Nazi Plunder of Art
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Understanding the looting of art by Hitler and his Nazi regime before and during World War II goes beyond simply quantifying the extent of their plunder. For the record, numbers in this regard have been put forth. For example, one report places the losses suffered in France at 60,000 pieces, a figure that accounts for one-third of all art in private hands in that country. A Polish database of artworks stolen or missing since World War II contains 59,000 pieces, and this number might only represent 10% of the artworks destroyed or stolen during that period. To be clear, the Nazis stole art from every country they conquered. Their motivations to do so were fueled not just by desires to enhance the status of the regime and the Germanic people (and for top-level Nazi leaders, personal enrichment), but they also stole and destroyed art as part of their ethnic genocide programs. The origins of these motivations can be traced to Hitler himself.

Curiously, Adolf Hitler's background was that of an artist, and a not very successful one. In fact, as a youth in 1907, he applied to become a student at Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts, but he was rejected. Ironically, contemporaries who were studying at the Academy at that time included Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, both of whom became major figures in the modern art movement, an art form despised by Hitler, but one that found acceptance at the Academy. Moreover, in the early 1900s there was a strong Jewish influence at the Academy of Fine Arts. Hitler was embittered by his rejection, and it has been suggested that the circumstances under which it occurred fueled his anti-Semitism and his disdain for modern art.

When he rose to power as chancellor of Germany in 1933, he gained a platform to take these views to an extreme. Art became very fashionable under his regime, but Hitler dictated what was acceptable in this respect; that is, Nordic and classical images were considered ideal forms of beauty (for example, paintings by Jan Vermeer, Hans Holbein, Rembrandt, and Leonardo da Vinci), while modern art was labeled as "unfinished" or worse yet, "degenerate." Even more disturbing was that his tastes in art reflected his views on the people and cultures that produced it. Those of Germanic or Nordic origins were looked upon with favor while Jews and Slavic peoples were considered racially inferior, a view that eventually led to genocide programs that targeted these groups.

In 1937, Hitler began his campaign to "cleanse" German museums of art he found distasteful, that is, modern art that destroyed the classical concept of beauty and replaced it with interpretative works that were incomprehensible. These included works by 20th-century German Expressionist and Fauvist artists (Schiele and Kokoschka among them); others of that period such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marc Chagall; as well as late 19th-century Impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, and Paul Gauguin. This cleansing campaign resulted in the confiscation of over 16,000 artworks, compensation for which was barred by legislation passed by the Nazi government in 1938. Nevertheless, this same government did not hesitate from profiting from the sale of these works at art auctions in Switzerland. However, nearly 4,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, watercolors, and graphics branded as "degenerate" were burned by the Nazis in March 1939. Others were put up for ridicule in Berlin in a display called the "Degenerate Art Exhibition."

Thus, as World War II commenced in September 1939, the Nazi motivation for art pillage was driven by ethnic hatred and racist nationalism. The art and culture of Jews and Slavs were to be destroyed (or sold to profit the Nazi regime), whereas Germanic/Nordic and classical art was to be seized for the benefit of the regime and the German people, including the establishment of what Hitler planned as the world's greatest art museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. And there was one final ingredient in this vile mix, that is, personal ambition and greed. Some art, even "degenerate art," was acquired by Nazi leaders when a profit potential was recognized through resale on the open market.

Thus, Hitler's military objectives and strategies carefully considered the value of art and culture (at least by Nazi standards) of each nation targeted for invasion. As Hitler viewed the Polish people and culture as inferior, he ordered the complete destruction of that nation, its people, and its art. Although Poland and the Polish people managed to survive the Nazi onslaught, they suffered a horrific toll in terms of loss of life and property, including an untold number of art objects. However, certain artworks in Poland were identified by Hitler for repatriation, or otherwise fit the Nazi standards. In these instances, he ordered his troops to locate and seize them for safe return to Germany. Most notable among the works confiscated from Poland was the altarpiece at the Church of Our Lady in Krakow, created by the 15th-century German artist Veit Stoss. The Soviet Union was similarly targeted for destruction by the Nazis because of its Slavic population and culture.

Different plans were in store for France, however. The Nazis admired French culture, and it was to be left intact. Nevertheless, French art losses were the greatest of any of the Western European countries conquered by the Nazis. While the extent of these losses was a function of the abundance of works of art in France, it was also attributable to a very systematic approach the Germans organized to facilitate their pillage.

In September 1940, Hitler established a specialized unit known as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) whose mission was to seize those works that were in concert with the cultural ideals of the Nazi regime and confiscate for sale or destruction degenerate objects. This unit was headed by the long-time Nazi loyalist and anti-Semite, Alfred Rosenberg. Rosenberg eagerly assumed his task, one that was made easier with the Nazi decree that Jews in France no longer had any rights of citizenship and thus could no longer own property. As a result, over 16,000 paintings were stolen from Jews in Paris alone, while the total haul from all of France was 21,000 pieces from 203 collections.

Artworks seized by the Nazis in Paris were concentrated and inventoried at the Jeu de Paume, a small museum near the Louvre. Hitler, of course, had first choice on any works seized through this confiscation program with many designated for the collection at his proposed Linz museum. Next in line was Hermann Goering, Hitler's second-in-command and a self-styled art aficionado. During the German occupation of France (1940–1944), Goering made 20 visits to the Jeu de Paume during which he took for himself and/or for future sale over 700 paintings, many of which were classified as degenerate pieces by the ERR staff and, thus, were forbidden as imports into Germany.

Among the artworks most coveted by Hitler were paintings in a private collection held by the wealthy Jewish family, the Rothschilds. Included in this collection was Vermeer's The Astronomer; Frans Hals's Portrait of Isabella Coymans; Anthony Van Dyck's Portrait of Henriette of France as a Child; several works by Peter Paul Rubens and Titian; two portraits by Francisco de Goya; and several by Joshua Reynolds.

The Allied forces were aware of the Nazi plunder of art. The American and British armies established specialized units to recover artworks stolen by the Nazis, and to guide combat operations around areas of cultural importance. In fact, it was the American unit, known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) officers, that recovered over 6,500 paintings, 2,300 drawings and watercolors, 954 prints, and 137 pieces of sculpture hidden in the salt mine at Alt Aussee in 1945 after the Nazis' unsuccessful attempt to destroy this treasure trove. These were the works of such artists as Michelangelo, Vermeer, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, and Rembrandt.

Policies set forth by American and British officials regarding artwork recovered from the Nazis were designed for its return to the countries from where it was stolen, with the understanding that these nations would return these pieces to their owners. The Russians were also involved in recovering art in the hands of Nazis through its specialized unit, the Red Army Brigades. Their approach, however, differed markedly from the American and British policies as their recoveries were more akin to the tradition of seizure of a conquering army. While almost 70 years have passed, both these policies have left unresolved legacies.

Thomas D. Bazley


MLA Citation

"Nazi Plunder of Art." Saving Europe's Art. ABC-CLIO, 2019. Web. 22 March 2019.

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