Germany's duty: a damning portrait
Whether they are a legitimate collection or a stolen hoard, the paintings found stashed in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt raise the contested question of Germany’s duty to return assets taken from Jews under the Nazis
Recovered: US soldiers in 1945 with Wintergarden, a Manet stolen by the Nazi regime and hidden in a salt mine. Photograph: US National Archives/Reuters
‘Degenerate Art’: the Entartete Kunst exhibition, which visited Berlin in 1938, showed art condemned by the Nazis. The paintings discovered in Munich may have been some that the regime had ordered to be sold abroad. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Reuters
Kristallnacht: the smashed window of a Jewish-owned shop in Berlin after the riots of the night of November 9th, 1938. Photograph: Hulton/Getty
Recovered: a self-portrait by Otto Dix is displayed at the press conference this week to announce the discovery of the hoard. Photograph: Johannes Simon/Getty
Germany swooned when George Clooney arrived this year to direct and star in The Monuments Men, the true story of a US-army platoon of art experts sent to Third Reich Germany near the end of the second World War to rescue art looted by the Nazis.
By the time it is released, next year, the film may need a new epilogue, given this week’s discovery of 1,406 artworks by Picasso, Chagall and Matisse, among others, in the squalid Munich apartment of a 79-year-old man, Cornelius Gurlitt.
Now that the pieces have been seized, Bavarian police and art investigators face a billion-euro riddle: are the works hoarded for decades the legitimate collection of his art-dealer father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an early champion of modernist work that the Nazis later denounced as degenerate? Or are they ill-gotten gains of an art-dealing opportunist who snapped up, at knock-down prices, the works the Nazis instructed him to sell abroad?
The investigation will run for years, but, like The Monuments Men, it exposes an underlit chapter of the Nazi era.
The Third Reich’s legacy is one not just of unprecedented mass murder but also of the theft of largely Jewish assets unprecedented in modern times. From savings to property, fine art to household objects, the Nazis perfected a disappropriation machine that functioned with the terrible meticulousness that later ensured the trains to the death camps ran on time.
This state-sponsored theft was motivated by avarice and laced with Nazi resentment of the movers, shakers and shapers of the modern era. Today is the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi chicanery against German Jews spilled into state-sanctioned violence.
It also marks the moment when the wider German population became complicit in the crimes to come: a common complaint from concerned Third Reich citizens after Kristallnacht was that the chaotic looting of Jewish homes and stores had destroyed many items that could have been of use to the German people.
Heeding these complaints, the Nazi authorities produced a 16-page form to be completed by every German Jew, listing their savings, property and other sources of wealth, including inventories of each room of their home.
Bureaucracy of terror
Two new exhibitions at the Ephraim Palais in Berlin focus on what happened next. In The Bureaucracy of Terror, the Brighton-based artist Barbara Loftus uses exquisite paintings of banal horror to recall the day when two Nazi stormtroopers showed up at her grandmother’s door in Berlin.
A recording of the painter’s late mother, Hildegard, as a child describes her day of disinheritance, three-quarters of a century ago. “The two men began to wrap up the porcelain . . . and put them into [a] tea chest. Then my mother opened the cutlery drawers, and they took all the silver,” she says in it. “The Jewish persecution really became very obvious and violent then . . . Until that point it was done more discreetly.”