Cain, or Hitler in Hell by Georg Grosz

Georg Grosz

Cain, or Hitler in Hell, 1944, Oil on canvas, 99 x 124.5 cm, David Nolan, New York, GG2678, © Estate of George Grosz / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo: bpk Bildagentur / Art Resource, NY

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Getting One’s Comeuppance

Commentary by

The world’s most infamous vegetarian is reduced from his own self-fashioned image of triumphant statesman and war leader to a brooding figure mopping his sweating brow with a crumpled kerchief as the realisation dawns on him that there are, after all, no deeds without consequences—not even for der Führer.

He sits hunched in an amorphous landscape, next to a corpse lying face-down in the mud—an echo of an earlier pictorial composition in which the artist, the exiled German satirist Georg Grosz, had represented the Nazi dictator as Cain having killed his brother. In the background, burning buildings produce a sinister glow. The hell to which he is condemned is of his own making, the product of the destruction that he has wrought. A host of skeletons rises up from the earth around his feet and has started clambering up his legs, threatening to overwhelm him: his innumerable nameless victims are coming for revenge.

Modern Western Christianity tends to put an emphasis on ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘he that is without sin’ casting the first stone (John 8:7). The message of Christ, in this modern interpretation, is one of forgiveness. Yet, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is in essence about an uncharitable person getting what he deserves. The one story in the New Testament that deals with the specifics of the afterlife tells us ‘behave, or else...’

This must have been an important part of the story’s appeal over the ages, as it is an important aspect of the way that Christians have imagined hell—a place where the unjust, the law-breakers, and the morally corrupt pay the price of their behaviour.

Georg Grosz has effectively co-opted the Western tradition of hell imagery that was inspired by the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus to condemn one prime candidate for ‘most evil man of history’ to a fate in which we cannot help but find at least a little satisfaction.

 

References

Schmölders, Claudia. 2009. Hitler’s Face: The Biography of an Image, trans. by Adrian Daub (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), esp. p.191


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