Searching For Clues: The Nazi Past Of Beuys

In a 1969 interview, Joseph Beuys stated that, after his death, he wanted people to look back at his life and say, "Beuys understood the historical situation. He altered the course of events." For those of you familiar with his work, you know that Beuys's personal history is covered in myth and mystery. Some biographical anecdotes—like crashing a plane during World War II and getting rescued by Tatar tribesmen, who wrapped him in animal fat and felt—are difficult to believe. These elements of fat and felt inevitably became reoccurring motifs in his work, regardless of the veracity of his stories. With a biography as enigmatic as author B. Traven's, it is no surprise that theories regarding Beuys's past are beginning to surface 30 years after his death. Most recently, author Hans Peter ​Riegel controversially asserted that Beuys could have been linked rather intimately with Germany's Nazi past. If this is true, could Beuys's identity as a German icon be destroyed?

Dirty Laundry

It seems as if Beuys built an entire body of work off of one concept: the apology. Each work speaks of the ethos in post-war Germany, horrifically scarred by their awful actions in the first half of the 20th Century. When you are in the presence of one of his installations of animal fat, you are crushed by an overwhelming sense of empathy towards the tragedies of the Second World War.  In another installation, he encouraged the planting of trees in Kassel, Germany—now home to Documenta but once serving as a large deportation center for Jews on their way to concentration camps. The thousands of trees eventually planted, behave today like eulogies for the murdered—yet also act as symbols of hope. It was work like this that garnered him the deserved respect from the artistic community, especially in Germany.

Beuys's dirty laundry at Hamburger Bahnhof. Photo: C. Phillips

If Beuys is the opportunist and reactionary character that Riegel makes him out to be, all of this could be shattered. According to Riegel, Beuys may have embraced Rudolf Steiner's controversial and racist theories of Germanic illustriousness. After the war, the artist surrounded himself with individuals that had dangerous Nazi ties. For example, Karl Ströher,  an early collector of Beuys, not only had a close relationship with Hitler but also was later declared a Belasteter (a Nazi sympathizer) during de-nazification tribunals. Another, Karl Fastabend, was a former SS officer who later would work as Beuys's public liaison. Furthermore, his own father-in-law worked with the Third Reich and would teach classes at the University of Bonn regarding racial purity.

A League Of Evils

Even if these assertions are true, Beuys would not be the only acclaimed artist with a shady past. Surrealist poster-boy Salvador Dali embraced Franco's dictatorship, Ezra Pound, the expatriate American poet, welcomed fascism and appeared on Italian radio condemning the Jews and even John Lennon allegedly was a wife beater. Philosopher Martin Heidegger, considered by many as one of the most enlightened minds of the 20th century, was also a member of the Nazi party. Furthermore, Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof's collection is primarily that of Friedrich Christian Flick, whose family has close (and unapologetic) Nazi ties. Obviously we have overlooked an individual's questionable background before, will we with Joseph Beuys?

Beuys's Nazi past: a reason to scream? Photo: C. Phillips

If we are to adopt Roland Barthes’s axiom that the author must die— that to bring in a creator's personal biography into the interpretation of their work only limits our understanding of said work—then of course we'll be able to look beyond Beuys's alleged Nazi past. Most of us may choose to just ignore it; other's will fixate on it and use it as an argument against conceptualism in general. Hopefully the majority of us will take it as a lesson: no matter how angelic and acclaimed you may become, your past will always follow you like a stray dog. The path to success is never an easy one, but hopefully contemporary artists are more careful with whom they choose as friends in their present.

Article By James Shaeffer