THE TRAIL OF PAINT
The Nazi Art Obsession
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Written by Phyllis Farber
Art is a powerful tool for cultural propaganda. Depending on the point of view of those in control, it is regarded as "safe" and "acceptable"; or if it tests the social and political norms of the culture, it is considered "dangerous". Throughout history, man has passionately created, stolen, protected and destroyed his art. Art critics interpret the works for the bourgeois, while the elitists discuss and own original art and attempt to control its influence and the art market. Adolf Hitler recognized the power of art and used it to further the Nazi agenda. His reign of censorship and terror against the art and the artists in Europe was unprecedented in history and will impact the art world for generations to come.
In the early 1900's, Germany was a world leader of the avant-garde, not only in art, but also in the arenas of music, theatre and film. The musical compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, and Igor Stravinsky were influenced by the new sounds of American jazz. Abstract animation and creative films such as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "The Three-penny Opera" were being produced in Germany. The original "Titanic," directed by Herbert Selpin, was banned in Germany for Selpin's negative comments about the Nazi surveillance of his filmmaking. Filmmakers Billy Wilder and Oskar and Hans Fischinger were experimenting with imaginative editing and creative photography. The arts and crafts movement of the Bauhaus, under the directorship of Walter Gropius, emerged with its simplicity of form and function in design. Dada, with Hausmann, Arp, Schwitters, and Grosz , began in 1916 as a nihilistic reaction against the inhuman forces of World War I and as an intellectual anti-art. African and Oceanic cultures inspired Expressionism, with its bright colors and distorted representations of form and figure. Its expression of emotion, often relating to social issues, was particularly attacked by the Nazis as a threat to "pure" German art with Nordic roots. Kandinsky, Klee, Grosz, Beckmann and Nolde were among its world famous artists and teachers. All of these art movements developed in a climate in Germany that nurtured creative expression and the beginnings of modern art for the world.
In 1936, Berlin hosted the world to the Olympics and opened its museums, which were filled with modern art. The German Expressionist exhibitions of Munch, Grosz, Chagall, Schlemmer, Beckmann, Dix, Derain, Kokoschka and Kirchner were flourishing in the 1920's. The KunstHalle Mannheim Museum was dedicated entirely to modern art. "The Nationgallerie in Berlin in 1897 was the first museum in the world to acquire a painting by Paul Cezzane and the Museum Folkwang in Essen was among the earliest public supporters of the work of Paul Gaughin and Vincent van Gogh. Herwarth Walden, with his gallery and publication Der Sturm, was a staunch supporter of Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, and the Russian avant-garde." Joseph Goebbels was an early admirer of Expressionism. "He saw the spirit and chaos of Expressionism as analogous to the spirit of Nazi youth." On the opposite side of modern art philosophy stood Alfred Rosenberg, opposed to Expressionism in favor of volkisch art of and for the German people. This conflict in ideology was to stop the progress of modern art in Germany cold. Hitler stepped in between fine and folk art with his need to promote a National Socialist agenda of "blood and soil" and the "pure" Germanic race.
When Hitler came into power in 1933, the winds were blowing against modern art. The Expressionist anti-war stance conflicted with Hitler's desire to build a proud nation. In 1926, an Expressionist exhibition in Dresden was condemned for showing the true face of war. Many of Germany's artists, like Otto Dix and Ernst Kirchner had experienced the horrors of World War I first-hand and used their art to criticize the Nazi position. Franz Marc, author of The Blue Rider, and early Expressionist painter, won an Iron Cross in World War I. Kathe Kollwitz, whose son was killed in WWI, was expelled from the Prussian Academy for her left-wing, anti-war ideas. To further stereotype the abstract forms of modern art, Paul Schultze-Naumburg, an architect, published Kunst und Rasse,(Art and Race) in 1928. He showed examples of modern paintings with their distorted, unnatural faces along with photographs of physically deformed or diseased patients. He was given the position of head of the Bauhaus in Weimar, replacing Walter Gropius. Alfred Rosenberg, a trained architect was the author of two anti-Semitic books, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, and The Swamp. He was appointed by Hitler to the Combat League for German Culture, (KAMPfbund fur deutche Kultur).
The Nazis not only tried to define the aesthetics of their empire, but also used art to advance their platform of racial superiority. Art propaganda played a key role in shaping the events leading to the Holocaust. Julius Stricher's picture book, The Toadstool, spewed anti-Semitism to school children while posters and political cartoons promoted German national pride for the war effort and validated deep rooted feelings of anti-Semitism for the adults. By contrasting the Entartete Kunst exhibit with the art in the Grosse Deutsche Kunst , the Nazis coached Germans to connect modern painting with the "degenerate", decadent, the unhealthy and distorted, and therefore the " Jew." Avant-garde artists once reveled in the labeling of their work as being "mad" and "insane" in their quest for a new form of art. Under the Nazis, those labels often had fatal consequences. Many were forced into exile, while others languished or perished in Germany.
The Nazi propaganda machine twisted scientific theory from Charles Darwin's book The Descent of Man for its own purpose. Since its publication in 1871, 'survival of the fittest' concepts were used by many cultures to justify racism as inevitable and acceptable. Max Nordau's, Entartung (Degeneration) of 1892, was ironically a book written by a Jew in support of the superiority of the traditional German culture. Nordau's arguments on Nordic art being superior and all modern art as pathological, although internationally attacked by writers such as George Bernard Shaw in 1895, became part of the Nazi philosophy supporting a 'German art.' The Nazis bastardized science again in their use of the term, "degenerate" in relation to modern art. (Entartete, which has traditionally been translated as "degenerate" or "decadent," is essentially a biological term, defining a plant or animal that has so changed that it no longer belongs to its species. By extension it refers to art that is unclassifiable or so far beyond the confines of what is accepted that it is in essence "non-art").
Hitler relished his role as the "final" critic by attempting to control free thought and own the "best" art works. In his speeches he would shout, "We will, from now on, lead an unrelenting war of purification, and unrelenting war of extermination, against the last elements that have displaced our Art." "From now on we are going to wage a merciless war of destruction against the last reaming elements of cultural disintegration." He was a failed artist who had been twice rejected from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. His taste in art was limited to the nineteenth century popular trend of neo-classical themes of sentimental landscapes and representational, idealized figures.
He did however, recognize the power of art to influence public perception. The propaganda message from the concentration camp at Terezin in June of 1944, created a false image for the Red Cross and the world that Hitler was a man of sensitivity, culture and generosity who encouraged the Jews to create paintings, plays and music. Through fear, he controlled artists to produce an idealized art to convey to the masses the image of women as mothers and partners for their men and of men as strong soldiers. If the artists did not comply, they did not work.
Post war Germany was ripe for Hitler to exploit the fears of the dark side of humanity that feels cheated for its lot in life and jealously covets its neighbor's goods. The majority of Germans and other conquered peoples readily accepted the spoils left behind by the victims of Nazi persecution or forcible confiscation. In May of 1938, the Nazis passed an Expropriation law, which retroactively legalized prior confiscation and opened the path for the looting, sale, and auction of artwork. In addition to their terrorizing raids on museums and galleries, the Nazis had a shopping list of "choice " art works for their master collections, a list of who owned them, where they could be found, and no morals as to how they acquired the art. Hitler, along with his cultural Mafia, his elite circle of art thieves, Goebbels, Goring, Posse, and Ziegler, used denigration, ridicule, confiscation and destruction against the artists, curators, dealers, owners and the art works themselves.
It is chilling to read the comments of Rosenberg in his Political Diary,
"I told the Fuhrer today that questions of law arose in connection with much of the stuff in the West The French Government has outlawed some members of the Rothschild family and says that the Rothschild fortune has been forfeited to the state. Hence the German administration in France is in doubt whether it can any longer be regarded as enemy -Jewish property .The Rothschild family is an enemy-Jewish family and all machinations whatsoever to rescue their possessions ought to leave us unmoved ..The Fuhrer said that this was no case for scruples; we should carry off everything with the least possible delay .."
Hitler coveted drawings and prints by Durer and sculptures by Rodin for his own private collection and was kept informed of works acquired though the photos sent back by his "agents" by which he made his selections. His private collection was said to include over 7,000 pieces when it was discovered in the salt mines of Alt Aussee after Germany's defeat.
Hitler's strident voice filled a void for an angry German society. Their anger became justification for the systematic murder of innocent men, women and children, the "degenerate", "the Jew", and for the premeditated plunder of their wealth. Anti-Semitism had been a coal simmering for centuries with Christian interpretations of the Bible. Those feelings burst into flame with the realization that the Jews could be blamed for all of the social, political and economic problems in Germany after their defeat in World War I. People actively or silently allowed the confiscation of goods and the murder of the owners because they profited themselves. Genocide and slave labor became an industry as architects designed concentration camps, shopkeepers recycled the clothing and goods which were shipped back from the camps, and scientists, doctors, professors, lesser artists and musicians moved into jobs and businesses vacated by their Jewish peers.
In 1933, with Goebbels as the Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment for Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture), Hitler and his men attempted a systematic cultural suppression to censor and control creativity and its byproducts in art, music, literature, and theatre. In May of 1933, Goebbels started the book burnings of Jewish, Marxist and subversive authors. Several years later, in the courtyard of the fire station in Berlin in 1939, he ordered the burning of 5,000 of the 16,000 art works that had been confiscated from museums and galleries as "degenerate art". The progressive pattern toward the cremation of human beings as "degenerate" and "trash" can not be ignored.
The vilification of modern art in the Entartete Kunst exhibit of 1937 was the turning point in which Expressionist artists in Germany were suppressed. Traditional artists took over their positions as faculty and curators. The impact of Hitler's continual elimination of the Jews from all professions stagnated Germany. Greed, jealousy, cruelty, and sadism dictated the morals and actions of a once proud people to the eventual destruction of their own flourishing culture. In an effort to define the Nazi attitudes concerning culture, Goebbels produced a 5 point Manifesto in 1937, stating what German artists could expect from the new Government in relation to modern art. It is worth quoting Stephanie Barron's summation of this manifesto from her book, "Degenerate Art" The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany.
All works of a cosmopolitan or Bolshevist nature should be removed from German museums and collections, but first they should be exhibited to the public, who should be informed of the details of their acquisition, and then burned.
All museum directors who "wasted" public monies by purchasing "un-German" art should be fired immediately.
No artist with Marxist or Bolshevist connections should be mentioned henceforth.
No boxlike buildings should be built (an assault on Bauhaus architecture).
All public sculptures not "approved" by the German public should be immediately removed (this applied especially to Barlach and Wilhelm Lehmbruck).
Adolf Ziegler, a mediocre artist and Hitler's favorite painter, was considered the Reich's "expert" on art. He was a professor at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts in 1933. His critics secretly dubbed him the "Master of the Pubic Hair" for paintings of nude women that were more like pornography than fine art. By Goebbels' appointment, he became president of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts in 1936 and was authorized to confiscate works for the Entartete Kunst exhibit. In just two weeks he had "selected" 650 works produced by 112 artists, only 6 of whom were Jews (Marc Chagall, Jankel Adler, Lasa Segall, Hanns Katz, Gert Wolheim and Ludwig Meidner). He and his men had "selected" over 15,000 pieces of art from public collections of German museums and galleries. The works were chosen if they "insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form, or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill." His attitude towards modern art is best explained by quoting his introduction to the Entartete Kunst exhibition.
We now stand in an exhibition that contains only a fraction of what was bought with the hard-earned savings of the German people and exhibited as art by a large number of museums all over Germany. All around us you see the monstrous offspring of insanity, impudence ineptitude, and sheer degeneracy. What this exhibition offers inspires horror and disgust in us all.
Hermann Goring was second in command to Hitler as Commander in Chief of the German Air Force. He organized the Gestapo and the concentration camps. He was a knowledgeable and an obsessive art collector who boasted of having one of the finest art collections in the world, which he secreted away outside Berlin in his home, Carinhall. His wife, Emmy, obviously enjoyed their lifestyle. To quote Claudia Koonz, "Emmy Goring insists that her husband never understood the full implications of the "final solution," but witnesses remember that she helped out in her husband's deceitful "business" dealings with Jews who "sold" him magnificent art collections for scandalously low prices." After Germany's defeat, he leveled Carinhall and destroyed many of the sculptures in his gardens. In 1951, Emmy, after she was released from prison, tried to "reclaim" many of the works that had been taken from them after the war. She insisted that they had been "given" to her by the city of Cologne.
Goring would barter anything for paintings that he wanted and would often take time away from his war duties to go "shopping". Nathan Katz exchanged his Rembrandt painting, "Portrait of a Man" for a visa to Switzerland for himself, 25 visas to Spain for family members, and his mother's release from Westerbork. Baron Louis de Rothschild was forcibly returned from the Aspern airport to his Viennese residence and then incarcerated for nine months until he gave up his collection of over 1000 paintings, including masters such as Rembrandt. Walter Hofer, Goring's curator, in a statement after his arrest and interrogation said, "The Third Reich had to lose the war because this war was based on robbery and on a system of injustice and violence, which could only be broken from the outside. Every individual has to pay personally for the mortgage which the German people has accepted."
Hans Posse, acting as Hitler's curator, had an unlimited budget with which to select works for the super art museum which was to have been built in Hitler's hometown of Linz, Austria. Heinrich Hoffman was Hitler's curator in charge of collecting work for the new House of German Art in Berlin, which opened on July 18, 1937, with a huge parade and much pageantry. Albert Speer, the architect, was responsible for much of the monumental architecture in Berlin, including this stark museum which actually served more as a selling gallery to promote the work of favored German artists. The Grosse Deutsche Kunst exhibit attracted only 420,000 visitors. Art exhibited in the museum had to be racially pure, completely finished, easily understood, and up to the standards of promoting the pure Aryan race. Hitler and Hoffman personally chose the works, many of which the Fuhrer bought through monies he earned from the sale of Mein Kampf and from the sale of postage stamps with his likeness. Viewers saw works that were technically austere and proficient since the artists were good craftsmen, but lack sensuality and expression. Peter Guenther, a 17 year old visitor to the exhibit recalls, " .many of the paintings looked like photographs .the huge figures by Arno Breker and Josef Thorak .I found quite frightening. I thought that they were intentionally attempting to imitate famous Greek sculpture I knew from books, but they lacked the grandeur and quiet balance that I considered to be the hallmarks of that art. These were simply large, primarily male, nudes."
In contrast, crowds lined up to view the "banned art" of the Entartete Kunst, which opened across the street the following day on July 19, 1937. It had been hastily organized by Ziegler. The works were hung haphazardly in crowded, dimly lit spaces with graffiti comments. They were purposefully shown poorly and advertised as "degenerate" in order to denigrate the artists and condemn the actions of the institutions, directors, curators and dealers involved in the acquisitions of modern art. Actors were hired to behave like madmen and incite the audience with derogatory remarks and insults about the paintings. It is interesting to read some of the comments from the exhibition catalog and the graffiti, which was painted and drawn on the walls around the paintings and sculptures.
"Spontaneous children's drawings"
"Fantasies of mental patients"
"products of cultural Bolshevism"
"collapse of sensitivity to form and color"
"class struggle propaganda"
"moral program of Bolshevism"
There were those who came out of curiosity and agreed with the tenor of the show. They were united in their finger-pointing and common ignorance of what the art represented. There were also those who came in reverence for a last look at works they loved, as if to a funeral viewing. The works were attacked as "degenerate" and therefore "Jewish." Chagall's, painting, "Rabbiner," with the sign "Taxpayer, you should know how your money was spent" was displayed with a photo of the dealer. In terms of audience attraction, the show was a huge success. In its four months in Munich and during its three year tour though Germany and Austria, over three million visitors saw the banned art. It is interesting to note that the Armory Show in New York in 1913, which focused on modern art, was received with similar critical reviews from its audience. The French Salon Des Refuses which exhibited art outside of the academic tradition, such as the Fauves and the Impressionists, drew less than rave reviews. The difference obviously was that the government had no control over the art.
Methodical in their endless lists and obsessive with attention to details, the Nazis were pragmatic in their disposal of unwanted art work. In June 30, 1939, 125 paintings and sculptures representing art purged and pillaged from German museums and galleries were sent to the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne, Switzerland, to be sold for foreign currency in an international market that placed a high value on non-German paintings. Theodore Fischer was selected as the dealer, as he was not Jewish and was connected to the international art market. Among the work represented was VanGogh 's Self-Portrait, (which is now in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard), Paul Gaughin's From Tahititi, (now at the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Liege), and four paintings by Picasso, Head of a Woman, Two Harlequins, Absinthe drinker (in various private collections), and Family Portrait (in the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Liege). Paintings by Nolde, Chagall, Matisse, Marc, Kokoschka, Kirchner, Dix, Klee, Beckmann, and Modigliani were purchased at a fraction of their true worth. The auction was boycotted by major museums and Jewish supporters because of the public outcry surrounding the obtaining of the works and the distribution of the funds. The Nazi claim that the monies would be returned to the museums originally owning the works was questionable.
The true visionary artists, the geniuses whose voices echo through history, persevere and remain committed to the passion of their art. They are often effected by the whims of politics and society which turn something different into something that is wrong. Emil Nolde, one of Germany's eminent artists, at 70, was forbidden by the Nazis to paint when his work fell out of favor. He had been an early Nazi party sympathizer, believing in a strong Nationalism.. His paintings with their expressive distortions, non-realistic colors, primitive forms and archaic simplicity were hated by Hitler. Even Goebbels, who was an admirer of his work, could not intervene. Nolde's vibrant religious paintings from 1909-1910, which portrayed Christ and his Apostles as Jews, were among over 1000 works confiscated and the 27 exhibited as part of the Entartete Kunst exhibit. They were labeled with the quotation, " Insolent mockery of the Divine under centrist rule." Under surveillance by the Nazis, he continued to secretly paint exquisite tiny watercolors, his "Unpainted Pictures" of 1938-45, when it became too dangerous to have the smell of oil and turpentine in his house. After the war, these were published as a book and many were used as sketches for larger oil paintings. He wrote poems or short descriptions next to the paintings.
My pictures are scorned, sold off for a song.
I watch with eyes closed.
Their colours still glow in the darkness.
Cast out - may I sleep
Beyond envy and guilt and atonement
Until with seeing eyes
Comes German youth to wake me.
Not only were his works scorned by the Nazis, but also when they were looted by the Soviets, "The kitchen staff in the Teupitz asylum was ordered to burn a cache of paintings by Emil Nolde that represented years of work."
Ernst Kirchner was a founder of German Expressionism and the group known as Die Brucke (The Bridge). He had been a volunteer in Word War I, but suffered a nervous breakdown. He was so distressed by the Nazi attack on modern art and the ban on his own art, that while in exile in 1936, he took his own life. In a letter written before his suicide he said,
Now that things in Germany have gone as we foresaw, the obtuseness
of certain circles must not and shall not be allowed to destroy all the
serious and genuine efforts towards a new German art, to which recognized
German artists like Lehmbruck, Klee, Hofer, Nolde, Schmidt-Rotluff, Beckmann,
I myself, have given the energies of a lifetime. All petty quarrels must cease,
everyone must help to defend the whole, the cause of German art. That is what
I have done. I have set aside my specific differences with Nolde over certain
passages of his recent book, and I will defend his work against attacks just as
I would the work of Klee, or of the other serious artists who are being slandered today.
Oskar Kokoschka, Mies van de Rohe, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Walter Gropius, George Grosz, Joseph Albers, Kurt Schwitters, Fernard Leger, Piet Mondriani, Jacques Lipchitz and Max Beckmann were among the fortunate artists who escaped from Germany and Europe during the Nazi persecution. Max Beckmann, with an international reputation as a premier German artist, had a large retrospective exhibition in 1928 at the Kunsthalle Mannheim. In 1932, the Nationalgalerie in Berlin put ten of his works on permanent display. He was acclaimed as the "German Picasso". Some of his expressive work had been influenced by jazz and by his experience as a medical orderly in the German army in 1915. It was not sympathetic to National Socialist ideology. He fled Berlin for New York in 1937 when his work was exhibited as part of the Entarte Kunst . In 1932, George Grosz accepted an invitation from the Art Students League in New York and left Germany permanently.
Grosz considered himself a propagandist of the social revolution. He not only depicted victims of the catastrophe of the First World War-the disabled, crippled and mutilated, he also portrayed the collapse of capitalist society and its values. His wartime line drawings show him to be a master of caricature. In a 1925 portfolio of prints, Grosz ridiculed Hitler by dressing him in a bearskin, a swastika tattooed on his left arm.
In the epilogue from Gitta Severny 's book, Into That Darkness, she says, "I do not believe that all men are equal, for what we are above all other things, is individual and different. But individuality and difference are not only due to the talents we happen to be born with. They depend as much on the extent to which we are allowed to expand in freedom". In trying to suppress the art of those critical of war, Hitler unwittingly created a new genre of art. It was to become even more explicit and expressive in its poignancy since its victims often did not survive the atrocities of the Holocaust. The art of the children and of the men and women in the concentration camps is powerful. Joseph Nassy's collection of paintings is on exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He was a black artist with an American passport who was detained in Laufen, Germany at Ilag VII, which was a civilian POW camp, a few steps above a concentration camp. His paintings express the eerie timelessness of men trapped in the limbo of war. Charlotte Salomon was a talented young Jewish artist caught in the Nazi assault on art. Her parents had been prominent Berlin musicians in the 1940's. While in exile in France, she created images of her life in a journal of paintings. Her need to paint was similar to Anne Frank's need write. " By painting her life, CS created an album that might survive." She died in a concentration camp.
There were a few artists, like Fania Fenelon, who managed to survive life in the concentration camps because of their art. Fania sang Madame Butterfly for Maria Mandel and became part of the protected orchestra at Birkenau, which the SS kept to play musical concerts for them and for the inmates as they marched to work or to the gas chambers. Fania's beautiful voice and her ability to arrange musical scores was also her strength to resistance of the Nazis dehumanization of the inmates.
Guile is the revenge of the weak. I had organized other pleasures for myself. I had arranged Josef, Josef (a well-know fox trot, the work of a Jewish composer ) as a march; in this way I'd seen to it that the women in the work groups marched off to the rhythm of Jewish music, and some of them clearly recognized it. Not a single SS ever noticed. They listened to it with evident satisfaction, beating time. Sweeter still to my eyes was the sight of them thoroughly relishing the first movement of the E minor violin concerto by Mendelssohn, a composer banned in Germany and the occupied countries .it afforded us such intense delight to see them beaming as they listened to that forbidden music. Such moments were all too short.
Hitler was not the only leader interested in using art to validate his country's prominence as a great and cultured nation. Hitler's counterpart in Moscow, Josef Stalin, had plans for a super museum in Moscow. Roosevelt was spending Federal Funds for the WPA and Federal Works Projects to support artists through the Depression. Many of America's public buildings were constructed and decorated with murals and sculptures during this period. Although the government sponsored art which promoted the American worker, it did not censor the artist's style and painters like Thomas Hart Benton and the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, flourished. Ben Shahn learned his printmaking craft while supported by the WPA. As a Social Realist, he tried to motivate American feeling against the Nazi aggression and for the war effort with his powerful posters. In contrast, Hitler censored any art that was a threat to his politics. Stalin did the same in 1948 with a campaign to purge his museums as "cosmopolitanism, Jews, people with pro-western sympathies, writers, artists and scientists came under attack." In a capitalistic democracy, the laws of supply and demand and a fickle public channel the direction of art, not one person.
Conquerors have traditionally looted the treasures of their enemies as "trophies" of war. The victor feels justified in humiliating and degrading his foe "Art plunder can never end as long as works of art exist and there are people, states and nations to whom art has any meaning. Some plunder because they desire to possess, to enjoy and to control the state of art: others to humiliate the enemy or to deny him, once conquered and overthrown the enjoyment and possession of it." One would think that the lessons of the Egyptians trying to bury their treasure for eternity would have taught Hitler that he couldn't own the art forever. Hitler was not an inspired genius with a vision of leadership, he was merely repeating history, like Napoleon, Lord Elgin, and conquerors before them who justified art plunder. His desire to possess great art is no different than those in society today who purchase art for the décor and status of owning it. The oil, rail and coal tycoons in the United States amassed great fortunes at the expense of the working classes and then gave them back museums filled with their acquisitions as a tax write-off.
The Nazis set off a chain reaction in the art world, which is still dealing with the effects. What to do with all of this art once it was acquired? The logistics of cataloging, storing, packing, moving, hiding, and protecting millions of works of art is mind boggling. The images of crates of paintings and sculptures carefully packed on specially commissioned trains with minute attention to the details of humidity and temperature contrasts strikingly with the tragic images of men, women and children herded like cattle into train cars with no ventilation and no heat. Hitler's purification of the art world of all that was not "natural" in form or color was an ominous indication of his purging of humanity, which did not fit his ideal of racial perfection. The selection of "degenerate" art works, the offer to sell confiscated art to the rest of the world for profit, and the ultimate destruction by burning of the trash, seems to parallel Hitler's selection of Jews and others with their branding as "degenerate", their rejection by other countries as refugees, and their eventual deaths by gassing and fire.
As the Germans made their way across Europe and into the Soviet Union, curators and private owners hurried to protect their valuables. Art was hidden in caves, salt mines, castles, cellars, barns, attics, and bank vaults and behind fake walls. Also "hidden" and "smuggled" were the few Jews lucky or rich enough to pay for the silence of their rescuers. Frightened museum curators and workers in many countries moved the art works carefully from one hiding place to another. Were the inanimate art objects easier to rescue and hide than their Jewish owners? Rose Valland, a museum official working for the French Resistance, kept track of paintings from the Louvre which were hidden at Jeu de Paume. She received a Legion of Honor and the Medal of Resistance for her role in saving the priceless art work. Ironically, many of those works had originally been looted from Italy by Napoleon. The art works survived and were taken out of their hiding places after Liberation. Few French Jews were that fortunate.
On July 22, 1941, much to the surprise of Stalin, the German army crossed into the Soviet frontier and began its assault on the Russian people and their art. "From the first day of the war, the Nazis prepared to strip Soviet museums. As early as the summer of 1941, Hans Posse chose von Holst, an expert on the Leningrad collections, to select objects " Even worse than the Jewish and "degenerate" art, Nazis thought Slavic art was trash and wantonly destroyed over 1,200 churches, 500 synagogues and numerous palaces. The Russians retaliated as their soldiers fought to push the Germans back. The Red Army Trophy Brigades collected art, libraries and archives with a vengeance, for as they traveled east, they were incensed by four years of destruction of their country by the Germans. The icons, paintings, and treasures of Minsk, Kiev, and the czarist palaces outside of Leningrad had been pillaged and destroyed. The famous Amber Room from Catherine the Great's Palace, with its walls covered with panels, carvings and mosaics of amber was carted away by the Germans and is still missing. Not limiting their looting to art, the Soviets dismantled entire industrial factories and took furniture and household goods such as radios,(hidden by the Germans who forbid Jews to own them, looted by the Russians and then hidden again during the Stalin era). Russian soldiers packed everything up into trucks and trains and shipped it all home as they marched further into Germany. The amount of energy expended to move millions of pounds of goods on endless trains and convoys is staggering.
Fifty years after the war, the Soviet Union is at a standstill debate on the issue of seized art treasures from Germany. To their credit, the Russians did return over 1 million pieces of art to East Germany in the 1950's. "During the Great Patriotic War, during the battles on German territory, Soviet forces saved and removed to the Soviet Union classical pictures from the Dresden Gallery ". The massive Pergamon Altar, originally removed from the Greek city of Pergamon to Germany, was dismembered, carefully packed and sent to Moscow in 1945. It was returned back to its own museum in Germany in 1957. The Russians discovered it hidden (if you can hide something that large) by the Germans in the Zoo tower in Berlin which was supposed to be bomb proof. The Zoo tower contained crates of art treasures stolen by the Germans from victims during the Holocaust and collections hidden by museum curators to protect them from the destruction of Allied bombings. After 50 years of denying their "storage" in Russia, the Pushkin and Hermitage Museums only recently acknowledged their role in "saving" them. They were embarrassed into the admission by an Art News Article written by Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov in 1991 who accidentally uncovered archival documents when throwing away boxes of old papers. Their 1995 book, Beautiful Loot, reads like a detective's tale of robbery and espionage.
Russia, who lost 20 million people in the war, feels entitled to keep the work as reparation for its loss of palaces, churches, art, libraries and icons or to exchange it for art of equal value. "According to the Russian lawyers, the looting of Germany was legal because everybody did it. They said that the Allied Control Council, the body that ruled the defeated Germany, had recognized the "compensation principle of restitution" - the right of countries looted by the Nazis to take German property as compensation." The priceless Trojan treasure of King Priam's gold was a gift to the Berlin Museum by Heinrich Schliemann who had excavated it from the Hissarlik mound in Turkey and smuggled it into Germany in 1873. The museum hid it in the Berlin Zoo tower and it was in some crates, which were flown to Moscow in 1945. It literally came 'out of the closet' in Moscow after much denial of its existence. Part of the plane's cargo included incriminating documents, which were later used in the Nuremberg Trials against the Nazi war criminals
Other works have been resurfacing in recent years. The Pushkin Museum, in February of 1995, showed 63 paintings from its stash of German and Hungarian private and museum collections in an exhibit advertised as "Twice Saved". The Hermitage opened an exhibit, "Hidden Treasures Revealed" in March 1995 with 74 Impressionist and post-impressionist painters including Degas, Renoir, Gaughin, and Van Gogh. A critic of the Russian policy of secrecy, Viktor Baldin has been insisting that the Russians return important works to German museums. He was a young Russian officer who rescued drawings from the Koening collection. They were part of a cache hidden by curators of the Bremen Kunsthalle in the cellar of Karnzow Castle in 1945. The Count committed suicide rather than reveal the hiding place in his castle that was later discovered and looted by Soviet officers who had little understanding of their value. Baldin salvaged 362 old Master drawings and 2 paintings, a Salvator Mundi by Durer and a portrait by Goya and placed them in a depository in the Shchusev Museum of Architecture in Moscow.
The world's museums are cluttered with artifacts from prior centuries and cultures. Egyptians packed the tombs of the Pharaohs with treasures and worldly objects never thinking that their "everyday" articles would be displayed as "treasures" for reverent museumgoers, who as if by staring at them, could absorb their secrets. As a result of Hitler and his henchmen confiscating millions of art works from museums and private citizens and resifting their ownership, the legal issues will continue to be tangled. A museums failure to acknowledge true ownership of the art, when dealer, museum, gallery and owner stamps and markings are on the works is not only irresponsible, it is immoral. Museums have chosen not to question rightful ownership in their greed to acquire the pieces. There are museum catalogs and records and lists in archives for careful "title" searches if one chooses to look into the true ownership.
The Museum of Modern Art currently is in a legal dispute between the Leopold Museum in Vienna and relatives of two Holocaust victims over ownership of two paintings by Egon Schiele, which had been stolen by the Nazis. A Degas monotype is in dispute between its current owner, Daniel Searle of Chicago and Nick Goodman, the grandson of Friedrich Gutmann, a Holocaust victim who allegedly owned the artwork. A Matisse now owned by the Seattle Art Museum is claimed to have been stolen from the bank vault art dealer Paul Rosenberg placed it in before he escaped from France in 1940.
As long as someone remembers an ancestor lost in the Holocaust, the claims to touch their lives with perhaps a treasured piece of artwork, will not go away. Lynn Nicholas in her fascinating book, The Rape of Europa, ends with the comment,
It has been sixty years since the Nazi whirlwind took hold, sweeping the lives of millions before it. Never had works of art been so important to a political movement and never had they been moved about on such a vast scale, pawns in the cynical and desperate games of ideology, greed and survival. Many were lost and many are still in hiding. The miracle of it all is the fact that infinitely more are safe, thanks almost entirely to the tiny number of "Monuments men" of all nations who against overwhelming odds preserved them for us.
We study history to understand our present, which then becomes the history for our children. Art is the visual record of that history and the artist the recorder of the images and sounds through which man confronts the depths of his soul. Man controls his destiny only temporarily and then it is up to his children to judge his actions, learn from his mistakes, and remember. His art ensures remembrance.