It was supposed to be the cultural high point of the ceremonies celebrating the 50 years of friendship, sealed by the Elysée Treaty, between France and Germany. Sponsored by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, the exhibition titled Of Germany, 1800-1939, from Friedrich to Beckmann opened at the Louvre on March 28. Its aim was to – finally –prove to the French that German painters do exist, contrary to a widely-held notion popular in France during the inter-war years and which has not been totally dispelled even today. But the exhibition was very quickly and vigorously questioned in Germany.

Why? Because this French exhibition, in the country's largest museum, suggests that Nazism was the logical conclusion of German history and culture and that these could not do otherwise but to succumb to it. Such talk is odious. Questions such as Germany's "destiny" and about the origins of Nazism were raised yet again, as they have been since the end of World War II.

In going to see Of Germany, the desire to end the tenacious ignorance of the French public regarding German art seemed to reach fever pitch – a sort of aesthetic affirmative action that would undermined the stereotypes and Germanophobe caricatures that have imprisoned French cultural life since at least 1870. This was misunderstood, if the first attack coming from the April 4 edition of the German weekly Die Zeit is to be believed. "That the exhibition ends with the hiatus of 1939 is no coincidence. Horror is inscribed in German art since Goethe. Nostalgic Italian and Greek landscapes, meditations on Gothic art, Germany's enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, the emphasis put on daily life, the depreciation of German "profundity" are only, in the interpretation proposed, stages leading to the German catastrophe," writes columnist Adam Soboczynski. Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, the curator of Paris' Palais de Tokyo, makes the same argument in an article published in the German daily Frankfurter Allemeine Zeitung on April 6. "It is the suggestion of an inevitable German catastrophe, of which all this darkness and Romanticism seems to be the harbinger, that makes the political subtext of this exhibition so irritating," she says.

Thus launched, the quarrel takes on a political twist. Exceptional enough to be noted, the German Ambassador to France, Suzanne Wasum-Rainer, is taking France's defence. "Believing that the Louvre had the intention, in a context of European crisis, to highlight the 'special path' that led Germany to the extermination policies of the National Socialists is to misinterpret the will, the erudition and the commitment of all of the players involved in the project," she tells French daily Le Monde.

No intention of causing controversy

In another rare occurrence, Henri Loyrette, director of the Louvre, sent a detailed response to Die Zeit on April 11. "This long period was chosen [...], with no intention of causing a controversy, to allow three keys to understanding to be proposed to the French public: relations with the past; relations with nature and relations with human endeavour. This choice has, among other things, the aim of avoiding any teleological reading which would indicate that there could be continuity from Romanticism to Nazism," he wrote.

The second historical criticism raised by Die Zeit and Faz is why did the Louvre show nothing of the Blaue Reiter group of artists (Kandinsky, Klee, Marc, Macke, etc), or any Dada or Bauhaus, if the aim is not to deliberately, and with malign intent, obliterate these Avant-guard currents of modernity that developed in a free Germany? The Louvre answers that the goal was never to compile an exhaustive history of artistic creation spanning a century and a half between the Rhine and the Elba – which would be impossible for logistical reasons – due to the scarcity and the number of loans and the length of the time period.

Also wounding is the presence of an excerpt from Olympia (1938) by Leni Riefenstahl, Adolf Hitler's favourite film-maker and the author of Triumph of the Will (1934) made to the glory of the Führer. "This short excerpt," explains Henri Loyrette "is intentionally projected across from an excerpt of Menschen am Sonntag, by Curt Siodmak based on a script by Billy Wilder and filmed in Berlin in 1929-1930. This excerpt highlights the daily ‘joie de vivre’ of ordinary men and women in Berlin at the end of the 1920s, in contrast to Leni Riefensthal's lifeless statues."

In general, it is obviously the last part of the exhibition, dealing with the period between the two World Wars that displeases most. It is criticised for closing with Birds' Hell, a symbolic satire of Nazism painted by Max Beckmann, an exiled German painter considered "degenerate," in the terms used in 1937. Danièle Cohn, one of the exhibition's scientific commissioners, explains, "This is a painting which, as a German as well as as a human being, one can only be proud of – with a righteous pride, which allows one to find strength in adversity as well as bravery without bluster. On the contrary, the bravery that inspired it is inspiring in return." There is thus a total misunderstanding between the intentions of the exhibition and the criticisms aimed at it.

Link to the euro crisis?

But are art history and aesthetics still the subject? Doubts were raised when reading certain articles: "Is this linked to the crisis? To a French desire to affirm itself? To a national demonstration of force caused by the weakness of the economy?" wonders Adam Soboczynski. But the reality is much worse, according to Die Zeit. On April 11, with the headline Culture and nation: Germany the hated power, the weekly found the key to the conspiracy in a column published on March 24 in French daily Libération, by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

"Let the Latin Empire Strike Back," Libération headlined the piece although that is not Agamben's argument, which pleads for the recognition of social and cultural differences in each member state of the European Union – those of the south, in particular, if the truth be told. By suggesting that Nazism is deeply rooted in German culture, the Louvre could be acting as the weapon of Mediterranean Europe which is battling the Germanic order incarnated by Angela Merkel.

Is this not all a bit excessive?

In its April 14 front page leader article, German daily Tagesspiegel defends the exhibition. According to the paper, "the misunderstanding says less about France than about the uncertainties surrounding German intellectual life". The paper's cultural reporter Bernhardt Schulz published an article headlined "Germanophile or Germanophobe". The Forge, a grandiose industrial panorama painted by Adolf Menzel in 1875, evokes, says Schulz, "another Germany, sober, rooted in modern times, which also existed side by side with nostalgia for history, for the fervent desire for nature and the promises of apocalypse and which does not distort the image of German culture but that gives it nuance. But apparently, no one from 'the outside' can tell us that. Desperate to be German, we prefer to do it quietly, on our own, if you please." In any case, not at the Louvre and not in France.