For decades, Joseph Beuys has been exalted as a heroic icon of postwar avant-garde German art. But a new biography accuses him of having been a serial liar who never completely emancipated himself from the views of Nazism and a bizarre cult.
Joseph Beuys spent his entire life dying, his widow once said. In January 1986, his heart did in fact stop beating. Urns with his ashes were committed to the depths of the North Sea. Since then, he has been regularly resurrected — as a myth, a heroic figure, a saint of contemporary art history and an innovator, even on the political scene. During the nearly 30 years since his death, he has become larger than life and, ultimately, sacrosanct: a German icon.
Beuys, born in 1921 in the western German town of Krefeld, is viewed by many as the only genuine avant-gardist of the postwar era because he was a provocateur, someone who irreversibly shattered the limits of what was customary. He created a new type of art with honey pumps and wedges of fat, made works out of rust, tree bark and clumps of earth, and created a world of images in brown and gray. What’s more, he staged performances in which he conversed with hares or dissected their corpses with knives, events in which he smashed a piano to bits or rolled himself up in felt to become a living mummy. Beuys was the Düsseldorf professor of art who, in the wake of his many protests and subsequent summary dismissal, had to be escorted by police from the academy.
Everyone had an opinion on Beuys. It was thanks to him that people started talking about art in the 1970s — although they were usually simply outraged. He planted 7,000 oak trees in the western German town of Kassel, which was one of several controversial art projects that divided the entire country, and he made use of every opportunity to intensify rejection of himself and his work. For example, Beuys maintained that the Berlin Wall was too low, writing that it would have better proportions with an extra five centimeters (two inches) in height. Today, that sounds funny.
At the time, people ridiculed him and his work, but the sound of their laughter inevitably also echoed their fears of nonconformity. Those who like him admired him for precisely this reason.
Uncovering the Man Behind the Myth
The author of a new Beuys biography, Hans Peter Riegel, has set out to uncover the man behind the myth. In Riegel’s view, Beuys was neither a deranged artist nor an innocent genius, but rather a fairly reactionary and dangerous figure. There is no doubt that Beuys was a devotee of the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, who died in 1925 and was the founder of anthroposophy, which forms the basis for Waldorf education. According to Riegel, Beuys even saw himself as the new Steiner, as a chosen one, and he was obsessed with Steiner’s occultism and his racial theories — and with the abstruse ideas of a Germanic soul, a German spirit and a special mission for the German people. He says that Beuys allowed Steiner’s worldview to infiltrate his highly symbolic art and, in fact, permeate each and every one of his works.
The author also contends that Beuys surrounded himself with former and long-time Nazis, who were his artistic patrons and his political comrades-in-arms. Beuys was one of the first members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party, and he spoke a great deal about democracy. Ultimately, however, the artist strove for a totalitarian society, at least according to Riegel, who maintains that here again Beuys was following in the footsteps of Steiner and his bizarre ideas.
Riegel met with SPIEGEL in a Zurich villa, in an office paneled with dark wood that serves as his PR agent’s conference room. He was wearing a suit and had brought along binders and a laptop. He spoke a great deal, perhaps out of habit, or perhaps because he was tense. His book is likely to be construed as quite a provocation in its own right.
Riegel is a Swiss citizen now, although he originally hails from Germany. During his studies in Düsseldorf, he served as an assistant to the painter Jörg Immendorff. Later, he worked as a consultant and organizer for diverse exhibition tours of the painter’s work. At the time, Riegel had already started pursuing a career in the advertising industry, and he later became a business consultant.
Three years ago, Riegel published a book about the late Immendorff with the same publisher, the Aufbau Verlag in Berlin, and he didn’t tread lightly with his old friend. During the final years of his life, which were marred by serious illness, Immendorff had unleashed his own big scandals, in which cocaine and prostitution played a role. But Riegel described the painter as a man without talent — and that was doubtlessly an even greater disgrace.
Now, the author has turned his attention to Beuys, who was Immendorff’s teacher. Riegel, who was born in 1959, knew him personally at an early age, and he experienced the love-hate relationship between Beuys and Immendorff. In fact, for a long time, he acted as a sort of courier between the two artists. Riegel has studied several things during his life, including art theory. But his book is less a description of Beuys the artist as it is a portrayal of the man behind the artwork, whom, in Riegel’s opinion, the experts have treated with too much reverence and naivety.
Some of what he reveals is already relatively well known, while other things appear forgivable. For instance, according to Riegel’s research, Beuys never received his high school diploma, although after the war he apparently maintained that he had. Otherwise it would have been infinitely more difficult for him to gain entry into the Düsseldorf’s legendary Arts Academy.
Riegel aims to show that the artist was a habitual liar. There is, for example, Beuys’ wartime legend of how he was rescued by Tartar tribesmen. As the story goes, after the aircraft radio operator’s Stuka bomber crashed over the Crimea in 1944, he was saved by nomadic Tartars, who treated his wounds with animal fat and wrapped him in felt to keep him warm. This account, which he often repeated, was rarely questioned during his lifetime and wasn’t exposed as pure fiction until years after his death. Certain details have even been transmitted to posterity: Until recently, many art historians believed that Beuys had a metal plate in his skull as a result of his wartime injuries.
For Beuys, a personal life story was something that could be shaped retroactively, like a malleable social sculpture. It was probably even surprising for him how easily he got away with his reinterpretations and ambiguities.
When Beuys talked about World War II and the Third Reich, it always sounded as if he had experienced a different dictatorship and a different war. It was as if everything hadn’t been quite so bad and as if Kleve, the industrial town in the Lower Rhine region where he grew up, had not been quite as pervaded by Nazi mania as the rest of Germany. The way he talked about the war, one had the impression that soldiers tended to engage in philosophical discussions rather than to commit gruesome atrocities. In actual fact, though, Beuys was temporarily stationed near a concentration camp and, especially during the final weeks of the war, experienced fierce fighting with the bloody carnage of man-to-man combat.
At the same time, however, he drew attention to his wartime bravery. He later recounted that he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class, which, as Riegel writes, can hardly be true. Beuys liked to give the impression that he had been a pilot rather than merely a radio operator.
There is no doubt that Beuys belonged to a generation that revered heroes, went to war with blind enthusiasm and was then traumatized. Many of them had blood on their hands but refused to admit it to themselves or others. It was a deeply conflicted generation.
Riegel says that people overlooked these contradictory aspects of the artist’s personality for a long time. Perhaps this was because Beuys, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, didn’t try to keep his past a secret — neither the fact that he volunteered for military service, nor that pacifism is cowardice, in his opinion. He appeared to stand by the controversial aspects of his personality, and that made him seem more honest.
Nazis in His Entourage
Beuys spoke a great deal, but he was not a gifted public speaker. Art was his substitute for rhetoric, and both thrived on a certain amount of ambiguity. One could interpret them to suit the occasion. Consequently, Beuys was stylized as an authority on coming to terms with the past. In 1968, he produced a work called “Auschwitz Demonstration.” It consists of a glass case with several objects selected to convey the horror of the Holocaust. The work shows a diagram with the layout of the barracks at Auschwitz, plus the heating elements of an electric stove and large cubes of fat. Once again, everything is gray, brown and grim.
This vitrine belongs to a large number of works that were acquired by German entrepreneur Karl Ströher. Born in 1890, Ströher became one of the main artistic patrons and collectors of Beuys’ works in the late 1960s. Ströher’s family owns the famous Wella hair cosmetics company, which has its headquarters in the western German city of Darmstadt.
Not much is known about Ströher’s activities during the Hitler years. At the meeting in Zurich, Beuys biographer Riegel opened an envelope and pulled out a copy of a court decision from 1949 that declared Ströher to be a Belasteter (or “offender,” the second-most damning category of Nazi sympathizer according to the classification system used by denazification tribunals at the time) and sentenced him to 10 months in prison. The entrepreneur had donated large amounts of money to the Nazi Party and benefited from defense contracts awarded to his companies.
Ströher once wrote to Hitler, noting that, as a Freemason, he was not granted “the finest honor befitting a German, (namely) to be able to serve in the new army,” yet he was determined to help “build the new Reich.” After 1945, Ströher kept quiet about his Nazi past and even today, over 25 years after his death in 1977, he is still widely viewed as a generous supporter of avant-garde art.
Many such figures have surfaced in Beuys’ entourage. Whether he did it on purpose or not, he opened the doors to society for many people. Thanks to Beuys, the public took note of these individuals; thanks to him, they were on the right side. Riegel discloses additional documents that prove, for example, that Erich Marx was a member of the Nazi Party. Today, Marx is one of the leading patrons of the arts in Berlin. He was a real estate developer, and his company built and operated a number of clinics. What’s more, his name as a supporter of the arts is primarily linked to Beuys’ name. His collection is housed in the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art in Berlin.
Forming Groups with Former Nazis
Or take Karl Fastabend. He joined the Nazi Party in 1932, became a member of the SS in 1933, and later was promoted to the rank of Hauptscharführer (literally “head squad leader,” the second-highest enlisted rank in the SS). Decades later, he wrote texts for Beuys and acted as a kind of press liaison for him. Fastabend wrote and spoke about “matters of survival for the people” and the “will of the people.” In 1971, with Fastabend’s help, Beuys founded the Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum.
Or take August Haussleiter, a journalist who embraced Nazi ideology at an early date. In the 1960s, he founded a right-wing political party called the Action Association of Independent Germans (AUD). Beuys ran for the party as a candidate for the Bundestag, the German parliament, in the 1976 general elections. Beuys and Haussleiter were also among the founding members of the Green Party.
Haussleiter and his wife, who was a former district leader in the League of German Girls (BDM), which was the girl’s wing of the Nazi Party youth movement, had also founded the so-called Democratic Movement for the Protection of Life (DLB). Starting in 1974, one of the movement’s ambassadors was Werner Georg Haverbeck, another dubious character whose career with the Nazis began years before the fascists seized power when he was active in the National Socialist German Students’ League (NSDStB). Later, Haverbeck joined the SS and was appointed the Third Reich’s head of training for the Hitler Youth movement. After the war, he became a priest and, in 1963, founded the Collegium Humanum, which was banned many years later, in part for denying the Holocaust. Like many long-time right-wing extremists, he discovered the issue of environmentalism and even became a consultant on related issues for Egon Bahr, a member of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD) who held two ministerial positions at the federal level. Beuys and Haverbeck worked together in a number of groups and committees.
These were confusing times. Old Nazis rubbed shoulders with Green Party environmentalists, while diehard right-wing extremists embraced anthroposophical notions. In the southern German town of Achberg, not far from the Austrian border, a movement was founded that was a unique combination of anthroposophical concepts and very traditional German values, and that supported by people like Haussleiter. And then there was Wilhelm Schmundt, an anthroposophist and former Nazi, whose brother was Hitler’s military adjutant, whereas he pursued a career as a scientist in Peenemünde, on the Baltic coast, where the Nazis developed their deadly V2 rocket. Decades later, he spoke of the great mission that Germany had “in the choir of nations” and urged new monetary and social systems. Beuys called him “our great teacher.”
In November 1985, just a few weeks before his death, Beuys gave a speech on the topic of Germany in the Munich Kammerspiele theater. He spoke of the possibility of Germany’s resurrection, thanks in part to the German language, which he said could serve as the well, or source, for a new country — a language, he added, that could lead to physical recovery and enable a deep feeling “for what happens on the soil upon which we live.” Beuys went to say that a “healing process on this soil,” upon which we were all born, is conceivable, adding that we must “strive to achieve a lofty goal that could be called the mission of the Germans in this world” — and then he mentioned the “German genius.”
Similar lunacy had been expressed by the linguists of the Third Reich. Beuys met such former blood-and-soil philologists among the anthroposophists in Achberg, this community of many individuals with a Nazi past. Like himself, they belonged to the Annual Standing Congress of the Third Way, an organization that sought to explore new approaches to life in the spirit of Rudolf Steiner.
Even Beuys’ father-in-law, Hermann Wurmbach, a well-known professor of zoology, made a career for himself during the Third Reich. After the end of the war, he was dismissed from his university position, but he soon found a new job in academia. Riegel has found a copy of a presentation that Wurmbach gave in 1942 at the University of Bonn, during an event held under the auspices of the National Socialist German University Lecturers’ League, in which he focused on the creation of a common language as a “means of fortifying the people.” Wurmbach said that the German people stand above everything but, at the same time, they must find their place “in the great biological mission.” “Foreign races would … interfere,” he said, adding that they were “impurities.”
Never Emancipated from the Past
Much of this could have been brought to light a long time ago, and should have been more openly debated, says Riegel. His book contends that Beuys never entirely emancipated himself from the prevailing National Socialistic views of his youth, and even less so from Steiner’s older cult surrounding Nordic-Germanic mythology and racial theory. According to Riegel, Beuys was no staunch anti-Semite, but he did believe that the Germans had a special mission in this world.
Visits with former war comrades up until the 1970s could be another indication that he never distanced himself from Nazi ideology. Riegel has copies of photos documenting such get-togethers. There are images of Beuys holding a glass of beer while sitting between two men who are as old as him, but who seem more dignified and to hesitantly idolize him.
Beuys was a much sought-after professor. Quite a number of self-assured artists attended his classes and went on to pursue careers of their own. Would young artists who were seeking progressive approaches really have joined forces with a reactionary?
He celebrated the unsightly and disharmonious side of life, and his installations stood in stark contrast to the aesthetics of the Nazis. His work was the epitome of the kind of vaguely critical and apparently left-wing art one sees at documenta, the modern and contemporary art exhibition held every five years in the central German city of Kassel. And yet he even attended Documenta 1972, where he was an exhibitor, with this friend Fastabend, the former Nazi.
Did he flirt with the Germans’ past to provoke them? That would be the answer that the admirers of his artwork could best live with.
Riegel says that German film director Oskar Roehler has expressed an interest in the biography. Roehler is still reading the book, though. “Beuys was a great artist,” he says, “the greatest we had.” But, the director adds, he was a big jester who made fools of people, and “judging him politically would be to whittle him down.”
Riegel has tried to contact Eva Beuys, the artist’s widow. He received a written rejection, but not from her. Instead, it came from VG Bild-Kunst, a company that deals in licenses for reprographic rights. It told the biographer that Ms. Beuys has no time to talk about the book project.
By Ulrike Knöfel
May 17, 2013
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen