Was the Winnipeg Art Gallery Led by a Nazi?

Research suggests trailblazing art gallery director Ferdinand Eckhardt may have been a supporter of the Third Reich

A photo illustration of three black-and-white photos of former Winnipeg Art Gallery director Ferdinand Eckhardt hung up on a dark red wall in black frames.
(Celina Gallardo / The Winnipeg Tribune / University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections)

On July 5, 1973, a German ethnographer named Karl Stumpp stood in the Winnipeg Art Gallery and delivered a lecture called “The Fate of the Russian Germans.” Stumpp was on a speaking tour across Canada, and his Winnipeg stop was highly anticipated. A key figure in “Germans from Russia” studies, he was admired by a network of North American academics and Germanophiles, many of whom treated his wartime research as foundational. The lecture’s subject—ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe and their abuse at the hands of the Soviet Union—would also have struck a chord with the city’s large German community, some of whom had fled communist persecution.

The WAG advertised the free public event in its 1973 event calendar, and the city’s Canadian German newspapers promoted it. But one would be hard pressed to find mention of the lecture anywhere else. One reason might be that Stumpp, as is more widely known today, was a Nazi whose legacy is inextricably linked to the Final Solution. His authority on the lecture’s subject rested largely on surveys of German Ukrainian villages he’d overseen in the 1940s in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. This occupation gave Stumpp unique access to German communities hitherto hidden behind Soviet borders. But his studies were decidedly not of the disinterested scientific variety. After Einsatzgruppen killing squads cleansed a village of “undesirables,” Stumpp’s own eighty-man action unit moved in to determine the survivors’ racial character. Those deemed lacking sufficient “German blood” were likely murdered, helping rid the Greater Reich of what Stumpp’s diaries describe as “the Bolshevik-Jewish plague.”

It’s apparent from their writings that, by 1973, many of Stumpp’s closest North American colleagues understood his research was pursued within the Nazi apparatus, even if they were sketchy on certain details. This understanding was shared by at least one Winnipeg professor involved with organizing Stumpp’s lecture tour in Canada. Enough was also made known publicly about Stumpp’s past that a German article promoting the WAG event could advertise him as managing director of the People’s Association for Germans Abroad (1933–1938) and head of the Research Center for Russian Germans (1938–1945)—job titles, given their time frames, that practically Sieg Heil off the page.

What knowledge did WAG’s management have of Stumpp’s genocidal associations at the time of his lecture? Was his presence at the gallery, an elegant modernist space that had opened less than two years earlier, simply a matter of oversight? Posing such questions some fifty years later would seem less significant if it weren’t for another virtually unknown fact: Austrian-born Ferdinand Eckhardt, the trailblazing WAG director in charge at the time—and who, the local newspaper Courier Nordwesten reports, attended Stumpp’s lecture as an “honoured guest”—was himself a Nazi fellow traveller during the Third Reich.

Eckhardt’s public endorsements of Nazism include signing an oath of allegiance to Hitler and producing several polemics in far-right and Nazified journals in the early 1930s, urging, among other things, that Germany’s cultural arena align itself with the goals of the Nazi state. Eckhardt went to work for one of the most notorious players in Hitler’s war machine, IG Farben, the same company that built the Auschwitz concentration camp and manufactured Zyklon-B, used in the gas chambers to kill over 2.5 million people. Eckhardt hid his Nazi statements, but they have cropped up in the margins and footnotes of Nazi cultural histories for years. They are summarized at some length by German art historian Andreas Zeising, whose profile of Eckhardt in his 2018 book, Radiokunstgeschichte, has yet to make a notable impression on Canadian commentary, perhaps partially because it has not been translated. (When reached for comment, the WAG stressed that they have no knowledge of Eckhardt’s Nazi past and that it’s “highly unlikely the [WAG’s hiring] committee would have selected someone with any connection to the Nazis.”)

What Eckhardt knew of Stumpp’s complicity with mass murder has yet to be determined. But the episode raises further questions about the extent to which one of the country’s most pioneering art gallery directors had outgrown his far-right politics by the time he led central Canada’s pre-eminent arts institution. The relevance of such questions isn’t just fodder for social media campaigns to have names changed on this hall or that library. For all the popular talk today, in the fine arts world and beyond, of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” the museum world has a Nazi problem. For a gang of brutes and supposed philistines, the Nazis were unusually interested in aesthetics, an appetite their regime helped satisfy by plundering some 600,000 works from Jewish people. An estimated 100,000 of these haven’t been returned to their rightful owners, and many of them are still possessed and displayed by Western museums—some, likely, in Canada. But as Eckhardt’s and Stumpp’s cases show, artworks weren’t the only Nazi exports hosted by Canadian museums.

This fall, now-resigned Liberal house speaker Anthony Rota prompted the House of Commons, and visiting Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to join him in unwittingly applauding a Waffen-SS ex-member living in Canada. Social media lit up with mockery of Liberal naivety and incompetence. But this has given way to more soul searching about Canada’s troubling record of providing haven to thousands of alleged Nazi expats. From accusations of actively encouraging suspected Nazis to resettle here to later dragging their heels on prosecuting war criminals, governments from both sides of the aisle have a lot to answer for.

A thoroughgoing discussion about the relationship of Canadian museums to Nazism could knit these themes together, probing to see how many Nazi expats worked in Canada’s cultural sector, shaping public programming, museum collections, and the country’s culture and memory through the postwar period. In Eckhardt, we have a disquieting case of a Nazi sympathizer who enjoyed such influence. It’s time Canadians confronted this fact.

Ferdinand Eckhardt (1902–1995) and his wife, Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté (1898–1974), are among Canada’s most legendary artistic couples. They’re also parental figures in modernism’s birth in the Canadian prairies. Modernism, an originally European tradition, is sometimes imagined as a sort of negative image of fascism—a perception encouraged by the Nazis’ persecution of this movement. Modernism arrived late to the Canadian prairies, and in architecture, visual arts, and music, Eckhardt and his wife were among its key shepherds. So it’s easy to see why, for Canadians wondering about Eckhardt’s Third Reich–era politics, his achievements may have thrown many off the scent.

A short summary of the couple’s careers might be helpful to the general reader. Though Eckhardt-Gramatté was a virtuoso on both piano and violin, her celebrity in Canada rests primarily on her stature as one of our greatest composers. After the death of her famous expressionist artist husband, Walter Gramatté, she married Eckhardt, an arts critic–cum–advertising manager, in 1934. In 1942, Eckhardt was conscripted into the German Army. Amid the war’s climax, Eckhardt still found time to cultivate a salon-like atmosphere in their Vienna home. In Music from Within, Eckhardt’s biography of his wife, he describes hosting house concerts in 1943 where “[s]trangers as well as good friends attended; Nazis and Jews rubbed shoulders. All were linked by a love of music.”

In postwar Vienna, Eckhardt-Gramatté cemented her reputation as a leading composer, and her husband worked in art education for the Art History Museum. However, according to Eckhardt, he grew alienated from the Vienna art world. He later remarks, “My way of thinking was much too advanced.” Clearly, his unease also owed something to the fact that the museum’s “arrogant” director suspected him of being a Nazi, which, Eckhardt notes, caused him professional troubles. Eckhardt denied the accusation but convinced his wife to move overseas to an isolated prairie city where he had been offered a job as Winnipeg Art Gallery director.

Eckhardt-Gramatté’s early impressions of the city were said to be unflattering; she first regarded Winnipeg as a cultural backwater. The late-blooming Eckhardt, meanwhile, at the time in his fifties, finally came into his own, professionally, in Winnipeg. Under his impressive tenure as the WAG’s director (1953–1974), for which he was inducted into the Order of Canada, the institution grew from a two-employee gallery to the prairie beacon of fine art it is today. It was under Eckhardt that the main WAG facility, a 110,000-square-foot triangular mass of Manitoba Tyndall Stone and an icon of prairie modernism, was built.

Boasting personal ties to top German expressionists and the great Jewish artist Marc Chagall, Eckhardt led the charge in putting European and Canadian modern art in front of Winnipeg. He’s also said to have spearheaded the WAG’s collection of Inuit art, now the world’s largest of its kind. Eckhardt-Gramatté ultimately plunged into her new milieu, developing strong ties with various orchestras and leaving behind one of Canada’s most significant bodies of classical music. She is the subject of multiple books, documentaries, and even a play performed in Toronto in spring 2023.

Both Eckhardt and Eckhardt-Gramatté remain honoured figures in Canada, with libraries, halls, a foundation, a music competition, and an eminent art collection bearing at least one of their names. Eckhardt’s stature isn’t just based on his accomplishments but on what he seemingly represents: the triumphant spread of modernism and cosmopolitanism over a provincial “hinterland” like Manitoba, with stops along the way to spotlight the best in local colour and to amplify Indigenous voices. In short, the “march of progress” in a way Canadians may like to imagine it.

Eckhardt’s image as an unrelenting champion of modernism, and German expressionism in particular, lends him a brave and subversive air relative to National Socialism’s violent attacks on the movement. It’s an image he encouraged—and one still given a stamp of approval today by the media and arts world. But significant omissions during the ’30s exist in his official bibliography. We have historian Andreas Zeising, primarily, to thank for recovering and filling in the relevant gaps.

As Zeising documents, over nearly ten articles and statements between 1932 and 1934, Eckhardt expressed mounting zeal for the national revolution occurring in Germany. So fierce were his polemics against a decadent art world, calling for a “clean up” by a strong state, he alienated even many of his conservative peers. Eckhardt’s articles run together many of the usual tropes of Nazi cultural politics. They evoke a corrupt elite—associated variously with individualism, liberalism, lack of national sentiment, commercialism, abstraction, and art for art’s sake—which he pits against an idealized German “Volk,” a racially exclusive category in Nazi ideology whose true spirit is embodied in the “new state.” Eckhardt demands that the radio and museum worlds promote German folk art and conform to the goals of National Socialism in a spirit of “blood and soil.” One of their most notorious slogans, “blood and soil” is a key term in the Nazis’ justification for eugenics and territorial conquest.

Eckhardt’s statements in the early 1930s don’t appear to be the reluctant words of an intellectual cowed by a totalitarian state. Rather, they resound as fascist battle cries during the Third Reich’s infancy. Doubling down on his journalistic polemics, in October 1933, Eckhardt joined eighty-seven other writers in signing (roughly translated from the German) the “pledge of the most faithful allegiance” to Hitler. Spearheaded by the Prussian Academy of Arts, the appeal signalled compliance with the recently passed Editors’ Law, a key instrument for Nazi control over the publishing industry.

Eckhardt’s unpublished memoirs became accessible at the Archives of Manitoba this fall. In them, he comes clean about some, but not all, of his pro-Nazi and far-right polemics, particularly those that caused him lasting embarrassment. Elsewhere, Eckhardt had publicly claimed that the Völkischer Beobachter, the main Nazi newspaper, had once “reprinted, in mutilated form,” an article of his. Now he confesses to submitting the article directly to the newspaper but complains they amplified its antisemitic content. Eckhardt tells us that the piece was preceded by a companion article which he submitted to Die Tat, a leading voice of Germany’s so-called Conservative Revolution, causing a stir in the German art scene. He also admits to associating with the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Militant League for German Culture)—a Nazi Party organ using thuggish Brownshirt tactics to rid German art of “degenerative Jewish and negro influences”—in whose journal, Deutsche Kultur-Wacht, you can find articles by Eckhardt. Also just made accessible at the archives is a folder from Eckhardt’s estate with the darkly sarcastic title “Mein Kunstkampf,” wherein Eckhardt encloses more documents relating to his pro-Nazi activities and affiliations over 1932/33.

For a cosmopolitan figure once so dedicated to the avant-garde, Eckhardt’s foray into Nazi politics may seem like a curiosity—a regrettable detour by a young writer who lost his composure while trying to come out on top amid the art world shakeup the Nazis were unleashing. He would hardly have been the only German modernist who, contrary to stereotype, scrambled to make himself useful to the regime.

But if naivety and opportunism were Eckhardt’s overarching sins as a Nazi cooperator, the pattern doesn’t stop there. Eckhardt temporarily retired as a writer, at the behest of his new employer, after joining Bayer as an advertising manager in 1933, the same year the company began its purge of Jewish employees. At that time, and until the war’s end, Bayer was a division of IG Farben, one of the Nazi-collaborating firms most complicit in the Final Solution. Cementing IG Farben’s notoriety is its centrality to the Third Reich’s Four-Year Plan (1936–1940) and, ultimately, to the Nazi war machine: its intensive use of slave labour, including the forced labour of upward of 10,000 inmates from Auschwitz, whose facilities the company helped build; its horrific experiments, with Bayer’s involvement, on concentration camp inmates; and its production of Zyklon-B, the preferred killing tool for the Nazi gas chambers.

When describing his career at IG Farben, Eckhardt tends to emphasize his apparently apolitical work in advertising aspirin for Bayer. Yet Eckhardt also tells us that in 1938, owing to the impending war, he was compelled to switch from advertising to the company’s “scientific division.” With war on the horizon, it’s unsurprising that IG Farben no longer had need for an aspirin adman—Eckhardt could be put to better use elsewhere in the company, whose most powerful buyer now was the Nazi state. By 1940, IG Farben was well integrated into the Nazi war machine, being a key source of the army’s drugs, fuel, explosives, and rubber, and it was employing forced labour at its production plants. Eckhardt remained at the company until mid-1942, about six months after the Final Solution had become Nazi policy, at which point he was conscripted into the German Army. But this did not end his IG Farben career. After being discharged from the army in November 1944, Eckhardt returned to Bayer, his memoirs confirm, where he was employed until the war’s end. What Eckhardt knew of IG Farben’s atrocities during the war can’t yet be said with certainty, though Peter Hayes, an eminent historian of the company, has written “the killings were an open secret within Farben.”

The final verdict on Eckhardt may be that, after his Nazi writings stopped, he mostly behaved in the way of many Germans—acquiescing to the status quo to survive. Eckhardt may well have regretted some of his Third Reich–era activities, for reasons of self-interest, genuine remorse, or both. And yet we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Eckhardt, even by his WAG career’s end, still kept faith with his earlier sensibilities and outlook.

Let’s return to our opening scene: Nazi ethnographer Karl Stumpp’s lecture at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in the summer of 1973, while Eckhardt was still WAG director. Did Eckhardt greenlight the lecture? We know he attended and even mentioned it in his private journal and personal calendar. While we can’t say definitively if he had any knowledge of Stumpp’s résumé as a Nazi who worked in tandem with the SS killing squads, Stumpp’s lecture dovetails with Eckhardt’s essays of the interwar period. In them, the line between education and propaganda is blurred, and he hammers on about the need for museums to throw off their specialized, elitist orientation to promote racial consciousness among the German Volk. In this light, it doesn’t seem that surprising that a public lecture with overtones of German identity politics by another Nazi affiliate may have appealed to him.

In recent decades, German studies scholars have been reckoning with Stumpp’s legacy. Eckhardt’s legacy calls for a similar reckoning. The Winnipeg Art Gallery is as vital a vessel of Canada’s visual culture as any on the prairies. More work must be done to study how Eckhardt’s Nazi ideas coloured his postwar influence on this culture. This includes shedding light on the provenance records of his and his wife’s personal art collection, much of which now lives at the WAG. In 2014, the WAG joined six Canadian galleries to work with two international researchers to determine whether any artworks they possessed had been procured from looting during the Second World War. When reached for comment, the WAG claimed they found no evidence of looting. Given that a Nazi sympathizer once owned hundreds of pieces now in their collection, perhaps it’s time to more publicly clear the air on this matter.

How Eckhardt even managed to inveigle his way into the Canadian art world and rise to the top deserves scrutiny too. Rumours of being a Nazi trailed him across the Atlantic. In Canada, he also never hid that he’d worked at IG Farben, even if he was cagey about how he framed this career. But concerns for Jewish welfare and dignity weren’t exactly front of mind among Winnipeg’s more powerful gentile communities when Eckhardt arrived in the 1950s. Indeed, until the 1970s, Jewish people weren’t allowed as members by many of Winnipeg’s elite social clubs, which served largely as old-boy and old-girl networks for the city’s more genteel gentiles (although much energy has been spent in recent decades to overcome such overtly racial cliquiness). Were Winnipeggers mostly convinced of Eckhardt’s progressive persona, or did many look the other way when it came to his shady past?

If gaze averting helps explain the hospitality Eckhardt received in Manitoba, perhaps a certain credulity, too, is at work here. When those with deeply illiberal pedigrees come knocking, they often don’t present as such. They don’t necessarily cut the image of barbaric populists from the hinterland rattling their sabres outside the city gate. They may arrive with an air of modernism, multiculturalist politics, cosmopolitanism, or principled anti-Stalinism serving to disguise their dark pasts.

The WAG that I know is an outstanding institution. Few organizations so admirably balance commitments to artistic excellence and social justice. But while much talk of inclusivity emanates from the WAG and so many cultural institutions today, we face hard choices about inclusivity’s limits. As the old lesson goes, at some point, a culture of tolerance, to survive, may demand intolerance for the intolerant. No precise map exists for navigating this dilemma, and a misstep could mean forfeiting values we hold sacred. But maybe we can settle on a rule of thumb: we don’t break bread with Nazis. This goes for past fellow travellers as well as card carriers—Nazis whose evils are banal as well as spectacular. In this spirit, it’s time to eject Eckhardt from our institutions’ halls of fame.

Conrad Sweatman
Conrad Sweatman is a Winnipeg-born arts communicator and musician.