goddess of the Night” and celebrated for a piece titled The Dance of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy. Berber had gained notoriety in Berlin, reportedly downing a bottle of cognac before taking the stage, dancing in the nude, and presenting choreography about taboo subjects such as suicide and drug use. Her personal life fascinated as much as her dance routines, stuffed as it was with bisexual dalliances and hardcore narcotics. Dix was so poleaxed by Berber’s performance in Düsseldorf, he followed her to Wiesbaden to watch her again. Then, after befriending her, he immortalized her image in one of his most acclaimed portraits, the dancer attired in a high-necked dress of smoldering vermillion that accentuates her body’s every curve. Berber, unfortunately, was all too mortal. Three years later, in 1928, aged twenty-nine, she succumbed to tuberculosis. She and Dix had stayed in contact, and he rushed to Berlin to see her one last time before she died.
Dix harbored a morbid fascination with the darker side of sex—its ties to violent crime in particular. Between 1920-22, the artist dreamed up one depiction after another of sexual assault and homicide, many of them inspired by crime scene photography he came across in a book entitled The Sexual Criminal by Erich Wulfman. Dix shared more than one of these nauseating creations with Martha and expected her to like them. In July 1922, six months into going steady with her, he painted a watercolor and gave it to her as a birthday present with the inscription, “Mutzli zum Geburstag” (“To Mutzli, for her birthday”). It’s not exactly Hallmark material. Titled Scene II (Murder), the watercolor shows a naked woman lying on the floor of a dingy room in a puddle of her own blood, her body wrapped in a rumpled bedsheet. In many relationships, the giving of such a gift would segue straight to a breakup. Yet Otto and Martha were supremely well-matched and odder than most couples. She appears to have shared—or at least tolerated—her partner’s more macabre sensibilities. Later in life, Martha spoke to an interviewer about another of Otto’s paintings, Sex Murder. “We weren’t squeamish,” she recalls in the interview. “For example, we had the Sex Murder in our apartment. When friends came for dinner, some lost their appetite.” It’s unclear which picture she’s referring to since Dix appears to have done more than one with that title. However, Dix’s biographer, Philip Gutbrod, describes one of these paintings, and it does sound pretty stomach-turning. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say it involves dismemberment. Creepier still, the artist has painted himself into the crime scene. According to Gutbrod, the killer leers at the viewer, brandishing the knife that cut down his victim, and Dix conceived the cold-blooded murderer in his own image.
Bizarre as they are, these works exhibit certain traits that would cement Dix’s place in art history. He’s gone down as a forerunner of the movement known as die neue Sachlichkeit, usually translated as New Objectivity, which emerged in the 1920s and faded after Hitler came to power in 1933. In response to the trippy fever dreams of earlier Expressionist art, painters associated with New Objectivity depicted reality with brutal candor, often spotlighting the sordid and shocking. According to Gutbrod, Dix painted pictures like Sex Murder “without judgment or commentary” and because he considered them “‘truths’ worth depicting.” The biographer adds, “If these works had any ‘intention,’” part of it was to “shed light on the nature of human urges,” even at their most “violently pathological.” By including an avatar of himself in Sex Murder, Dix even contemplates his own potential to commit violent crime.
As an aside, I see a number of parallels between Dix and his older contemporary, British painter Walter Sickert. If you haven’t already, I recommend that you listen to our episode on Sickert in season 1, The Unusual Suspects: Artists Accused of Being Jack the Ripper.
The Fever Breaks
As the ’20s roared on, the runaway inflation finally calmed. Effectively ruling by emergency decree throughout the winter of 1923-24, the government took a number of measures to restore stability. On November 15, 1923, it introduced a new currency, the Rentenmark, backed by Germany’s industrial and agricultural sectors and issued by a new bank, the Rentenbank. The establishment of the Rentenmark had the desired effect, almost immediately halting inflation.Next, the government cut the public payroll by nearly one-quarter, laying off temporary employees as well as married women in the first phase of culling. Though this whittling-down of the workforce and other strict actions caused plenty of pain, they ultimately steadied the shaken nation, and by early-to-mid 1924, Germany had by and large regained its footing.
Dix’s career brightened soon thereafter. In 1927, he was offered a professorship at the Academy of Art in Dresden—an acknowledgment of his stature in the art world—which he accepted. The new position would not only allow him to impart his wisdom to future generations of German painters but also guarantee a paycheck as he pursued his own art.
In one respect, Dix thought the nation had grown too sunny. At any rate, he felt compelled to remind the public of the hell he and millions of other young soldiers had endured just over a decade earlier. In 1929, he commenced perhaps his most famed portrayal of World War I, the War triptych, which he finished in 1931. Dix took issue with a romanticized attitude toward the Great War and the men who fought it that had recently become commonplace, “a notion of heroism which, in the trenches, had long since been rejected as an absurdity.” The painter added, “People were already beginning to forget the terrible suffering that the war had inflicted.” His triptych served as harrowing memento, evoking a cyclical pattern of near-apocalyptic bloodshed. In the lefthand panel, a battalion of soldiers with their backs turned to us head off to combat in the pale light of dawn, a broken wagon wheel lying on the ground in the lower left corner. The central panel depicts the inside of a trench in the middle of a skirmish. Made up of earthy grays, browns, and greens, the picture is at once horrifying and hard to comprehend. To the right, a corpse dangles over the upper edge of the trench, its legs dotted with bullet holes. A skeletal cadaver is suspended in the air, somehow attached to—or perhaps impaled on—a jagged, leafless tree. The sole visible survivor of the slaughter gazes toward the viewer, wearing a gas mask. In the righthand wing, a soldier traipses back to his dugout at sundown, with fire on the horizon and the body of a comrade slung over his shoulder. At the base of the triptych is another slim panel known as the predella, which features a soldier in a deathlike slumber, resting to rise and repeat the ordeals of the previous day all over again.
Curiously, Dix didn’t regard paintings such as the War triptych as pacifist in nature, nor did he intend them as political statements. He merely wanted to represent the truth about his subjects, discomforting as it was. “I am neither political nor tendentious nor a pacifist or a moralist or anything else,” he once declared. “Don’t bother me with your silly politics,” he once told a contemporary. “I’d rather go to a whorehouse.” Bit of a non sequitur, but I mean, okay.
Economic Meltdown Number Two Plus the Nazi Seizure of Power
Germany’s recovery proved short-lived. In 1929, the economy imploded with the onset of the Great Depression. Four years later, in 1933, Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. He and the Nazi Party had gathered support partly by tapping into widespread anger over the economic earthquakes that had rocked the country in the early ‘20s and ’30s.
Hitler’s ascent brought about Dix’s downfall. As Nazi ideology permeated society, eventually dominating it, the party clamped down on artists and intellectuals whose work ran counter to its core values. Just months after the start of Hitler’s chancellery, Dix was summarily dismissed from the Dresden Academy of Art. In 1934, he was banned from exhibiting altogether.
Perversely, the Nazis would continue to display his work as an example of what they called entwertete Kunst, “degenerate art,” art that corrupted rather than edified. Along with other themes in Dix’s painting, his raw depiction of the horrors of war as well as the damaged bodies of disabled veterans rendered him reprehensible in the eyes of the Nazis for at least two reasons. First, they glorified the battlefield and routinely staged military parades and other drum-and-saber spectacles. Second, they worshiped the Aryan physique, which they could only imagine as abled-bodied. In September 1933, an exhibition titled “Reflections on Degeneracy” opened in Dresden. Four years later, the cultural wing of Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry took the topic further and organized a traveling exhibit called “Degenerate Art.” It showed in Munich, Berlin, Dresden, and Düsseldorf. The collection included at least two of Dix’s paintings, Trench and War Cripples, the first of which portrayed a gut-churning battle scene and the second of which represented disabled ex-servicemen. Both have gone missing and were probably destroyed.
Having his work denounced as degenerate would have stung. It must have felt more like having the wind knocked out of him when the Nazis came knocking to question him about his possible complicity in a plot to assassinate Hitler himself. We’ll hear what happened—to Dix and the Führer—after a quick break.
The Carpenter Builds a Bomb
George Elser was good with his hands. Born in 1903 and bred in a tumultuous household, he discovered his vocation after finishing secondary school in 1917, at which time he began apprenticing as a cabinetmaker. Scrupulous, patient, and blessed with an inborn gift for woodworking, Elser had all the skills necessary to succeed as a carpenter. After graduating top of his class at the technical school in Heidenheim and hitting the road to job as a journeyman at the age of twenty-two, he made a modest living making whatever needed making—furniture, clock housings, and even wooden propellors. In the winter of 1938-39, Elser built a bomb.
By the early 1930s, Elser had developed a fulminating hatred of the Nazi Party. We have limited insight into why he felt this way. What is clear, however, is that Elser’s sympathies lay with the Communist Party. After the onset of the economic catastrophe in 1929, customers had dwindled, forcing him to move back in with his parents, and the carpenter deemed the Communists the most likely political organization to improve working conditions for laborers and craftsmen such as himself. Elser showed little interest in making others see politics the way he did, though he remained steadfast in his disgust at the Nazis. During radio broadcasts of Hitler’s speeches, he would simply leave the room. In May 1938, he attended a Nazi parade in his hometown of Könnigsbromm, as had many of its other inhabitants. When paradegoers thrust their arms in the air in a Hitler salute, Elser did no such thing. A colleague suggested that it would be prudent to go along with it, whereupon Elser replied bitingly, “You can kiss my ass.” He spun around on his heels and started whistling to himself.
It's unclear how Elser went from surly nonconformist to bomb-making assassin. As he revealed later, however, he made it his mission to kill Hitler in the late fall of 1938. Around that time, historian Roger Moorhouse notes, Germany had come just short of declaring war on Czechoslovakia, so perhaps the fear of future armed conflict and its ineluctable miseries motivated him. Quite apart from Hitler’s worrisome expansionist ambitions, Elser’s personal life was in disarray. After years of struggle, his father’s business had folded, splintering the family. Georg had scant prospects in romance. He was infatuated with a married woman and paying support to another for a child he never wanted. When life at home grew unendurable, he severed ties with his parents, hoping to eke out a living as a freelance woodworker again. As soon became plain, however, wages had fallen so low that it was next to impossible to make ends meet in carpentry. As Moorhouse puts it, “By 1938, he simply had nothing left to lose.”
In the beginning, Elser had no earthly idea about how to fell the Führer. Soon enough, he hatched a plan. In November 1938, he caught a train to Munich and hit upon the location where he would essay his assassination—a beer hall known as the Bürgerbräukeller, an almost sacred space within Nazism. One of the largest of its kind in the Bavarian capital, it stood on the east side of the river Isar, which cut the city in half. The Bürgerbräukeller housed a cavernous function room with high ceilings, elegant chandeliers, and a wide balcony on one side. Outfitted with a set of long, wooden trestle tables, the hall could seat as many as 3,000, and for this reason, it acted as one of Munich’s favored venues for public lectures and political meetings.
The Beer Hall Putsch of 1923
On November 8, 1923, it became the epicenter of a coup d’état. It was the events of that evening that would solidify the Bürgerbräukeller’s status as something of a hallowed site to the Nazis. It was packed to capacity with Munich’s biggest bigwigs, from bankers to businessmen, politicians to newspaper editors. They had assembled to hear an address marking the fifth anniversary of the November Revolution and thus the birth of the Weimar Republic. Hugging the rear wall, however, was a sallow-faced fellow with different ideas about what would transpire. A familiar face in Bavarian politics, he answered to the name of Adolf Hitler, and he led a local pack of rabid nationalists called the National Socialist German Workers Party—the Nazis for short. In his mid-thirties, Hitler had a pale complexion, piercing blue eyes, chiseled cheekbones, and that ghastly little toothbrush mustache of his. He had come to the Bürgerbräukeller attired in a dark and ill-tailored morning suit, his hair slicked flat against his scalp. Hitler’s objective was simple, on paper at least: he would overthrow the government and institute a new one with him as its leader. If the powerbrokers in attendance at the Bürgerbräukeller cooperated with him, he would reward them with ministerial posts. About thirty minutes into the keynote speech, his plan went into action. Hitler jostled his way forward, flanked by stooges.
Meanwhile, a cadre of Nazi stormtroopers threw open the main entrance to the establishment and hauled in a machine gun. The distinguished speaker trailed off into stupefied silence while spectators whispered among themselves, some craning their necks to get a look at what was happening. Hitler sprang onto a chair, fired a pistol into the ceiling, and called for quiet. “The National Revolution has begun!” he proclaimed.
It ended less than twenty-four hours later. Hitler’s followers had scored victories in the initial phase of what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Apart from occupying three additional beer halls in Munich, they had seized control of the Bavarian War Ministry as well as the headquarters of the change-making newspaper, the Münchener Post. The following afternoon, some 2,000 Nazis marched on the Feldherrnhalle in the center of Munich, with Hitler in their midst. When the putschists came face-to-face with a police cordon just meters away from their destination, however, a melee ensued, and the authorities succeeded in quashing the insurrection. By the time the gunfire had ceased, four policemen lay dead along with sixteen Nazis. Hitler was arrested, his party outlawed. The putsch propelled him into the national spotlight, to be sure, but most observers assumed that he would amount to no more than a footnote in history. They could not have been more mistaken.
From Carpentry to Bombmaking
After the Nazi seizure of power, the Beer Hall Putsch became a highlight on the political calendar, commemorated each year on November 8. Hitler himself delivered an oration at the Bürgerbräukeller—the customary curtain raiser of the festivities. After Hitler’s speech in 1938, Georg Elser went to the beer hall pretending to be a patron and sized up the premises, noting the presence of high-ranking Nazis who had lingered in the beer cellar. Apart from their bodyguards, there was precious little in the way of security. After Elser boarded a train for home, a plot took shape. He would build a bomb, plant it in the Bürgerbräukeller, and detonate it in the middle of the dictator’s speech, blowing him and as many Nazi notables as possible to oblivion. Elser would strike on November 8 of the following year, 1939.
There was just one problem: Elser hadn’t the faintest clue as to how to build a bomb. That being said, he did have some inkling of the hardware he would require and how he could procure it. First, he pilfered a fuse and a supply of gunpowder from his employer, a munitions manufacturer in Königsbronn. Next he lined up another job in a quarry, where shortly after his hiring, a quantity of explosives as well as a detonator mysteriously vanished. Nobody thought much of the disappearances, nor did anyone attribute them to the quiet new quarryman who kept to himself. Elser moonlighted as a bomb-maker for the next few months, constructing prototypes and blowing them up in the fields near his home.
Come springtime, he traveled back to the Bürgerbräukeller for further reconnoitering, returning home with detailed measurements and hand-drawn schematics of the function room. It was during this visit that Elser settled on where to conceal the bomb. Hitler would deliver his address from a podium on a dais at one end of the room. Behind the lectern was a large stone pillar buttressing a gallery that ran the length of the wall up above. Exploding the column, Elser concluded, would not only end Hitler and anyone else in the immediate vicinity but also bring the balcony crashing to the floor, kicking up the death toll.
Elser never breathed so much as a syllable about his machinations to anyone as he ran his experiments and refined his plans. Something of a loner even before he started tinkering with explosives, Elser had few close friends, making it easier to keep his secret. Still, questions arose from time to time. Asked what he was laboring over, Elser stayed vague and replied, “An invention.” At one point, a colleague inquired if his brainchild were an alarm clock designed to ring and light up when it went off. “Yes, something like that,” the bombmaker responded.
In early August 1939, some three months before his intended assassination, he booked a train to Munich. With him, Elser took a large wooden chest. If anyone had stopped him and searched his luggage, they would have found it packed with tools no carpenter would leave home without: hammers, saws, files, and so forth. Yet his baggage held more than routine equipment, and only the most thorough inspection would have detected its secret contents. Elser had constructed a hidden compartment inside his chest, which contained his homemade bomb, plus fifty kilograms of explosives, a half dozen clock movements, detonators, wire, and finally a battery. After registering with the authorities under his given name in Munich, Elser procured lodgings and got down to business.
Planting the bomb required both patience and the utmost secrecy. Elser went about it as if he were a factory worker, clocking in and out at the same time every day. Circa 9 o’ clock each night, he took his dinner at the Bürgerbräukeller. After cleaning his plate, he snuck up to the gallery in the main hall and hid inside a storeroom, emerging as soon as the bar closed for the night. Then he set to work by flashlight. Shortly before staff unlocked the front door around 7:30 a.m. the following morning, he packed his supplies and slipped out the back.
Elser’s first task was to chip out a cavity inside the pillar that would hold the explosives. To his dismay,, he discovered that since conducting reconnaissance earlier that year, the pillar had been dressed with thick wooden cladding. Elser had no choice but to saw his way through. He toiled as quietly as possible, muffling every push and pull of his saw. He also took care to conceal any evidence of his labors, collecting and discarding every mote of sawdust that fell to the floor. After three arduous nights, Elser had fashioned a removable panel virtually invisible to the naked eye, each of its sides flush with the wooden cladding around it.
Finally able to get a purchase on the column, Elser began hollowing out a recess for the bomb. This stage of the scheme would take the better part of a month. With the help of a hand drill plus a hammer and chisel, he loosened mortar and wrenched free bricks bit by bit, tucking the detritus into a sack cloth. The work was monotonous and nerve-racking all at once. Every blow of his hammer rang out like a gunshot in the gigantic beer hall. For fear of detection, he timed his hammer falls so that they coincided with other noises—the passing of a locomotive outside or the automated flushing of the Bürgerbräukeller’s toilets inside.
Almost two months after beginning work in earnest, the bomb was in place. To ensure that it went off at the correct time, Elser created an intricate timer and linked it with the detonator, allowing him to set the exact moment of the explosion. Then he encased the timing mechanism inside a wooden box so as to dampen the telltale ticking it produced. He set the bomb to detonate at 9:20 p.m. the night of November 8—right in the middle of the Führer’s speech.
It was the afternoon of November 8, and Hitler had hardly a minute to spare. Two months earlier, German soldiers had invaded Poland and taken over. Alarmed yet unwilling to meet force with force, Britain and France had launched what was known as the Phony Way, dropping leaflets rather than bombs on German cities and beseeching the aggressor to call back its troops. Meanwhile, Hitler and his generals were devising a western offensive. Three days before his appearance at the Bürgerbräukeller, on November 5, Hitler had authorized a strike on France, scheduled for the twelfth of that month and designated as “X-Day.” Two days later, on November 7, however, he rescinded the order on account of an unfavorable weather forecast. Hitler and his aides would make a final decision on when to attack on November 9, the day after his Bavarian junket. He had toyed with the idea of canceling the oration at the Bürgerbräukeller altogether, but he knew he couldn’t—the anniversary of the ill-fated Beer Hall Putsch meant too much to his supporters. Hitler resolved to give his speech, as per usual, but he made clear that he intended to return to Berlin that night so he could be back in Berlin for the “X-Day” deliberations. To accommodate his itinerary, it was decided to shorten the Beer House program and move everything up. Hitler’s speech would now commence at 8:00 p.m.
The Beer Hall was buzzing before he arrived. Horns and drums blasted military anthems, with some three thousand audience members seated at long tables laden with bratwurst, bread rolls, and beer. Most in attendance sported the gray of the German army, the Wehrmacht. The hall fell silent as Hitler strode into the Bürgerbräukeller, accompanied by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels along with other prominent Nazis. Some men in the gallery stood on tables to get a clear view.
After a formal greeting and a couple of “Heils,” Hitler took his place behind the lectern, swastikas emblazoned on flags hanging behind him. Elser’s explosive ticked inside the pillar, imperceptible to the enormous crowd. Allowing a pause for dramatic effect, Hitler began by paying tribute to the veterans of the 1923 putsch, many of whom were in attendance. Subdued at first, he grew more animated as he turned his attention to current events, especially foreign policy. He bemoaned Germany’s unjust treatment by the English and professed the Third Reich’s superiority in all arenas, including the arts: “The English cannot tell us Germans anything about culture: our music, our poetry, our architecture, our paintings, our sculptures, can more than stand comparison to the English arts. I believe that a single German, let us say, Beethoven, achieved more in the realm of music than all Englishmen of the past and present together!” As his blood ran hotter, Hitler dished up his trademark histrionics, rolling his eyes heavenward, clenching his fists, and clutching his chest. He brought his remarks to a defiant climax, extolling the extraordinary might of the Wehrmacht and predicting that it would outbattle its foes. The oration met with uproarious applause. Yet Hitler had pressing business to attend to, and tonight was not the night to put back a beer with the “old fighters.” He took his leave almost immediately, destined for the train station. It was 9:07 p.m.
Within twelve minutes, some 2,900 of the three thousand spectators had gulped down their drinks and filed out of the bar. Those who remained were mostly musicians disassembling their instruments and putting away sheet music as well as staff members getting ready to close.
At precisely 9:20, the timer stopped ticking, and the bomb went off. The central pillar crumbled in a heartbeat. The gallery collapsed. A wall of dust and smoke rushed through the room, temporarily blocking the fallen masonry from view. Windows shattered and doors burst open as a shock wave surged through the structure. The tables nearest the pillar were reduced to splinters, the dais and podium crushed beneath debris. The blast killed three instantaneously and wounded an additional sixty-seven, five of whom died of their injuries later. The bomber’s target had walked away unharmed, but given the scale of the destruction, the assassin almost certainly would have succeeded if the Beer Hall festivities had started at the usual hour. If this were the case, Georg Elser missed killing Hitler by thirteen minutes.
The Jig is Up
Elser was arrested before most Germans even knew about the bombing. At about 9:40 on November 8, the night of the attack, he arrived at the Swiss frontier with the intention of crossing over. He had decided to enter Switzerland at this point because he had found it unguarded the previous year while scouting out the area and planning his getaway. Yet much had changed in the past twelve months. Europe was at war, and now, to his chagrin, Elser discovered the area tightly controlled. He would have to make a break for it and hope to high heaven that nobody spotted him. Before he could, however, two German patrolmen caught sight of him loitering near the fence. Asked what he was doing, he feebly replied that he was looking for someone. The border guards offered a helping hand and invited him into their post. His heart sinking, Elser accompanied them inside, casting one last look over his shoulder as he stepped over the threshold. During routine questioning, they asked Elser to empty his pockets. He might as well have handed over a signed confession to the attempt on Hitler’s life. Elser was carrying a pair of pliers to cut a hole in the fence, a postcard depicting the Bürgerbräukeller, a Communist Party badge, a fuse, and a meticulous blueprint of his bomb. Sensing a threat, the border patrols transferred Elser to the Gestapo for further interrogation, and when news of the explosion in the Bavarian capital made its way to them, Elser seemed a prime suspect. By the following morning, he was en route to Munich.
Five days after his capture, on November 13, Elser cracked and made a confession. He told the whole truth, but hardly anyone could believe it. It was unthinkable that he had acted alone, as he maintained. Hitler certainly wasn’t buying it. Presented with a report identifying Elser as the lone attacker, he demanded, “Which idiot conducted this investigation?” Elser hadn’t given them the entire story, the Nazis concluded, and they would spare no torment in dragging it out of him. Heinrich Himmler, director of the SS and one of the most influential men in Nazi Germany, took part in the torture. According to one eyewitness, “With wild curses [Himmler] drove his boots hard into the body of the handcuffed Elser. He then had him removed by a Gestapo official . . . and taken to the lavatory . . . where he was beaten with a whip or some similar instrument until he howled with pain. He was then brought back at the double to Himmler, who kicked him and cursed him.” Despite repeated torture and even hypnosis, Elser struck to his story. Meanwhile, the Nazis were scouring every corner of the Reich for possible accomplices. In the days immediately following Elser’s detainment, the authorities arrested more than 100 suspects.
Getting Out of Jail
Otto Dix was one of them. Unfortunately, every chapter of this saga is murky at best. Researchers have offered vague and at times conflicting accounts of what went down.
The ambiguity starts with the motive for hauling Dix in for questioning. In her biography of the painter, Eva Karcher asserts that the Nazis arrested him as well as a friend of his, the noted industrialist Friedrich Biener, for their alleged complicity in the Bürgerbräukeller bombing. In Karcher’s telling, the Nazis targeted Dix because of his membership from 1927-33 in the Hirschen-Club—the Stag Club—in Dresden. Founded by Biener, the Stag Club brought together prominent artists and thinkers for discussion and socializing. Sounds pretty chill if you ask me, but according to Karcher, the Nazis viewed the organization with suspicion. She never specifies why, nor does she cite a source for this information. Whatever the reasoning behind Dix’s detainment, it can’t have helped that the Nazis had blacklisted him years earlier, dismissing him from his professorship and exhibiting his painting as “degenerate.”
In Karcher’s account, the Gestapo held Dix in prison for two weeks. Other sources put it closer to one. According to Karcher, Dix went free thanks to the testimony of fellow World War I veterans, who stressed his standup military record. If indeed this happened, it may have encouraged the Gestapo to release him as recompense for his service, or they may have deemed it unlikely that an honorable ex-soldier would betray the Fatherland by attacking its head.
According to an alternative version of events, however, another concerned citizen intervened on Dix’s behalf. No less sketchy than Karcher’s explanation, though far more thrilling, this one credits a woman by the name of Käthe König with the painter’s salvation. Twelve years prior to his arrest, in 1927, König was working as a court clerk in Dresden when she became Dix’s mistress. His wife, Martha, always held pride of place in his heart, yet Dix had powerful feelings for König as well. On October 5, 1939, she bore him a daughter named Katharina, despite his exhorting her to seek an abortion. From then on, Dix would treat Käthe and Katharina as a second family, visiting them in Dresden on a regular basis. At the time of the artist’s detention by the Nazis, König reportedly had a job as a court usher, which put her in a position to secure his freedom. By some enigmatic act of cunning, she got her hands on key records related to Dix and made them disappear—a gambit that may just have saved his skin. You can hear this story in a documentary called Otto Dix: “The Artist is the Eyes of the World,” directed by Reiner E. Moritz. You can watch it on YouTube, and there’s a link in the show notes. In case you were wondering, the documentary makes no mention of either the Stag Club or the veterans who supposedly vouched for Dix.
Whatever the case, the police would have come to the inevitable realization: there was no evidence linking Dix to the assassination attempt whatsoever. This, more than anything, must have led to his release.
Exile to Landscape
Elser would never taste freedom again. Without standing trial for his offense, he went from the Gestapo Headquarters in Berlin to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, where he remained in confinement from early 1941-45. On April 9 of that year, with Germany’s defeat imminent, Elser was shot in the back of the neck, his body cremated at Dachau, outside Munich.
It was common knowledge that resisting the Nazis could cost your livelihood and even your life, as it had Elser’s. For this reason, Dix kept a low profile under the dictatorship, not wanting to aggravate the regime more than he already had. He stopped painting people altogether, turning instead to the anodyne genre of landscape. “Landscape painting was a sort of inner emigration for me at that time,” he remembered later. “But you can make something out of any object. And anyway it was something entirely new.” In Killing Hitler, Roger Moorhouse reveals that countless others went the way of the inward exile after the Nazi takeover, seeking “a form of moral and intellectual self-sufficiency that did not openly challenge the regime but rather sought to avoid its attentions by effecting a withdrawal from all public and political participation.”
Dix may have steered clear of politics, but some historians see a somber allusion to the Nazi agenda in one of his landscapes. Completed in 1935, it shows a lonely graveyard in wintertime, the ground covered with snow, the sky overcast, a towering mountain in the distance. It’s a scene that could come from any number of places. Only the title of the picture identifies the location: Jewish Cemetery in Randegg in Winter.