Max Nordau’s pre-Fascist Discourse of ‘Degenerate’ Art and the Authority of Scientific Language

by Charlotte Armstrong

The notion of ‘degeneracy’ in music has often been associated with Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party’s attempts to galvanise public hatred of music deemed ‘un-German’ at the Degenerate Art Exhibit in 1938. However, in an interview for the documentary Forbidden Sounds: Composers in Exile, Hans Ulrich Engelmann said:

‘It is not Hitler’s or Goebbels’ fault that after 1945 the appreciation of contemporary music did not increase much […] the word ‘degenerate’ is still used by the older generation, especially in Germany. But I must emphasize, we don’t get much further if we believe that it is purely a legacy of the Nazis. The Nazis simply picked up on it.’[1]

Indeed, whilst the classification of certain art as ‘degenerate’ is almost exclusively associated with the Third Reich, discourses of degeneration in fact emerged within mid-19th century scientific contexts, and were translated into artistic critique as early as the 1890s. Such discourses  condemned artists and artworks deemed to pose a threat to ‘healthy’ aspects of society, due in part to the contamination of the artist by negative aspects of modernity.

Perhaps the most influential of these works was written by the physician Max Nordau in 1892. Degeneration, or ‘Entartung’, ­drew its conclusions on degeneracy in the arts from the

Max Nordau. Source: Wikicommons

bio-medical foundations of degeneration theory, and utilised the language of science and medicine to associate certain artworks with the idea of ‘sickness’.

As a physician, Nordau believed that it was his duty to undertake the ‘long and sorrowful wandering through the hospital’ of European culture, and to diagnose the ‘severe mental epidemic’ of the contemporary arts.[2] Suggesting that ‘we now stand in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria’, he lamented that civilised society was growing ‘fatigued and exhausted, and this fatigue and exhaustion showed themselves in the first generation, under the form of acquired hysteria; in the second, as hereditary hysteria’.[3]

For those who theorised artistic degeneration, the legitimacy of medical expertise enabled them to make claims about society that were crafted from medical language. By adopting the biological language of disease, Nordau was able to harness the authority of science in his attempt to prove that the cultural avant-garde was an atavistic and regressive influence on the masses.

During the nineteenth century, doctors were regarded as forward-thinking men of reason and science, and were characterised by their specialised knowledge and commitment to serving others. As such, Entartung spoke largely to a public who would eagerly accept a scientific validation of their growing anxieties and prejudices.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, physicians became accustomed to methodically describing diseases, thus developing an esoteric medical language which was utilised and shared amongst other doctors to classify and treat disease. The development of complex medical language began to elude patients, thus placing the doctor in a position of power

Poster for the ‘Degenerate Art’ Exhibition, Dusseldorf, 1938. Source: Wikicommons (Reproduced under the Fair Use Rational for the purposes of critical commentary)

and trust.

Foucault has considered the doctors’ associated power of ‘governance’ over their patients.[4] The innate authority of doctors helps to explain Nordau’s use of medical terminology: his reliance upon the works of notable exponents of socio-biological degeneration theory highlights his attempts to measure subjective, artistic value by using an objective, scientific paradigm. As such, Entartung spoke largely to a public who would eagerly accept scientific validation of their growing anxieties and prejudices.

Degeneration warns against the infectiousness of degenerate art and literature, but for the author, music is perhaps the most noxious of all. The distinct approach to artistic criticism conceived by Nordau in his Entartung became increasingly adopted in music criticism following the publication of the work.

In 1912, the Austrian composer and conductor Felix Weingartner suggested that ‘in general terms something is wrong and somewhere things are rotten in the development of music today […] music must become healthy again’.[5]

The notion of degeneracy had begun to appear in German music criticism from the closing years of the 19th century, and continued to be a prevalent theme in the years leading up to

Richard Wagner. Source: Wikicommons

the Second World War. The fact that musical ‘sickness’ became an increasingly popular concept around this time was due – at least in part – to the influence of works that engaged with the concepts of decadent and degenerate art.

Alongside the growing prevalence of ideas about the dangers of ‘diseased’ music, the insidious nature of Nordau’s rhetoric is evidenced in the adoption of the notion of degenerate art by the Nazis.

The Nazi Party would not acknowledge Nordau, perhaps because of his Jewish heritage and his role as a Zionist activist, or even conceivably because of his derision of Wagner and Nietzsche. Nonetheless, the value they awarded to German artworks that celebrated the ‘blood and soil’ ideology echoed Nordau’s derision of late 19th-century decadent culture. It certainly seems likely that, as Richard Taruskin wittily imagines, ‘many copies of Dr Nordau’s Entartung must have fed Dr Goebbels’s bonfires even as the book’s theses were being oh-so-selectively appropriated to fuel the latter’s propaganda mill’.[6]

Charlotte Armstrong is a PhD student in the Department of Music at the University of York. Her research takes place at the intersection between opera studies, disability studies, and the history of science and medicine. In her thesis she considers early-twentieth-century discourses of disability, disease, and degeneration, and their relationship to the presence of a ‘degenerate condition’ in Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten and Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg, with a particular focus on the representation of physical disability in these operas. You can find her on Twitter: @CharlotteArms


[1] Verbotene KLÄNGE: Komponisten im Exil, directed by Norbert Bunge and Christina Fischer-Defoy (Vienna: Winklerfilm, 2004), DVD.

[2] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (London: William Heinemann, 1895), 537-538.

[3] Nordau, Degeneration, 40.

[4] See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 159-198 and Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan (London: Routledge, 2003), 8-9.

[5] Felix Weingartner, “Zurück zu Mozart?” in Akkorde: Gesammelte Aufsatze (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Hartel, 1912), 108-112, quoted in Leon Botstein, “Nineteenth-Century Mozart: The Fin-De-Siècle Mozart Revival” in On Mozart, ed. James M. Morris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 204.

[6] Richard Taruskin, ‘The Golden Age of Kitsch’ in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, ed. Richard Taruskin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 243.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: via Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under fair use rationale

Image 3: Franz Hanfstaengl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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