Over a month ago the news of a Nazi-looted treasure trove of priceless modern art, found in a Munich apartment, made world headlines as it was the largest find of Nazi-stolen art thus far. Historians, museum curators, collectors, dealers, and art lovers alike celebrated this tremendous discovery of 1,500 works by great masters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Otto Dix, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Oskar Kokoschka, Canaletto, Pierre-August Renoir, Franz Marc and Gustav Courbet. Though many people are up in arms regarding the specifics of the seizure, asking many questions, such as why German authorities waited so long to report this find (the actual raid and discovery happened almost two years ago!). Many also wonder if Cornelius Gurlitt, the man who was in possession of the artwork, will face criminal charges, and more importantly, everyone is asking what will happen to the artwork now? Will it be returned to its original owners, put in museums, or even sold? The answers to these questions are still a bit unclear, (according new reports Gurlitt may be legally allowed to keep all the artworks, full story here), you can read a detailed account of the initial artwork discovery here, but either way this finding represents much more than just a stash of paintings valued in excess of 1.4 billion dollars. It is a triumph over Hitler’s war on art and his desire to wipe out a culture he felt inferior, through the eradication and destruction of their art, architecture, and cultural heritage.
“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.” -Adolf Hitler
The idea for this post manifested after watching the trailer for the upcoming film The Monuments Men, based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and the true events that occurred during WWII. You can watch the trailer yourself below…
In the trailer George Clooney’s character makes a very poignant statement that really struck a chord in me..
“If you destroy an entire generation of people’s culture it’s as if they never existed.”
Which made me realize that Hitler’s plan during WWII was more than just a genocide of people it was also a genocide of their culture, even more specifically their art. On a side note, I’d just like to point out what an uncanny coincidence (or is it fate?) that the announcement of the Nazi-loot occurred only months before the film’s premier, well whether it’s some great conspiracy between Hollywood and German officials (who knows?!…) boy has this film gained some current relevancy, and now that people’s interests are especially piqued, I can imagine the success of this film will increase tenfold. The movie itself has quite the stellar lineup starring Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett, and looks like it will be very good,
can we say Oscar nominee, perhaps? The film, like the true story, is a tale of heroism as the Monuments Men are the saviors of the art and architecture of Europe’s culture.
So back to what I was saying previously…During this “ah ha!” realization moment I immediately remembered the article I read over a month ago in the NY Times about the Nazi-treasure trove of art found, which directly relates to the movie…So heavy research was in store for me as I trolled the internet for info on Hitler’s plan to annihilate modern art as well as the history of the Monuments Men themselves. In the end I discovered it’s not just about saving people, it’s about saving their place in history. They say if we forget the past it is bound to repeat itself, so here we go…my telling of:
The Great War on Art
Part I: The Monuments Men and the Spoils of War
We are all well aware that any war equates to mass looting as well as devastating destruction to cities, small towns and so on. But unlike wars before when pillaging was fueled only out of greed and profits, Adolf Hitler had a much more insidious plan in mind (in addition to greed and profits)…
“From now on we are going to wage a merciless war of destruction against the last remaining elements of cultural disintegration.”
Hitler’s relationship with art is best described as love / hate. On one hand he despised all modern art declaring it “un-German” and “Jewish Bolshevist in nature,” but on the other hand he was very fond of classical styles of art, especially those linked with country life, with health, and with the Aryan race. He also recognized the value of national treasures throughout Europe such as DaVinci’s Mona Lisa or the Bayeux Tapestry and sought to steal them for the rising German Empire, to be placed in his future art museum in Linz, the Führermuseum, whose collection would contain choice artwork from conquered countries.
Hitler claimed that the Third Reich rightfully owned every artwork taken from Germany since 1500 as well as artwork in the Germanic style, thus beginning his massive raid and seizure of such works all across Europe. To successfully complete this master plan Hitler needed some serious help, one of these villainous henchmen was the German politician, military leader, and leading member of the Nazi Party, Hermann Göring.
During his career under Hitler’s regime Göring, withdrew from the military and political scene to focus on the acquisition of property and artwork for the Nazi party. Which basically meant, stealing artwork from Jewish families and other supposed enemies of the regime. Göring was a passionate collector with an insatiable appetite for beautiful objects, at the height of his collecting career he had amassed over 4,000 pieces of art. The collection of over 1,000 paintings along with sculptures and other valuable objects included works by masters such as Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Botticelli. Though he was particularly fond of art from Medieval and Renaissance eras, classical nudes and Dutch master paintings, he also acquired a few impressionist paintings as well (such as the Matisse paintings above^) even though the Nazi’s deemed this style of painting degenerate. Göring’s taste, both in art and personal style, was undeniably extravagant. He flaunted his wealth by building grand palaces, such as Carinhall palace, to house his stolen art collections, and proudly boasted of owning the largest private art collection in Europe.
As the great saga of WWII unfolded, fortunately Hitler’s plan to seize and potentially destroy Europe’s great art and architecture did not go unnoticed. Enter stage – the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program (MFAA) or more commonly known as the “Monuments Men.” On May 26, 1944 General Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the order that his officers must “protect and respect” the cultural monuments that lay in the path of war; an order unheard of during a time of war, when collateral damage was considered inevitable. Eisenhower’s decision to “respect, protect, and preserve” cultural monuments was spurred after the controversial bombing of the mountaintop abbey of Monte Cassino, built around 529 A.D.
However, this daunting task of safeguarding culturally significant buildings, art, and artifacts was not left to the common foot soldier; but to a group of 345 men and women, many of who were museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators who left the safety of their institutions to volunteer in the MFAA. Relying on mostly their own resourcefulness, as their was no precedent to follow, the Monuments Men were more or less a renegade secret ops force / treasure hunters, who not only persuaded military officials to “back off” of important monuments, but began the “greatest treasure hunt in history,” as they spent years searching for art and artifacts plundered by the Nazis that were hidden in places such as castles, mines, and prisons.
One of the Monument Men’s great discoveries was at castle Neuschwanstein. Built by King Ludwig II also known as “Mad Ludwig” or “the fairy-tale king” of Bavaria in the 19th century, the German castle was the key Nazi repository for the greatest works of art stolen from France. It took the Monuments Men six weeks to empty the castle due to the tremendous amount of stolen works of art combined with the fact there were no elevators in the castle, therefore all the artwork had to be hand-carried down countless flights of stairs. The treasure trove contained over 6,000 items including precious tapestries, jewelry, furniture, gold and silver relics, books, rare engravings and prints, and piles of paintings. Most of which had been stolen from the Rothschilds and other prominent Jewish families in France.
Among this loot at Neuschwanstein was another tremendous find, a card catalogue methodically listing more than 21,000 Nazi-related confiscations including shipping information on other hoards (can you say jackpot!)
The Monuments Men fought desperately to protect the cultural property in war areas during and after WWII in which they tracked, located, and in the years that followed, returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. Countless monuments, churches, and works of art were saved by the dedicated members of the MFAA, as well as other organizations working around the same time such as The Roberts Commission, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Harvard Group.
Though these brave men and women risked everything to save these cultural mementos, the work of the MFAA was not officially acknowledged until 2007. Since then the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded to them a medal given to individuals or groups whose work has “deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities.” Without the Monuments Men the world, or art world at least, would have suffered a great loss; the buildings and art saved by them are not only irreplaceable, but symbolize man’s accomplished skill, profound artistry, and most importantly they serve as a visual record of history.
“The freedom enjoyed by this country from the desolation that has swept over so many others during the past years gives to America greater opportunity than ever before to become the greatest of the world’s repositories of art. The whole world will then have a right to look to us with grateful eyes; but we will fail unless we consciously appreciate the value of art in our lives and take practical steps to encourage the artist and preserve his works.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Hilter and the Nazis were some of the greatest thieves in history. Their systematic plan to pillage and plunder Europe of all its wealth was fueled by greed, hatred, and lust to be the greatest empire in the world; and the destruction that lay in their wake was unprecedented.
Here is an excellent, short video to watch by National Geographic – Video: Nazi Art Theft
Part II: Hitler the Artist?
Hitler’s devilishly devised plan to pillage art was, to say the least, complicated. On one hand it was about destroying people’s history through the destruction of art that represented them, on the other hand it was about building the greatest empire with the wealth and grandeur of art, and lastly, but maybe most importantly, it was about REVENGE. As we have come to find out, Hitler had a serious personal gripe with modern art, probably because he was a failed artist himself…
As a young boy Hitler’s greatest dream and aspiration was to become an artiste. Now, now I know it is quite difficult to wrap your mind around the fact that a man who could shamelessly kill millions of people could be the sensitive artistic type, creating sentimental paintings of country landscapes, such as this quaint watercolor of a farm below, that are reminiscent of Bob Ross or Thomas Kinkade.
Described by teachers as “argumentative, autocratic, self-opinionated and bad tempered,” Hitler was never the academic type, preferring over anything else, to spend an afternoon daydreaming. Art, however, was the only subject he liked and moderately excelled in and he fantasized about one day becoming a great artist. Hitler’s father scoffed at this idea and basically told little boy Hitler that, “you could become an artist, over my dead body.” Well that day did come, and once Hitler’s father died he devoted himself to a life of art and idleness.
At age 16 Hitler dropped out of school and left home to pursue a Bohemian lifestyle of a starving artist; traveling from place to place, scrounging for money and food, and most importantly trying to become famous. In 1907 he moved to Vienna (he fell in love with the city after visiting it in 1906) and applied for a place at Vienna’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. Though he passed the initial exams, Hitler failed to procure a place, shattering his hopes and dreams; even though out of the 113 applicants only 28 passed so it wasn’t a great loss. However, Hitler saw this rejection as a catastrophic disaster in his life which struck him like a “bolt from the skies.”
After this defeat Hitler’s enthusiasm for art making wavered as he lazed about hatching grandiose plans which amounted to nothing and making a painting here and there. Eventually he decided to reapply to the Academy, but he was a rejected yet again, however this time in the initial stages. His examiners did see some potential in him though, especially in his architectural renderings, and encouraged him to pursue architecture.
Hitler ignored their advice (even though his architectural drawings and watercolors were executed with the precision and accuracy of a draftsman) and slowly drifted into oblivion. For several years Hitler lived the life of a vagabond living in hostels and getting his food from soup kitchens. Desperate for money, he struck up a business deal with another fellow, who would sell Hitler’s paintings for him while they split the profits. However this, like most things in Hitler’s life thus far, was just a pipe dream as his eagerness to make a painting a day quickly faded and he slunk back to the impoverished streets.
In 1913 Hitler received a small inheritance from a relative enabling him to move from Vienna to Munich. There he continued to live a life of a wanderer. Unemployed and with nothing to do, he spent his time meandering though the city admiring the architecture. With more financial stability and the academy’s rejection somewhat behind him, Hitler greatly enjoyed his time in Munich describing it as
“by far the happiest time of my life.”
On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia. This was Adolf Hitler’s saving grace.
“I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time … There now began the greatest and most unforgettable time of my earthly existence.” – Adolf Hitler
As war gave Hitler’s life a renewed meaning, moving him forward, he left his artistic ambitions behind. Bitterness though, seemed to grow inside of Hitler toward those who rejected him as an artist, the jurors at the academy (who happened to be Jewish) and the artists who were preferred over himself (some of who were also Jewish); fueling both his antisemitism as well as his hatred for modern art. Hitler had thought of himself as a great realistic painter and could not fathom the fact that abstract artists such as Wassily Kandinsky or Marc Chagall could be shown in galleries and he could not. Hitler hated the chaotic and unrealistic nature of avant-garde painting, seeing them as inferior, offensive, and grotesque, which was of course in his eyes, a great threat to the German people.
Art became Hitler’s greatest obsession and the top priority on his political agenda and as he rose to power, he sought to destroy art that he hated and claim what he liked for himself. And so the war on art ensued.
Part III: Modernism = The Great Social Evil
On January 31, 1933 Adolf Hitler rose to power and the great purge of undesirable people, art, and other unwanted cultural remnants began. His goal, as we all know, was to perfect the Aryan race and make Germany the superpower of the world, to do so though, he had to eliminate things which threatened this master plan i.e. modern art.
In Hitler’s eyes Modernism was one of the great social evils threatening his Aryan society. And with his mind clouded with vengeance, Hitler not only rejected modern art, but demonized it as social scum, dubbing it “entartete Kunst” or degenerate art. Now to demonstrate to the German public, as well as to others throughout Europe, how vile and blasphemous modern art actually was, Hitler decided to hold an “exhibition of shame” for these so called degenerate artists in order to…
“reveal the philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which follow them”.
Hiter and the Nazi party used the term degenerate art to describe virtually all modern art which the Nazis considered, “un-German or Jewish Bolshevist in nature.” As well as art that “insulted German feeling, or destroyed or confused natural form or simply revealed an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.” As a result, this type of art was banned from being made, sold, or exhibited (except of course, for in the Nazi-sanctioned Degenerate Art exhibition).
The Degenerate Art exhibition opened on July 19, 1933 and ran through November 30, 1937 in Munich before traveling to other cities. It featured over 650 paintings, sculptures, prints, and books confiscated from German museums. Works were chosen and included on the basis that they were, abstract or expressionistic, or displayed qualities of “decadence”, “weakness of character”,”mental disease”, and “racial impurity,” and also in certain cases, if the work was by a Jewish artist. Some of the artists included were Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, and Franz Marc; however out of the 112 artists featured only 6 were actually Jewish.
The exhibition’s slap-dash installation, crude wall texts, and deliberate disarray emphasized Hitler’s deep seated animosity toward modern art “the pictures were hung askew, there was graffiti on the walls, which insulted the art and the artists, and made claims that made this art seem outlandish, ridiculous.” In addition the artists were grouped in categories that degraded them further. These thematic rooms were: art that was blasphemous, art by Jewish or communist artists, art that criticized German soldiers, art that offended the honor of German women, and lastly “the insanity room” which was reserved for abstract art.
Ironically, though the exhibition which was meant to mock and humiliate these artists, actually ensured their legacy and for many brought international fame. An astounding one million people went to see this “shameful” exhibition in the first six weeks; some attracted by the scandal surrounding it, but many more came because that would be the last time they would ever see this artwork again.
Hitler’s battle against modern art waged onward with great force, confiscating in total 15,997 works from 101 German museums. The end of entartete Kunst was signalled by the burning of 4,829 art works in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Brigade. Of course it wasn’t enough, though, for Hitler to just demonstrate to the German people what art was “wrong,” he had to show them what was “right” as well.
As a would-be artist himself, Hitler was also a self proclaimed art critic and had a distinctive taste for classical art which he forced upon Germany with a vengeance. Coinciding with the Degenerate Art Exhibition was another exhibition about a block and a half away Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung or the Great German Art Exhibition; a show that demonstrated the”blood and soil” values of racial purity, militarism, and obedience. The two shows were meant to be shown in opposition. The Degenerate Art Exhibition portrayed what Hitler detested: abstraction, primitivism, impressionism and so on, while the other embodied the National Social aesthetic and “world” view: statuesque blonde nudes, idealized soldiers, and of course (Hitler’s favorite) landscapes.
The 1937 exhibition, which featured approximately 900 works that exemplified the new standard of German art, was held at The House of German Art in Munich. Built by Hitler’s favorite architect Paul Ludwig Troost, The House of German Art was the first monumental structure of Nazi Architecture and propaganda. The building replaced the Glaspalast, a glass and iron exhibition building, which Hitler had burnt to the ground in 1931 along with 3,000 artworks inside, among them were paintings by German Romantics Caspar David Friedrich and Moritz von Schwind. A symbol of patriotism; the building was a monument to the socialist regime, firmly announcing the new age of German art.
The House of German Art set the precedent for all other German art museums to follow. It was mandated that German art was to be displayed prominently and centrally and the German artists themselves be “home grown,” demonstrating the values of the German “Folk” and their work also be “clear and truthful.”
“May this House be devoted only to serious art, art that is in our blood, art that people can comprehend. Because only the art that the simple man can understand is true art”
On July 18, 1937 (the day before the Degenerate Art exhibition opening) the cornerstone of The House of German Art was laid announcing its official opening. The event was marked by an extravagant celebration staged by National Socialist propaganda authorities. The great spectacle proclaimed as “The Day of German Art,” was meant to bring the nation together through a patriotic display of the 2,000-year history of the Reich. The grandiose parade consisted of 26 floats, 426 animals, and 6,000 people in period costumes along with models of new buildings around the city.
Footage of the historic parade can be seen in the video below.
The initial hope was that The Day of German Art would be an annual celebration, however due to the impending war it only lasted until 1939.
However, the Great German Art Exhibition lived on and every year from 1937 to 1944, the House of German Art in Munich hosted this chauvinistic display of German “pride.”
To Hitler the artwork chosen in the Great German Art Exhibition represented the “true” Germany, even though the Modernist paintings he detested more accurately described Germany’s present industrialization boom than the paintings of a romanticized agrarian past he loved. This exhibition also marked the first time the nation didn’t look toward Paris for it’s artistic cues, choosing to exhibit only German born artists. Hitler was defiant in this sense, to carve out Germany’s niche in the art world.
“Cubism,Dadaism, Futurism, Impressionism, etc., have nothing to do with our German people. For these concepts are neither old nor modern, but are only the artifactitious stammerings of men to whom God has denied the grace of a truly artistic talent, and in its place has awarded them the gift of jabbering or deception I will therefore confess now, in this very hour, that I have come to the final inalterable decision to clean house, just as I have done in the domain of political confusion,and from now on rid the German art life of its phrase-mongering.”
Thematically arranged, and in the most obvious and boring way possible, the exhibition was just as Hitler requested: simplistic with no room for interpretation or doubt. The exhibition’s break down was the following: 40% landscapes, 30% ordinary people, 11% portraits of historical figures, 10% animals, and lastly 7% still life. Wow, that makes for one riveting exhibition…not. To further emphasize the “greatness” of the Third Reich, propaganda messages were superimposed onto these realistic paintings of brave soldiers, muscular stags, and proud peasants which bore titles such as “Standing Guard,” “Forest Splendor,” or “Ready To Work.”
This exhibition then is but a beginning. [ . . . ] But the opening of this exhibit is also the beginning of the end of the stultification of German art and the end of the cultural destruction of our people. [ . . . ]
Though the exhibitions at the House of German Art were designed for the “Folk”, by the “Folk”, in order to preserve the “Folk”, the Folk seemingly weren’t that interested as the concurrent Degenerate Art Exhibition attracted three times the number of visitors. Possibly they felt the emotion, truth, and modernity of the avant-garde artists and detected the antediluvian deceit of Hitler’s art.
“And although this purge cannot be accomplished in one day, I do not want to leave the shadow of a doubt as to the fact that sooner or later the hour of liquidation will strike for those phenomena which have participated in this corruption. But with the opening of this exhibition the end of German art foolishness and the end of the destruction of its culture will have begun. From now on we will wage an unrelenting war of purification against the last elements”
After Thoughts: A Tale of Two Paintings
May 8, 1945 marked the official end of WWII and the Nazi’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces. Almost seventy years have passed, but the aftermath of the war remains. With thousands of artworks still at large, it is a constant reminder of the families whose collections were pillaged and lives later destroyed. The search for these missing works of art as well as documents continues today led by the Monuments Men Foundation; where you too can join the hunt. Though we will never know if these missing artworks survived Hitler’s wrath; we can hope that another treasure trove, such as that found in Munich, will be discovered in the future.
Now, not to leave you on a terribly somber note (I know it is quite distressing to think that there are masterpieces out there which may never see the light of day again!), I would like to share a short anecdote on two paintings which did survive…
Above are two masterpieces painted by two of the most revered artists in history. On the left is Pablo Picasso’s portrait of a woman entitled Buste de femme à la chemise painted the sumer of 1922 in Dinard, France and on the right is Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin. In 1937 both of these artworks, deemed as “degenerate art,” were confiscated by the Nazis and put into storage and their dubious fate left to the divine power of the art gods.
For two years the paintings were held hostage in a repository (art dungeon) of the Niederschönhausen Castle, until one day their luck turned….
On June 30, 1939 both paintings were put up at a “Degenerate Art” auction at the Fischer Gallery in Lucerne, Switzerland; one of many degenerate art sales whose profits funded Hitler’s world domination plans. The van Gogh, lot no. 45, sold to New York Banker Maurice Wertheim for 175,000 Swiss francs (about $40,000), the highest price paid at the auction. The Picasso (lot. no 117) on the other hand sold for a mere 8,000 Swiss francs (about $1,800) to an M. Deitz on behalf of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The “Degenerate Art” auction itself was these two artwork’s saving grace as they, among 126 other artworks by today’s most cherished artists such as, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Paul Gauguin, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Otto Dix, Franz Marc, Max Pechstein, and Emil Nolde escaped from Hitler’s clutches and impending doom.
Today these two paintings are in safe hands after spending years basically in limbo. Ripped from the walls of the Neue Staatsgalerie in Munich, van Gogh’s portrait is now in the collection of the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University. As for the Picasso which once hung on the walls of the Städtisches Galerie in Frankfurt? At some point after the painting’s sale in Switzerland it was obtained by the journalist and prominent art collector, Rene Gaffe (died 1968) who held it in his collection until it was bequeathed to UNICEF by his second wife, Jeanne who died in October 2000. On November 6, 2001 the collection of Rene Gaffe was sold at auction at Christie’s in New York totaling at $73,325,775 (including buyer’s premium). The Picasso which originally sold for $1,800 in 1939 went for a staggering $6,826,000, surpassing its 3 – 5 million dollar estimate.
So here I leave you, with this tale of two paintings, two paintings that beat the odds.