Art As Evidence: The Nazi’s Cultural War

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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 Jewish community. Prior to their sale, the 8,000 items that were auctioned — just a fraction 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 outside of Vienna. Beyond raising $14.6 million for the benefit of victims of the Holocaust and their families, the auction brought to light the bitter irony of how the Nazis were as passionate about collecting and preserving these objects as they were about destroying the lives of their owners.

“This sale did things that pictures of concentration camps and the war won’t do,” Robert Liska, vice president of Austrian Jewish Communities told the Jewish 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 had graced the walls of a culture that Hitler had destroyed.”

On the eve of Anschluss — the German annexation of Austria — there were 180,000 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 the country, 65,000 lost their lives during the Holocaust.

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

The assault on the Jewish arts community began with measures such as Goebbels’ Ordinance of February 1936, which denied Austrian Jews entrance into museums and sanctioned their participation in other cultural organizations. It wasn’t long before privately-owned collections of ar became required “donations” to the Nazi authorities in exchange for exit permits. And once the Nazis were in a position to outright seize works that interested them, they did not hesitate. Records indicate that immediately after Anschluss, SS officers began descending upon Jewish homes and stripping their walls of paintings earmarked for Nazi collections.

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

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

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

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

After plowing through public collections, the Nazis moved on to the looting of private ones. In some cases, certain works were identified by party leaders prior to annexations and became bargaining chips held out to owners in exchange for immigration papers.

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

Petropoulos explains that the Nazis were apparently so desirous of Rothschild’s collection, which was believed to total over a thousand paintings, 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 genocidal program in their collecting practices,” Petropolous explained. “They wanted to protect Europeans’ artistic legacy, but wanted to possess it as a symbol of their power and dominance.”

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

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

After the war was over, the Allies succeeded in identifying and returning over 10,000 objects to their rightful heirs. But as it became obvious that many of the objects’ original owners and their families were no longer alive to take back their property, the search ended. The property became the responsibility of the Austrian government, where they remained guarded from the public until their transfer to The Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities and the subsequent auction last October.

With every object securing a new home through the sale, these orphaned works not only serve as reminders of lost generations, but they — and the message they carry — can once again continue to be passed down to future ones.

Article copyright 1997, Elana Verbin. All Rights Reserved.

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