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


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.”

It was the mass, legal theft from German Jews that opened the door to the later crimes of Dachau and Auschwitz. But the theft was so vast and so thorough that it is difficult to comprehend even now.

For that reason the curators of another Ephraim Palais exhibition, Stolen Mitte, limit their focus to the “Aryanisation” of at least 225 of the 1,200 sites owned by Jews in Berlin’s historical centre before the Nazis.

When he took office Hitler granted his chief architect, Albert Speer, far-ranging powers to rid the city of its architectural clutter – particularly property owned by Jews – to realise the megalomaniac vision of a new Third Reich capital, Germania.

The abhorrent policies of Entjudung (de-Jewing) and Arisierung (Aryanisation) were helped by German tax authorities, which from 1936 were entitled to impose a lien of up to 250,000 Reichsmarks on the property of anyone suspected of planning to flee the country. In April 1938 all “Jewish wealth” was to be registered with the authorities – providing a handy seizure list for later.

‘Atonement demand’
The financial chicanery climaxed with a billion-Reichsmark “atonement demand” imposed on all German Jews for the clean-up cost of Kristallnacht. New taxes, new demands and new levies burdened Jews with debt and often triggered forced sales of property – in which Speer had first refusal.

The process functioned so smoothly, the curators argue, because civil-servant consciences were satisfied by the rigorous form-filling that allowed the disappropriation of more than 8,000 Jewish properties in Berlin and about 36,000 others across the former Reich.

These bureaucratic attitudes survived the collapse of the Third Reich in people like Karl Maria Hettlage. As Speer’s deputy, he compiled lists of Berlin tenants so essential for the deportation of Jews. Later, in the 1960s Bonn finance ministry, he opposed restitution of Jewish property.

In East Germany, meanwhile, a civil servant cited in the exhibition warned that restitution agreements for German Jews would give the world the impression that, in the new socialist state, “Jewish capital is given special privilege compared to that of other capitalists”.

Fickle rulings
Restitution was eventually regulated in postunification agreements, although court rulings are remarkably fickle. Just 8 per cent of seized Jewish property in central Berlin was returned; 92 per cent remained in public ownership. Compensation was sometimes paid, sometimes not.

“In around two-thirds of unreturned property cases the authorities said they needed the sites for roads or public spaces,” says Benedikt Goebel, a curator of Stolen Mitte.

“Around one-third of unreturned property cases are down to disinterest by the Berlin city government. Rather than deal with private owners, they would rather hold on to the sites, to give themselves greater freedom in planning matters.”

Six decades after the first German compensation for the Holocaust, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which supports survivors and files restitution claims on ownerless formerly Jewish property, says it has a “close working relationship with the German government”.

But individual heirs in restitution cases complain that their queries are often stonewalled by German public institutions.

“It’s like the game Battleship,” says David Rowland, a leading art-restitution lawyer based in New York. “You don’t know where the battleship is, they give no information, it’s not very efficient and it is not very fair.”

Heirs and their lawyers demand greater pragmatism on the German side to right historical wrongs and criticise what they see as legal foot-dragging. German officials respond that Nazi rewriting of laws to allow legal theft of art and property makes it imperative now to adhere to the law in matters of restitution. The result is a troubling dialogue of the deaf.

The Swiss historian Raphael Gross, in his foreword to the book Theft and Restitution, warns that restitution has revived a German postwar reversal of perpetrator and victim. Moral outrage is “directed against the allegedly greedy heirs and Jewish lawyers whose goal is to ‘rob’ German museum visitors of their beloved art works”, he writes.

On the other hand, German restitution officials complain that they are subjected to the “moral innuendo of being well-dressed Nazis” by lawyers and art-market professionals who, they say, have vested commercial interests in driving restitution claims.

Given this slanging match, it’s no surprise that independent experts, who could act as referees or voices of reason, keep well away. Until that changes, the resolution of this crucial prologue to the Holocaust remains a battleground for vested interests.

“Restitution remains a highly fraught subject,” says Sabine Kriebel, an art historian at University College Cork. “Art specialists, in particular, are wary of getting involved in such a complicated and painful history that also has a sensational value.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.