06 April 2015

The Gurlitt Affair: A canary in the coal mine?

by Ori Z Soltes

Surrounded by all kinds of interesting and problematic details, there are three large issues that stand out in the now-notorious case of Cornelius Gurlitt and his extraordinary hoard of paintings. One is that, having stumbled on this cache, between September, 2010—when Cornelius Gurlitt came back over the border from Switzerland, loaded with the residual of the cash that he had earned by selling yet another one of those paintings left to him by his late father, Hildebrand; suspicious of the volume of cash, the German authorities obtained a warrant to enter his apartment in Munich and found it piled high with some 1379 works—and its seizure in March, 2012 with the dubious provenance questions that more than 500 of these raised, (given, in particular, the fact that Gurlitt's father, Hildebrand, had been a major art buyer for Hitler's LinzMuseum project, in spite of having a Jewish grandmother), it took the Germans another eight months to let the world know that the cache existed.

The second is that, having done so, the Germans announced that a committee would be organized to examine the paintings, since they obviously do present Holocaust-era plunder questions--however they both remained secretive as to who would be on this committee, excluded some of the most skilled and experienced provenance researchers whom I at least know, and their politicians tied the hands of those on the committee, to the extent that key members of it threatened to quit. The third issue is that, sometime after this process began—after this mysterious process with its various legal and moral sides and aspects began its plod, and after, in the course of it all, the 84-year-old Gurlitt died (in May, 2014)—it emerged that there was a second cache of more than 260 paintings and drawings that had been kept in Gurlitt's farmhouse outside Salzburg, Austria that first came to light in February, 2014, and that the entire hoard had been left, in his will, to the Kunstmuseum (Museum of Fine Arts) in Bern, Switzerland.

This third issue presents at least one question and one serious practical problem. The question is how it came about in the first place that the Bern Museum—rather than, say, some Museum in Germany, where Gurlitt lived and died—received such a substantial inheritance. How was the relationship that led to this outcome forged? What, for example, might have been the role of the museum in who knows how many transactions in the previous half-century and more, during which Gurlitt never held a job, but lived by periodically selling paintings from his collection—in Switzerland?

If this question may never be answered, the practical problem is at least as troubling. In accordance with the arrangements outlined in the will, the Bern Museum will use its own staff resources exclusively to explore the provenance histories of all of these paintings—in 90 days—and its opinions/decisions will be final. Those of us who have worked in the provenance-research trenches are all too aware of how slow the process can be and therefore of how unlikely it is that honest and forthright, definitive conclusions can be drawn so quickly about so many works by so small a group of potential researchers (of relatively limited experience in this matter) in such a short period of time. HARP’s letters to the Museum Director have not yielded anything resembling a satisfactory response.

But the question is: why should anyone care about these three issues? The answer in broad, emotional terms is that all three of them pull at the meta-issue of justice, and whether it will be—or can be—done. More specifically, they pull at justice as it pertains to the enormous matter of the Holocaust and the specific subset of that matter that focuses on the plunder of cultural property—and what that act of plunder, and the failure to see property that was plundered restituted to those from whom it was forcibly taken (or to their surviving heirs), signifies about justice and/or the lack of justice in a post-Holocaust world.

There are more specific historical concerns that these three issues raise, however. If, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously observed, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," the arc of the specific history of Germany, Austria and Switzerland as it pertains to Holocaust-related justice has been an instructive one. In general, as everyone knows, the Holocaust was an event that in the immediate aftermath of the war provoked some outrage and a desire to punish the perpetrators and some of the major figures, like Hermann Goering and Joachim von Ribbentrop were sentenced to death. But that first period past quickly, and the Holocaust was shortly all but ignored between the time of the Nurnberg Trials and the Trial of Adolph Eichmann in 1961.

The latter event, coupled six years later with the outbreak of the Six-Day War of June, 1967, between Israel and multiple Arab nations—just prior to which it appeared more than possible that Israel, with its 2.5 million Jews, would be annihilated; a few million Jews massacred while the world stood by and shrugged its shoulders, which possibility dredged up historical memory barely two decades old—began the process of bringing the Holocaust to the surface of particularly European and American Jewish and non-Jewish consciousness. This is the time-frame in which Yad VaShem came into existence in Jerusalem and within a decade of the June War the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was being planned in Washington.

Where Germany in particular is concerned, members of the Taetergeneration ("Perpetrator Generation"), who carried out the war, including thousands of former Nazis, after the first burst of show-trial sentencings had been carried out—by American, British, French and Russian judges, not by the Germans themselves—found plenty of jobs during the post-Nurnberg period in the civil service and even in the government, including some 25 Cabinet members and a President. This is what the journalist Ralph Giordano called Germany's zweite Schuld: "second guilt." Nobody was interested in the Nazi past; it was only in 1958 that West Germany established a central office for investigating war crimes--and with little real power, at that. The German judiciary did little with regard to former Nazis—how could it, since it was itself studded with former Nazis? The legal terms under which individuals might be found guilty of war crimes were narrow enough that very few could or would end up serving time for them. Of perhaps 6,500 members of the SS to survive the war, fewer than 100 were tried in German courts and only 50 were convicted.

All of this began slowly to change in the world at large as well as in (West) Germany by the 1970s, when the wartime pasts of a growing number of former Nazis living comfortably in the United States were uncovered. The culmination of change arrived to Germany with the trials of John (Ivan) Demjanjuk, an autoworker living and working outside Cleveland. After being deported from the United States, being tried and convicted in Israel for crimes allegedly committed in Treblinka and having his sentence overturned by an appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court, Demjanjuk was sent back to the US but with his citizenship revoked and ended up sent to Germany, where he was eventually found guilty of crimes committed at Sobibor.

The point is this: he had originally been accused and found guilty of being someone who in the end he was said not to have been—“Ivan the Terrible,” a brutal guard at Treblinka—but, by virtue of having been a guard at Sobibor, regardless of particular actions that he did or did not commit, he was found guilty of having been part of the “extermination machinery.” Although John Demjanjuk died (he was 89, by then) while awaiting the outcome of an appeal, the German authorities and media largely regarded this as a turning point in German legal history, since it suddenly opened up new possibilities with regard to punishing former Nazis. One might say the process begun in Israel with the Eichmann trial culminated in Germany with the Demjanjuk trial.

The further point is this: that although in the matter of such legal proceedings, the turning point came only early in the new millennium, the psychological groundwork was being laid for thirty years, evidenced by the explosion of Holocaust memorials, large and small throughout Germany, the renaming of streets in cities like Berlin to draw attention to prominent Jews whom the Nazi regime had destroyed, and by laws making it illegal to deny the Holocaust. Where Nazi-plunder art and cultural property is concerned, by the late 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium the Germans were ahead of the curve of most of the rest of the world in how broadly the term “plunder” was defined by them and in their willingness, indeed apparent desire, to address victims and their heirs who put in claims for restitution in an equitable manner.

At around the same time—from the mid-1990s to the end of the first decade of the new millennium, changes might also be felt elsewhere, as, for instance, in Austria and Switzerland. For half a century the Austrians had claimed that, in the Anschluss they were the Nazis’ first victims; by the end of the 1990s they were officially acknowledging how enthusiastically they had embraced the Nazis and how eagerly they had followed and even exceeded Nazi prescriptions for dealing with their Jewish neighbors. The Swiss had claimed to have remained successfully neutral due to the German fears of engaging their brave soldiers in the treacherous Alps. By the end of the millennium they were acknowledging that their role—particularly in the realm of plundered art, with regard to its sale and trade on the open market—had been essential for the Nazis, and that this had facilitated their unmolested neutrality. Swiss banks that had refused to turn over accounts to the heirs of Nazi victims (“Can you show me proof of your father’s death—perhaps his death certificate?” “They did not hand out death certificates at Auschwitz!”) were beginning to make the process of claiming such accounts more reasonable, in part under pressure from the US.

One of the concomitants of all of this was that, in general terms, anti-Semitism seemed to be on the wane; gradually from the 1970s through the new millennium’s first decade, it at least became increasingly unfashionable to make anti-Semitic statements or to engage in acts that could be called anti-Semitic—in general and particularly in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other countries that had actively assisted the Nazi extermination of Jews.

So why are the three large issues associated with the Gurlitt affair so significant? Why, aside from the meta-issue of justice and whether or not it gets carried out, in general terms or in the specific terms of the Holocaust, its perpetrators and victims—or in the sub-specific matter of cultural property, provenance, theft and restitution? Because these issues suggest a disturbing pattern wherein the arc of history is curving back upon itself.

During the last several years—the years when the Germans remained silent for 8 months regarding Gurlitt; and when they opted for an obscure and unforthright path with respect to researching his collection’s provenance history; and when the museum in Bern has seen fit to violate legal/moral assertions championed in 1998 in the so-called Washington Principles as well as the principles regarding provenance research and its concomitants heralded by ICOM (of which august international museum organization the Bern Museum is a member)—there has been a precipitous rise in anti-Semitism. What was unsayable a decade ago can be heard with ever-growing frequency. What cannot be directly said is said by proxy in some quarters—most often by condemning Israel for behavioral patterns that are exhibited in many places across the planet but ignored by those same Israel critics.

As troubling as the Gurlitt affair is in its own capacity, what it signifies with regard to the turning back of Germany—and Switzerland—toward a very dark place from which they both seemed to have emerged not that long ago is very disturbing indeed. Placed against the backdrop of a large look at the world and what appears to be an unshakably negative attitude towards Jews and Judaism to which far too many individuals resort whenever socio-economic or political conditions become difficult or complicated, the Gurlitt affair feels like a canary in the coal mine, whose quiet death warns us and asks the question: when will the breathable air run out?