Thursday, September 3, 2009

Purge and Plunder: Art Under The Third Reich

Allied Monuments Officers Recovering and Safeguarding Stolen Art (source: website for the 2006 documentary film The Rape of Europa)

It started with a simple reference question. A person needed to write a report on Nazi degenerate art. He asked if I had heard of it and if the library had any books on it. When I replied in the affirmative, he looked relieved. “I’ve been to many bookstores” he said “and you wouldn’t believe the strange looks I’ve been getting with this request”.

Coincidentally, I was currently embroiled in a novel at home that also dealt with the Nazis and art entitled Pictures at an Exhibition. Written by local author Sara Houghteling, the story masterfully weaves in historical figures of the Paris art world of the 1930’s and 1940’s while focusing on the Nazi’s systematic looting of French museums, art galleries and private art collections. I realized that I was being introduced to a whole new perspective on the history of the Third Reich and of World War II.

Before World War I, avant-garde German art was at the forefront of the 20th century modern art movement. Despite an encouraging atmosphere for German contemporary artists, there was also a growing opposition movement of conservatives that viewed their art as “degenerate.”

The move to rid Germany of all its modern art began in earnest when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor-President in 1933. He passed laws dictating what art forms were acceptable. He believed that it was the state’s responsibility to prevent people from being driven to madness by purging those things that he viewed as corrupt and degenerate. German artists, art dealers and museum officials were given four years to comply with the new standards of what was acceptable.

Artwork that was not in compliance was confiscated by the Gestapo. Confiscated art was then sold to support the Third Reich or dismembered, defaced, destroyed or buried. Many avant-garde artists fled the country; those who stayed were not allowed to work. Art that met Hitler’s standards became at risk as well, as he and some of his officers began to collect and acquire artifacts for their personal collections.

In her book The Rape of Europa, Lynn H. Nichols writes: “When the German occupation of Poland, France, the Low Countries, and finally Italy began, a colossal wave of organized and casual pillage stripped entire countries of their heritage as works of art were subjected to confiscation, wanton destruction, concealment in damp mines, and perilous transport across combat zones.” All of Europe’s cultural treasures were at risk of becoming lost forever.

In the years following the end of World War II, an international corps of “Monuments Officers” worked tirelessly to sort through the huge Nazi cache of stolen art and return the works to their rightful homes. To this day, thousands of artifacts remain missing. Museum officials continue to work with governments and individuals to recover the treasures that were looted by the Nazis.

The San Francisco Public Library offers many books for the reader who wants to learn more about this unique time in cultural history:

Art, Culture and Media Under The Third Reich by Richard A. Etlin, ed. (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002)

Art of The Third Reich
by Peter Adam. (Abrams, 1992)

Art Under A Dictatorship by Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt. (Oxford Univ. Press, 1954)

The Battle of The Louvre: The Struggle to Save French Art in World War II by Matila Simon. (Hawthorn Books, 1971)

“Degenerate Art”: the Fate of The Avant-garde in Nazi Germany by Stephanie Barron. (Abrams, 1991)

The Linz File: Hitler’s Plunder of Europe’s Art by Charles De Jaeger. (Webb & Bower, 1981)

The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal The World’s Greatest Works of Art by Hector Feliciano.

The Rape of Art: The Story of Hitler’s Plunder of The Great Masterpieces of Europe by David Roxan. (Coward-McCann, 1964)

The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicholas. (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)

Second National Exhibition of the Words of Art Recovered In Germany: Catalogue by Rodolfo Siviero. (Sansoni, 1950)

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