Why “Degenerate” Artist Otto Dix Was Accused of Plotting to Kill Hitler
While we rely on war photographers and journalists to reveal the bloodiness at the battlefront, modern painters and novelists offer a different kind of honesty. Through fiction and imagined scenes, they give viewers and readers captivating, immersive depictions of what conflict zones really feel like—whether or not their creators ever faced combat. For instance, although Pablo Picasso was never a soldier, he was uniquely able to identify and reproduce the ominous mood during the Spanish Civil War. His infamous 1937 grayscale painting Guernica famously captures a state of chaos, fear, and impending doom with its large-scale renderings of fractured, flailing bodies.
In contrast, German artist Otto Dix had actual experience in the trenches. In works such as Wounded Man (Autumn 1916, Bapaume) (1924) and Shock Troops Advance under Gas (1924), he recalled the horrors of fighting for Germany in World War I. Yet when Dix made these works in the 1920s, his own political struggles were just beginning as his country careened closer to Nazi rule and World War II. Dix’s incredible biography and significant brushes with Fascist evils produced some of Western art’s most haunting portrayals of the violence and destruction that pervaded the 20th century.
Born in Eastern Germany, Dix moved to Dresden in 1910 to study art at the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts, but the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand sidetracked his artistic ambitions. As his country sided with Austria in the rapidly escalating international conflict, Dix eagerly enlisted in the German army. He fought as a gunner in the Russian and French trenches, earned an Iron Cross, and suffered a neck wound. Throughout all of this, he maintained journals during his service, constantly sketching the horrors around him. According to Norbert Wolf’s 2015 book Expressionism, Dix completed almost 600 drawings and gouaches during his years as a soldier, between 1915 and 1918.
After the war, Dix returned to Dresden and resumed his art practice. Taking inspiration from his wartime activities, he created a print series called “Der Krieg” (“The War”) (1924). The disturbing black-and-white imagery includes such grotesqueries as a skeleton soldier reclining against a cliff with a long rifle aimed at his face; a man with a bloodied brain, eye, and hand, whose tongue lolls out of his mouth; and stormtroopers with eerie masks reminiscent of horror-film villains. Starkness, despair, and inhumanity radiate from the series, which was consciously modeled on Francisco de Goya’s “The Disasters of War” prints (1810–20), which satirize a 19th-century Spanish conflict.
Throughout the 1920s, Dix maintained a skeptical attitude toward German post-war excesses; during this decade, his subjects shifted from soldiers to seedy characters. Incorporating Old Master techniques into his portraits, he used age-old styles (painting with egg tempera, for one) to render distinctly modern personalities. He created multiple pictures of prostitutes, including the 1925 painting Sailor and Girl. Against a blaring red background, a pointy-nosed sailor with a devilish grin mounts a gray, bare-breasted prostitute. In 1995, Houghton Mifflin used the image as the cover for Philip Roth’s novel Sabbath’s Theater, a bleak meditation on male sexuality—further confirming the work’s potent portrayal of diabolical lust. In perhaps Dix’s most famous portrait, of the journalist Sylvia von Harden(1926), the androgynous subject stares blankly beyond the frame while holding a half-smoked cigarette. Her long, spindly fingers unnerve as much as her expression.
Given his promotion of the Übermensch and of physical (read: Aryan) perfection, it’s no surprise that Adolf Hitler wasn’t a fan of Dix’s work. In 1933, the Nazis forced Dix from his teaching post at the Dresden Academy, and four years later, they featured his paintings (including a recently rediscovered self-portrait and a cartoonish picture of a woman in a massive white-and-red hat) in an exhibition of so-called “degenerate” art in Munich.
Despite mounting tensions, Dix refused to expatriate. He “was bound to Germany because of his family and his pictorial idiom,” Dr. Olaf Peters recently wrote to Artsy. (In 2010, Peters organized the first major North American survey of Dix’s work at New York’s Neue Galerie.) Dix’s socially conscious, Old Master–inspired paintings might not have been understood outside of Germany, either. Even under Nazi rule, he was able to sell paintings to sympathetic individuals and institutions. Yet even as he tried to work under the radar, his entanglement with Fascist forces continued. Dix was jailed for two weeks in 1939 after Georg Elser’s foiled attempt to kill Hitler, though he had nothing to do with the plans. According to Peters, the German Police and SS were simply rounding up “leading persons of the Weimar Republic.”
Even then, Dix’s struggles still weren’t over. During World War II, the Nazis forced the 53-year-old artist to join the Volkssturm, or People’s Militia. “He received his uniform in Konstanz and was stationed in a bunker and a sort of wall in the province waiting for the enemy,” Peters recounted. “In the end, Dix missed the opportunity to avoid combat, was involved in a rather small action, and captured.”
The French military claimed Dix as a prisoner of war and sent him to a camp in Alsace in 1945. According to Peters, one officer, an art enthusiast, recognized him, commissioning private portraits and an altarpiece. One of the paintings from this time, Portrait of a Prisoner (1945), depicts a melancholic bald man against a backdrop of thorny trees. The satire of Dix’s earlier work has disappeared in this image, replaced with serious gloom. In 1946, the French released Dix. He returned to Germany and continued painting there until he died in 1969.
Dix’s varied oeuvre is, ultimately, a record of a nation in flux. The trajectory of his subjects—from the horrors of war to vibrant Weimar characters and back to battlefield angst—reflects Germany’s moral decline. But his paintings remain disturbingly poignant today not because they capture specific moments in history, but because they exude a timeless sense of cultural malaise. The Nazis labeled Dix a “degenerate,” but the term is better applied to the society he depicted—cannibalizing itself and hurtling toward destruction.