07 March 2015

So What Was on Hitler's Mind as an Art-Plunderer?

by Ori Z Soltes

For many readers of this blog, these observations may not be new, but for others they may provide food for thought. Those with historical awareness recognize that the Nazis more often than not didn't invent new ideas; they adopted old ones and innovated as they adapted them to their needs. 

Thus, for instance, at least as far back as the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, in which the 67th through the 70th canons dealt with the Jews, the idea was promoted in Christendom, and well-followed in parts of the realm, that Jews be rendered readily distinguishable from their good Christian neighbors by special clothing, or special marks--a yellow circle, for instance--on t heir clothing. Thus the eventual ubiquity that Jews across Nazi-controlled Europe wear yellow six-pointed stars was innovative in its details but not in its fundamental conception.

And the French created the first camps into which those guilty of no crime but who somehow should not be allowed to run around freely might be concentrated in the context of the Spanish Civil War. Too many Spaniards coming over the Pyrenees in 1938-9 (the infamous Retirada) made the prevailing French government uncomfortable and a mechanism that was, as it were, extra-legal had to be created to assuage that discomfort. The Nazis not only created a much wider system of concentration camps, but further enhanced the idea by designating some of them as slave-labor camps--and others as extermination camps.

And so with the issue of Nazi plunder, of cultural and other property--but particularly of cultural property--the historical precedents were many and some of the underlying reasons very familiar, but the shape of the plundering process was, again, innovative.
Lucius Mummius
One might begin by asking about those underlying reasons. Plundering the art of one's defeated enemies is one way of showing one's military and political success over them. But when Lucius Mummius, the Roman general--the first art plunderer whom we can identify by name--returned from his military success in subduing the Greeks at Corinth in 146 BCE, he carted piles of Greek statues back to Rome. The fourth-century CE Roman historian, Eutropius, informs us, with an amused tone, that Lucius took out an insurance policy on his plunder, and that the contract stipulated that, should any of the sculptures be damaged in transit, the company would supply the general with compensatory pieces equal in weight to those that were damaged.  
If Eutropius' amusement derives from his recognition that Lucius was an ignorant boor who had no concept of the intrinsic value of art, we might recognize that the purpose of acquiring his horde was precisely to show his friends and neighbors back home that he was not a boor, or a destructive savage, but a cultured man, who, while successful at his business of fighting and killing, appreciated the fine things wrought by human mind and hand.

We may see this intention emulated down through the centuries, arriving at an exalted destination in the far-reaching plunder of Napoleon, who brought back art from Egypt, and from Rome that had been taken by the Romans from Egypt, as he also did from other parts of Italy and from Spain and Germany and the Hapsburg domains. The Nazis followed this lead, eager to show how civilized they were. Even before they began to expand their plundering activities beyond their borders, they were determined to underscore this point by organizing a large exhibition of "true" art that ran virtually side-by-side with an exhibit of "degenerate" art. If the Nazis were consummately civilized, those who made and patronized the likes of Picasso and Matisse or anything abstract or connected to Jews, were surely barbaric. (Even an admired painter like Rembrandt, when he painted a work like "the Jewish Bride" slipped from his pedestal.)

Part of the Nazi innovation, of course, was to begin the plunder before there was a war outside their borders from their own citizens: barely was Hitler in position as Chancellor and his henchmen were forcing Jews to give up their collections--forced sales, mind you, nothing that could be legally called plundered--as gradually, over the next few years, Jews (and others) would be deprived of a range of citizenship rights before they began to be concentrated, for their own "protection" into designated camps, and before they would be deprived of their lives.

A second innovation, once the plundering process began to gain momentum, both within Germany and outside it--once the war itself officially began and countries beyond Germany either embraced (Austria, for example) or succumbed (Western Europe, for instance) to German arms--was the elaborate and systematic, multi-leveled program devoted simply to plunder. Thus on the one hand, with the Anschluss into Austria (March 1938), a program was implemented that required Jews--or anyone with even a vaguely Jewish relative--to fill out property-census forms. These listed everything they owned, from jewelry, silverware and furniture to drawings, paintings, and statues.

(One of the interesting proofs, both of how Austrian the Austrian Jews thought they were and thus of how taken by surprise they must have been by the onslaught on them not only of the Germans but of their Austrian neighbors, comes from a study of those property-census forms. When Marc Masurovsky and I had the chance a few years back to look over a few thousand of them, two things in particular, for which we were not searching, stood out. One was how Jews already living elsewhere, beyond Nazi reach, filled out forms, as required, and often added offhanded comments--for example, that a given bunch of drawings is not worth really mentioning--in a tone that indicated their sense of being virtual colleagues of the presumed readers of these forms. The second was how not only did so many Jews own works by second- and third-rate Austrian artists--Austrian artists, whose work good Austrians would own and display--but so many owned real estate, from merely part of an apartment to several apartment buildings or factories: one does not invest in real estate if one has even an inkling that one may need to leave quickly; it is too difficult to liquidate.)
Alfred Rosenberg

I digress. For a different aspect of systemic innovation was practiced in France, one of the places where Alfred Rosenberg--Hitler's expert in matters of racial distinctions (Aryans vs Slavs vs Roma vs Jews, from nose-type to hair-color to mental and moral acuity)--in charge of the organization that bore his name, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, (ERR), elaborated an extraordinary web of informants, from gallerists and museum directors to bankers and housemaids, regarding who had what and where, if it had been hidden, it could be found. It was this network that helped facilitate the plunder of cultural property on an unprecedented scale.

Part of the purpose of this massive undertaking, run by an army of plunderers who ran on a track parallel to that of the German army, was, to repeat, to underscore the cultured and civilized nature of the regime. The illusion that Nazis were civilized operated on different levels and for different sub-purposes. Oddly or not, the exhibition of proper art had been a failure: for every visitor to it more than a hundred flocked to see the "degenerate" art (Entartete Kunst) exhibit. Apparently far more Germans disagreed than agreed with Propaganda Minister Goebbels' notion of "real" art. 
Joseph Goebbels

On the other hand, the permission for several years to Jewish musicians to offer their own performances for their own, Jewish audiences--both Jewish musicians and Jewish audiences having been excluded early on from association with their non-Jewish counterparts--which permission was formally organized as der Judische Kulturbund (the KuBu, as it was popularly known); and the encouragement of music and, to an extent, visual art, at the Terezin Concentration Camp (its inhabitants often there temporarily, before being moved on to Auschwitz)--these kinds of activities were to enhance the illusion both that the Nazis fostered culture, even among the Jews, and in fact that the Fuhrer really loved his Jews. Perhaps no Nazi action with regard to art and culture was more cynical than the band of Jewish players that was organized to serenade victims at Auschwitz as they marched toward the gas chambers.
 What did the Nazis want with all the art that they plundered, besides using it as some proof of their high level of civilization and for other propagandistic purposes? Or rather, how did that intended validation play out? There was, to be sure, the art that was hoarded--but in different ways. The Fuhrer himself loved 18th- and 19th-century landscapes and images of happy, strong, beautiful--preferably blondish and blue-eyed--younger rather than older people, painted or sculpted by Northern European artists (as inherently superior than those in the south). Goering had more catholic tastes--even collecting art that Hitler would have disapproved. There was a line of German and Austrian museum directors who were looking to beef up their collections and there were Nazi upper and lower echelon operatives who wanted works for themselves, all available at bargain-basement prices through the auctions that followed both forced-sales and, later, outright confiscations.
Design for the so-called Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria

Hitler had in mind, in fact, to build the largest art museum that the world had ever seen in his hometown of Linz, Austria. This was effectively the other side of a project to take place in Prague: the shaping of a huge museum of Jewish ceremonial objects, using the synagogues in the city's 850-year-old Jewish quarter to house the collections. Hitler's intention was to show the world how vast and powerful had been the Jewish civilization that he had destroyed--a statement of what he had accomplished as a kind of gift to humanity. For the sake of this museum both the synagogues and the artifacts survived.

Otherwise, the plunder of Judaica was intended to lead to its destruction--usually, by melting it down if it was made of silver or gold. Degenerate art was slated to be traded for art that was more acceptable, or to be sold through myriad willing "neutral" intermediaries in places like Switzerland, Sweden and--yes--France, (to be purchased in active, question-free art markets like that in New York) in order to raise money for armaments, particularly as the war effort moved away from its early blitzkrieg of success.

By then even as the battlefield results were increasingly negative for the Nazis and their allies, the war against the Jews--the Holocaust--continued unabated. That ongoing effort was, of course, facilitated by British and American governments who found good excuses for limiting their efforts to curtail the destruction of the Jews (by bombing the train tracks to Auschwitz, for instance) on the specious grounds that this would take away from their effort to win World War II. Lucius Mummius as a model of self-promoting cultural illusion and his Nazi emulators and expanders were not alone in either looking at plundered cultural property through closed eyes or in promoting illusions about themselves to and for themselves and the wider world.

"Neutral" Europe during WWII