City Stories: The Great Sculpture Scandal of 1937

As the weather continues to warm up, now is a great time to visit Nordpark. While you’re there you might want to check out the sculptures that so offended Hitler’s regime.

1937 was a time of transition in Germany. Knowing that war was imminent, the Government was intent on pushing the national psyche towards unity and collective effort in the face of impending austerity and struggle.  Central to this effort was the complicity of the working class, and domestic propaganda was directed towards conveying this message. In tandem, the Regime was also keen to showcase their achievements and position the nation as dominant political, economic and military force.

On an unused wasteland just north of the centre of the city, a vast park was constructed to house the ‘Große Reichsausstellung Schaffendes Volk’ – Great Reich Exhibition of the Productive People. Over the course of eighteen months, trees were transplanted, manicured lawns created, waterways dug and exhibition buildings constructed.

At the entrance to the park, two massive stone sculptures were erected known as ‘Die Rossebändiger’ – the Horse Tamers. The sculptures drew on a traditional motif that depicted man’s dominion over nature – and by propagandist extension, signal the unchecked dominion of Hitler’s regime. Except the sculptures didn’t show that at all.

Instead, in a subtle, and powerful political statement, artist, Edwin Scharff, tilted the balance in favour of the horse. In both sculptures, the horse towers over the so-called tamer, tossing its head in an arrogant gesture, up and out of the man’s grasp. There’s is nothing in this sculpture that suggests heroic dominion over a wild beast either now or in the future, and the Regime got the message loud and clear.

Scharff and his sculptures were thrust into the spotlight in a Munich exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ and his so-called Horse Tamers were condemned by the regime. Scharff was dismissed from his teaching post at the Kunstakademie, many of his existing works were destroyed, and he was forced to go into hiding. Due to their overwhelming size, however, his protest pieces remained in situ. Over the course of the exhibition, over 6 million visitors would pass between these two towering statues and their unwavering protest.

This was not, however, the only artistic controversy to plague the Great Reich Exhibition. Adjacent to the entrance, a vast sculpture park was created to house twelve sculptures ‘Die Ständischen’ represented the nobility of the working class. Ten local artists were commissioned to create the sculptures which included a falconer, farmer, fisherman and shepherdess.

Once again, however, the sculptures were found lacking, with a failure to conform exactly to the Fuhrer’s guidelines cited as reason enough for having them removed. Reasons for their failure to conform included unrealistic depictions of animals, suspicious facial characteristics, and the need for more Germanic expressions.

The twelve sculptures were summarily removed from the garden and their pillars replaced with less controversial flower pots. In 1941, four of the statues were returned to the garden and an additional two replaced in 2006.

The six statues and two horse tamers are today one of the many attractions of Nordpark and remain as a testament to both the skill and courage of their creators.