As historians, we often work with primary sources – documents about a place or records of a person’s existence. Paging through issues of a journal from a hundred years ago can feel like traveling through time, and reading personal letters now held in an archive offers not only remarkable insights but also feelings of intimacy and privilege.
But, what happens when you see something that you wish you hadn’t?
I spent much of 2011 working in archives and libraries in and around Berlin, researching the life and work of a now-obscure German artist, Alice Lex. She and her husband, Oskar Nerlinger, were both well-known political artists who were active in Communist circles. Through art, writing, and action, they sought to speak out on behalf of the working-class masses and instigate change in the world.
In 1933, upon the rise of the National Socialist party, Lex, like many of her peers, was perceived as a threat by the new government, dismissed from the German Union of Visual Artists (Reichsverband bildende Künstler Deutschlands), and put under what became a 12-year work ban (Berufsverbot), a decree that forbid her from producing new artwork. While she flouted the ban and continued to produce work surreptitiously, her husband remained free to work in the open. For this, Nerlinger – and to some extent, Lex as well – later became suspect in the eyes of their peers.
Following the end of the war, Lex and Nerlinger made a conscious choice to move to East Berlin, hoping to be part of building a new socialist society. As Lex opined in 1947, “We stand between two eras, an old one that won’t yet perish and a young democratic one, whose existence has already been proclaimed many times… We Germans strive for a new form in which we can live; the artist, especially, is a seeker, preparing the way of the future.”
As I found in the archives, though, 1947 also brought great unpleasantness to the couple: they came under investigation by the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party after an attempted black-balling by fellow artists through a letter-writing campaign. Nerlinger underwent the most scrutiny for continuing to work during the war with a small amount of success, and he was accused by former friends of being a Nazi collaborator, even though both he and Lex were arrested and held for several weeks in 1933. Much of the controversy centered around two letters written by Nerlinger to the head of the Reichskammer für bildende Künste in 1940, both of which he signed, “Heil Hitler.” Lex, too, was accused of dishonesty, though not to the same extent as her husband.
The letters to the Central Committee repeat the same language and were all written during the course of 3 days, clearly denoting a coordinated action against Nerlinger in particular, and Lex by extension. After much deliberation, Lex and Nerlinger were eventually cleared by the Central Committee; although Nerlinger was reprimanded for questionable behavior during the Nazi period, the Committee marked some of the complainants as troublemakers within the party and took action against them. Lex and Nerlinger continued to work in the East, but lost all contact with (and recognition in) the West for their last decades.
Seeing all of those documents in person was stomach-turning. While we all know that “Heil Hitler” was the common salutation in the Nazi era, seeing the words written in the handwriting of someone who was so ideologically opposed to the regime was stunning. At the same time, I broke out in a sweat reading the level of vitriol conveyed through the letters written to the Central Committee – the passage of 60 years has not lessened the hate.
So what is the real story told by the documents? Were Lex and Nerlinger Nazi collaborators? Highly doubtful. Did Nerlinger make some problematic decisions during the 1930s? Probably.
The idealism espoused by both Lex and her husband, to make art on behalf of the working class and thus to help build a better society, made it easy to construct in my mind an idealized portrait of what these people were like. The documents in the Bundesarchiv do not tell the whole story, but for me they shed more light on a troublesome time period and served as a reminder of my subjects’ humanness, ugliness and all.
 This research, funded by the Fulbright Commission and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, is part of my larger project, The Art of Alice Lex: Women and Work / Frauen und Arbeit.
 Alice Lex-Nerlinger, “Juryfreie Kunstschau,” bildende kunst 4/5 (1947): 14. Translation by the author.
 In the two letters, both dated August 28, 1940, Nerlinger proposed a government commission for a large painting or wall mural. Bundesarchiv, SED Central Committee file on Nerlinger: DY 30 / IV 2 / 11 / v.804.
 Paul Fuhrmann, among others, targeted Lex as well as Nerlinger. Letter to Central Committee, May 20, 1947. Bundesarchiv, SED Central Committee file on Nerlinger: DY 30 / IV 2 / 11 / v.804.
 Carola Gärtner-Scholle wrote the most vicious of the letters, not only accusing both Lex and Nerlinger of wrongdoing but generally defaming them as unfit to practice art. She was reprimanded in September 1947 and removed from her position within the party. Bundesarchiv, SED Central Committee file on Nerlinger: DY 30 / IV 2 / 11 / v.804.