Besides the Propagandakompanien which reported in word, photo, film and sound there was another medium used by the Reich to inform the homefront about the massive building activities around Europe: paintings.
One of the most prominent painters of this genre was Ernst Vollbehr. Born in Kiel in 1876, Vollbehr studied art in Berlin, Dresden, Paris and Rome before going on expeditions to Albania and Brasil in the early years of the twentieth century. During these trips he got familiar with painting landscapes and other scenes regarding travelling. In the years following, he travelled through the German African colonies.
During the First World War he becomes an army staff painter and depicts the front, landscapes, destroyed villages and German troops. A selection of his work is published in 1915 as “Kriegsbilder-Tagebuch des Malers Ernst Vollbehr”. In 1917 a second volume is published called “Bei der Heeresgruppe Kronprinz”. His depictions of World War One didn’t show the horrors of war. It was the soldier’s life and the landscape of war, which inspired him. His work looks quiet and safe, not the mud and terror of the trenches, but soldiers reading in a lightened cave, a wooden officer’s bungalow with a little garden, soldiers slowly loading an artillery piece like it’s the most pieceful thing to do. Compared to the dark expressionism of Belgian and German colleagues of the same time, Vollbehr’s paintings are easy to look at. Even a ruined chateau in a deserted landscape baths in a soft Provencal sun.
After the war, Germany is broke, and so is Vollbehr. He searches for new ways of earning money and begins painting for the industry. He visits the big steel companies in Brandenburg an der Havel, Zeppelin- and Dornierfactories and the inland harbours along the Rhine, Ruhr and Donau. In 1927 he travels again, this time to the Dutch East Indies, financially supported by the Dutch government. The exhibitions in the Colonial museum in Amsterdam and the Scherl-Haus in Berlin are a big succes.
Vollbehr and the new Reich
When Hitler comes to power, things start to look bright again for Vollbehr. He is asked to paint the Reichsparteitagen, the Olympic games and, commissioned by Fritz Todt himself, the Reichsautobahnen, the huge highway building project. His works are acquired by the NSDAP, showing his popularity in those days with the new regime. Despite the ban on new party members, Vollbehr joins the NSDAP in july 1933, which is approved by Hitler personally. He publishes several books of which the last one, Mit der OT beim Westwall und Vormarsch (1941), shows the Westwall. He then depicts the battle fields again, from Poland to France, and the German building activities along the Atlantic coast. This work is published in newspapers and magazines. He receives the Goethe-Medaille für Kunst und Wissenschaft (Goethe decoration for Art and Science) for his work but then in 1943 he suddenly retreats to his private life. When his youngest son gets killed on the eastern front and the bombing of the Berliner Ateliers takes place he feels at first hand the results of the war politics of the NSDAP and Hitler. During the Tagen der Kunst in Kiel in 1944 he participates in an exhibition of landscape paintings for the last time.
Vollbehr died in May 1960, aged 84. A large part of his work is now in the collection of the Institut für Länderkunde in Leipzig.