Art As Evidence: The Nazi’s Cultural War

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Art As Evidence

By Elana Verbin

  The art works auctioned in the Mauerbach Benefit Sale in Austria last fall (1996)marked a renewed awareness for the cultural war the Nazis waged on the Jewishcommunity. Prior to their sale, the 8,000 items that were auctioned — just afraction of all of the art works confiscated by the Nazis during World War II– remained in storage for decades in a monastery in Mauerbach, just outsideof Vienna. Beyond raising $14.6 million for the benefit of victims of theHolocaust and their families, the auction brought to light the bitter ironyof how the Nazis were as passionate about collecting and preserving theseobjects as they were about destroying the lives of their owners.

  “This sale did things that pictures of concentration camps and the war won’tdo,” Robert Liska, vice president of Austrian Jewish Communities told theJewish Telegraphic Agency.

  Marc Porter, senior vice president for estates and appraisals at Christie’s,which conducted the auction pro-bono, explains that throughout the event,”the previous owners were never far from the minds of the people in the room.There was a great recognition that we were seeing again art work that hadgraced the walls of a culture that Hitler had destroyed.”

  On the eve of Anschluss — the German annexation of Austria — there were180,000 Jews living in Austria, mostly in Vienna. By the end of the war,there were only 10,000. While a majority of Jews safely emigrated from thecountry, 65,000 lost their lives during the Holocaust.

  Prior to the Nazis’ arrival, Viennese Jews enjoyed and contributed to whatwas known as one of Europe’s most vibrant centers for the arts. Such ansignificant role did they play in the local cultural community, that theyinspired Hugo Bettauer’s 1920s novel Die Stadt Ohne (City Without Jews),which painted a future of Vienna as a city where the modern art world wasdead, the press boring, and the universities, third-rate.

  The assault on the Jewish arts community began with measures such asGoebbels’ Ordinance of February 1936, which denied Austrian Jews entranceinto museums and sanctioned their participation in other culturalorganizations. It wasn’t long before privately-owned collections of artbecame required “donations” to the Nazi authorities in exchange for exitpermits. And once the Nazis were in a position to outright seize works thatinterested them, they did not hesitate. Records indicate that immediatelyafter Anschluss, SS officers began descending upon Jewish homes and strippingtheir walls of paintings earmarked for Nazi collections.

  More than three million works of art were plundered by the Nazi regime duringits reign. In his book, Art As Politics in the Third Reich, JonathanPetropolous explains that the Nazis’ ambitions as “art collectors” weremotivated by two distinctly different purposes. The first was a show of poweras they confiscated all of the art in the Reich that conflicted with theParty’s ideology and concept of art. But, equally as compelling, he notes,were the SS officers’ obsession with building huge private collections forthemselves.

  “The means by which they amassed these collections is telling,” explainsPetropolous. “The Jews got it from close knit families passing it downthrough generations. The Nazis made a mockery of this idea, acquiring thisart by force and use of terror.”

  Hitler, who, ironically, had been rejected twice from Vienna’s Academy ofFine Arts, eagerly assumed the role as the ultimate art critic — decidingthe fate of all art objects that existed in occupied countries. Foremostregarded were works by German artists and from German-owned collections,which reinforced Hitler’s German-supremacy ideas. But Hitler also had apredictable fondness for the work of old master painters dating up to the endof the 18th century as well as for 19th century neoclassical paintings. Atthe other end of his tolerance level was modern art or paintings with Jewishthemes, both of which Hitler quickly dismissed as “degenerate,” in many casesordering their destruction.

  Hitler’s process of “purification” began with raids on museums and galleriesin which impressionist and abstract paintings, drawings, and sculptures wereremoved. The Nazis were as passionate about their contempt for “unacceptable”art as they were practical. While almost 5,000 pieces were burned, works byrenowned artists such as Picasso that were likely to fetch high bids on theinternational art market were auctioned off in Switzerland to raise money forthe Nazi party.

  After plowing through public collections, the Nazis moved on to the lootingof private ones. In some cases, certain works were identified by partyleaders prior to annexations and became bargaining chips held out to ownersin exchange for immigration papers.

  Such was the experience of the Baron Louis de Rothschild, who was denied exitfrom Austria at the Aspern airport and arrested the following day at hispalace. He was imprisoned at Gestapo headquarters where he remained for ninemonths until he turned over his property in exchange for freedom.

  Petropoulos explains that the Nazis were apparently so desirous ofRothschild’s collection, which was believed to total over a thousandpaintings, including renowned works by Rembrandt, that Himmler,Kaltenbrunner, and Wolff — three of the highest ranking members of the SS –were brought in to negotiate the deal that led to Rothschild’s release.

  “By expropriating the artworks of the Rothschilds, the Seligmans, the Kanns,and other prosperous Jewish families, the Nazis expressed their genocidalprogram in their collecting practices,” Petropolous explained. “They wantedto protect Europeans’ artistic legacy, but wanted to possess it as a symbolof their power and dominance.”

  To further this goal, four agencies were appointed for the sole purpose ofgathering works of art. As the fanaticism for art escalated, it became asymbol of status amid the Nazi regime. An office’s relative hierarchy in theparty was reflected by the quantities and quality of his personal collections– Hitler’s, the most impressive and extensive, was reported to containalmost 7,000 paintings.

  The Nazis kept precise records and inventories of the collections they wereswiftly amassing. They had elaborate plans about the fate of these works.Stolen works were hidden in castles, vaults, mansions, and even in barnsthroughout the Reich. The works offered in last fall’s auction were stored inthe salt mines of Altaussee, Austria, which also housed Hitler’s personalcache of looted property destined for his planned museum in Linz.

  After the war was over, the Allies succeeded in identifying and returningover 10,000 objects to their rightful heirs. But as it became obvious thatmany of the objects’ original owners and their families were no longer aliveto take back their property, the search ended. The property became theresponsibility of the Austrian government, where they remained guarded fromthe public until their transfer to The Federation of Austrian JewishCommunities and the subsequent auction last October.

  With every object securing a new home through the sale, these orphaned worksnot only serve as reminders of lost generations, but they — and the messagethey carry — can once again continue to be passed down to future ones.

Article copyright 1997, Elana Verbin. All Rights Reserved.

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