hitler’s art collection -- 2/13/24

Today's selection -- from Saving Italy by Robert M. Edsel. The looting of art during World War II:

“Despite General Eisenhower's historic order, the Western Allies were not the only army to conceive of protecting cultural treasures during war. Ironically, so too did Germany, the same nation that since 1939 had systematically looted the countries it had conquered and occupied.

“On August 25, 1914, less than a month after Germany's invasion of neutral Belgium and the outbreak of World War I, German soldiers patrolling the ‘open’ and undefended university town of Louvain, near Brussels, were shot and killed. Believing their deaths to be the act of partisan snipers, German military authorities first rounded up and executed 248 citizens and then ordered other residents to stand in the streets while German troops burned their homes, one by one. The soldiers then torched the University of Louvain's library, one of Europe's oldest and most distinguished collections. The blaze destroyed 250,000 books—some eight hundred of which had been printed before the year 1500—and five hundred illuminated manuscripts. The destruction of Louvain library became a notorious example of wanton wartime destruction.

“The world reacted with swift and united indignation. So, too, did alarmed German cultural officials. Within three weeks, Wilhelm von Bode, Chief Superintendent of the Prussian Museums, proposed that Otto von Falke coordinate efforts with Belgian officials to protect that nation's movable works of art. The following month, Dr. Paul Clemen, a distinguished professor of Art History at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Bonn, was appointed to formally develop a system to protect the monuments of Belgium and later France.

A model of Adolf Hitler's planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria, designed by Roderich Fick based on Hitler's sketches

“Clemen's role as Provincial Conservator of the Rhineland, and his pioneering work in art conservation, uniquely qualified him to become the first leader of the Kunstschutz, Germany's ‘art protection’ unit. On January 1, 1915, he received a commission from German military officials that coordinated his art protection responsibilities with front-line commanders. Although hardly well known, the name of Paul Clemen became favorably associated with the protection of cultural property during World War I. So, too, was the name of Bode, best known for his leadership of the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin. ‘Cultural goods and art have to be saved for every cultivated country,’ Bode once stated, ‘and ... the protection of arts and monuments has to be executed the same way on enemy territory as it is in our own country.’ But his vision would prove short-lived.

“On May 10, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Western Europe and, for a second time, occupied Belgium. Incredibly, seven days later, the University of Louvain Library—having reopened in 1928 after ten years of rebuilding—was again reduced to ashes. Of the nine hundred thousand books destroyed that day, some two hundred thousand had been donated to the library by Germany per the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The painful irony was that many of those books contained bookplates with a Latin motto, Sedes Sapientiae non Evertetur (The Seat of Wisdom Shall Not be Overturned). German forces claimed that British troops fleeing the town of Louvain had started the fire; a subsequent investigation attributed the source to German artillery. The appointment, less than a week earlier, of Professor Dr. Franz Graf von Wolff-Metternich as the leader of the Kunstschutz, with a mandate to advise German High Command on the preservation and protection of works of art and monuments in occupied territories, had begun badly.

“The challenges Clemen faced in establishing the Kunstschutz in 1914 seemed meager by comparison with those confronting Wolff-Metternich in 1940. By the time of his involvement, Hitler and Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring had set in motion the greatest looting operation of the twentieth century. Much of Eastern Europe's cultural wealth had already been stolen or destroyed. Soon Wehrmacht troops would march into the artistically rich cities of Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris, where the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg—Special Task Force Rosenberg, named for its leader, Alfred Rosenberg) would begin operations, all outside Wolff-Metternich's authority.

“As an aspiring student of painting and architecture, Hitler had been rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, but his interest in art endured. If anything, the rejection motivated him to prove his ‘under-estimated’ gifts to the world. Working with young but established architects, including Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler, Hitler developed plans to rebuild entire cities, including his hometown of Linz, Austria. Beginning in May 1938, inspired by a tour of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence during a state visit to Italy, Hitler approved plans that led to an extraordinary museum—the Gemaldegalerie Linz, commonly referred to as the Fuhrermuseum—that would contain what he considered to be the world's most important objects.

“Under Hitler's leadership, art became a weapon of propaganda. Art was used to promote Nazi racial policies. During a 1937 visit to ‘The First Great German Art Exhibition,’ Hitler was infuriated by works or art he considered ‘degenerate’ and removed them from the walls himself. He used the occasion to explain:

Certain people's eyes show things differently than they are ... men who see, or as they may say, ‘experience,’ the present-day body shapes of the people of our Nation only as degenerated retards, who generally perceive meadows as blue, skies as green, clouds as sulfurous yellow, and so on. . . . I just want to prohibit in the name of the German people that these poor unfortunate individuals who clearly suffer from bad vision, try to forcefully sell the results of their misconceptions to their contemporaries, or even declare it as being ‘art.’

“Out the doors of German museums went paintings by German and Austrian Expressionist painters Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, August Macke, and Oskar Kokoschka. Works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, and Renoir, among many others, soon followed, all part of the sixteen thousand objects declared ‘degenerate’  and later sold, traded, or burned.

“Hitler's taste ran toward German-speaking nineteenth-century painters, including Makart, Spitzweg, Becklin, and Griitzner, who in his view had been misjudged by those without his artistic talent. He also admired and sought works by such Old Master artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Jan Vermeer, and the great German Renaissance painters Albrecht Durer and Lucas Cranach. Hitler intended that some of these masterpieces reside in the Fuhrermuseum; others would be distributed to a network of regional museums throughout the Reich.

“Each year Hitler added to his collection. Agents acquired works for him through legitimate purchases, forced sales, and confiscations. The Nazis issued decrees to maintain legal cover, in particular for items looted from Jews. But the enterprise grew larger; hiding the nature of the crime became an exercise in paperwork. Upon establishing operations in Paris, the ERR and other Nazi agencies began targeting works of art owned by preeminent dealers and collectors in France, including David-Weill, Rothschild, Bernheim-Jeune, Seligmann, and Kann. Often they characterized the confiscations as ‘safeguarding.’ ERR staff then created elaborate, brown leather-bound albums containing photographs of the works of art, each caption identifying the family from whom the object was taken and noting the inventory number assigned to that particular object. For paintings, the number would be stamped on the back of the stretcher. (For example, ‘R-4888’ referred to the 4,888th item stolen from the French branch of the Rothschild family.)

“Presentation of these albums, which included sculpture, furniture, jewelry, paintings, and other art objects, allowed Hitler to select those items he wanted for the Fuhrermuseum, or another museum he designated. These albums regularly accompanied him—from the Reichs Chancellery in Berlin to the Wolfsschanze on the Eastern Front to his home in Berchtesgaden.

“Over time, the Nazi looting agencies built their operation to industrial scale. The Fuhrer, like Napoleon and other conquerors before them, believed that the possession of art projected power and a sense of superior knowledge, thereby placing him among the great men of history."

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Robert M. Edsel


Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis


W. W. Norton & Company


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