German Cardinal uses Nazi term to describe atheist art

Cardinal Joachim Meisner Hot on the heels of yesterday’s post about about art and the non-religious, Deutche Welle reports that Germany’s Cardinal Joachim Meisner has triggered a storm of criticism by describing atheist art as “degenerate” when speaking at the blessing of his archdiocese’s new art museum, the Kolumba, in the heart of Cologne, on Friday.

“Wherever culture is separated from the worship of God, the cult atrophies in ritualism and culture becomes degenerate,” he said.

Deutche Welle reports that “the word “degenerate” is hardly ever used in Germany today because of its known association with the Third Reich.

The National Socialists’ aggressive persecution of artists whose works did not conform to their ideology culminated in 1937 with the infamous Munich-exhibition called “Degenerate Art” in which a collection of modernist artworks was displayed, accompanied by texts deriding the works.

“It’s appalling that Cardinal Meisner uses such words and it shows he knows nothing about art and culture,” said Hans-Heinrich Grosse-Brockhoff, North Rhine-Westphalia’s secretary of culture.

The 63-year-old cardinal initially defended his choice of vocabulary, but his office issued a statement on Saturday saying he regretted that some of his words had been taken out of context and that he was shocked by the public reaction.

“Cardinal Meisner rejects allegations that he was linking himself to a term which was abused by the Nazis,” read the statement.

Not an accident

But the BBC reports reports that “this was no off-the-cuff remark by the cardinal, delivered in a sermon in Cologne Cathedral, but was precisely scripted….the phrase degenerate art – “entartete Kunst” – in German has only one connotation”

Meisner already caused controversy earlier this month by criticizing the abstract stained glass windows designed for Cologne Cathedral as something that “belongs to a mosque or another place of prayer but not this one.”

Nazi anti-atheism lives on

The connotations are even stronger than being reported in the press though -from early on in the Nazi Party’s history atheism was clearly marked for elimination given its relationship to socialism and communism – the ideological competitors of National Socialism.

According to Michael Burleigh’s acclaimed The Third Reich: A New History “Nazism represented a sustained assault on fundamental Christian values, regardless of ant tactical obeisance to the purchase it had on most Germans. Compassion, humility or love of one’s neighbour were dismissed as humanitarian weaknesses by an organisation which regarded hardness, sacrifice and self-overcoming as positive virtues. The fact that this list included some secondary Christian virtues is no contradiction, but merely indicative of how the SS usurped Christian forms and values, stripping them down for anti-Christian ends. For having discredited the ‘immoral’ or ‘politicised’ clergy, a more diffuse religiosity still had its uses. Himmler’s prohibition of atheism as a declared option for SS men left them with the alternatives of Catholic, Protestant or ‘believer in God (Gottglaubig). This was deliberate. Atheism signified an egotistical belief that man was the measure of all things, and hence a refusal to acknowledge higher powers. In a word, it constituted a potential source of indiscipline.” (p196-7)

This is not of course to say that Meisner is a Nazi but it is important to note that this strand of thought found amongst Nazism – that atheists are degnerate and amoral – is one that lives on today.


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