The Lost Masters is the most up-to-date account of the tragic looting of Europe and the victims' attempt to reclaim the precious art heritage.
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THE PILLAGE OF EUROPE
The cultural pillage of Europe by the Nazis has its foundations in the Austrian city of Linz and Adolf Hitler's frustrated ambitions to become an artist and architect of renown.
It was in 1899 that the young Hitler's family moved to the village of Leonding, just outside Linz, at that time a small market town which also served as the seat of government for the province of Upper Austria. Adolf himself had been born in 1889 in Braunau am Inn, on the border between Germany and Austria. Three years later the family moved across the frontier into Bavaria but did not remain there long, returning to Austria and Leonding after two years. Hitler's education began at this point in a school at the Benedictine abbey at Lambach. Initially he proved to be an apt pupil, but failed to maintain the same degree of effort when he progressed to a secondary school in Linz in 1900, becoming lazy and regularly failing examinations. The only subject of interest to him was art, in which he showed some degree of ability. At the age of fifteen he was moved to another school at Steyr, but his academic performance did not improve and he left after twelve months.
Adolf's father, a retired customs official, died in 1903, a year after the family had moved to Linz. Lacking any paternal influence and doted on by his mother, he was able to indulge himself and do much as he pleased. He spent his days walking around Linz and along the banks of the Danube, creating in his mind a city of great architecture, or drawing and reading at a favouritespot overlooking the town; in the evening he would often go to the theatre, where he developed a passion for the music and operas of Wagner.
In May 1906 Hitler visited Vienna, and his imagination was set alight. As he wandered through the city, then the thriving capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he was dazzled by the beauty of its architecture and the brilliance of its society. On his return to Linz, he began redesigning the entire town in his mind; but he increasingly detested its dull provincial atmosphere, and in early September the following year, armed with a portfolio of his paintings and determined to establish himself as an artist, he returned to Vienna with the intention of entering the Academy of Fine Arts. To his amazement and dismay, his application was turned down. His reaction was explosive, an outburst into one of the towering rages which would become all too familiar to those who served him in later years. Other applicants who initially failed the examination persevered in their work and were eventually admitted; but Hitler, once baulked, made no further effort to enter the Academy and slipped back into a life of idleness and self-indulgence. He was advised to consider taking up architecture, but this proved impossible as he was entirely without educational qualifications. Shortly afterwards he returned to Linz to attend the funeral of his mother, who had died of cancer in December 1907; but, still fixated on an artistic career, returned to the capital immediately afterwards.
Vienna was at that time a centre of artistic activity and this, having attracted Hitler in the first place, now served only to aggravate his sense of grievance. Living in a series of rented apartments, he passed his days wandering the city, daydreaming, sketching and painting, visiting the Hofburg Library and attending the opera, where he fed his love of Wagner. He offered his watercolours for sale, but buyers were few and far between; inevitably and inexorably his funds dwindled until eventually, in 1910, he was forced to move into a hostel which provided accommodation for young men in penury. Morose, prone to depression and outbursts of violent temper, he was not popular among the other residents and before long he was evicted, after which his only recourse was to seek shelter in dosshouses or under archways. As his circumstances deteriorated further he developed a bitter hatred of Vienna, blaming it for cheating him of what he believed to be his just inheritance. In 1913 he left the city in order to avoid conscription for military service. During the following years, which saw him rise from ignominious poverty to supreme power as Chancellor of the Third Reich, he retained a burning desire to exact revenge for what he saw as his humiliation by the Austro-Hungarian capital.
Twenty-five years later, on the evening of 12 March 1938, Adolf Hitler returned to Linz. The streets of the town were packed with cheering crowds through which the Führer, standing in an open-topped Mercedes-Benz limousine, was driven slowly towards the town hall. Looking down from its balcony at the rapturous tumult below him, Hitler was almost overwhelmed by the adulation he was receiving. A similar welcome awaited him in Vienna two days later, although the city's worthy burghers would have trembled if they had known the fate planned for them by the man who hated their city so deeply. Hitler intended to establish Linz as the cultural centre of the Third Reich, transforming the dull provincial town into a metropolis boasting a massive art gallery, opera house, stadium, theatres, concert hall and cinema. His plans even included his own retirement home, a large house located near the art gallery and stadium overlooking the town centre. Great museums and galleries, built to his own designs and to be known collectively as the Führermuseum, were to be the new home of the greatest collection of works of art ever assembled; and Vienna was to be stripped of its treasures to fill them.
As Hitler addressed the welcoming crowds from the balcony of the Hotel Imperial, units of the Schutz Staffeln (SS) and detachments of the dreaded Geheimstaatspolizei, the secret state police better known by its acronym of Gestapo, had already moved into Vienna. Spreading swiftly through the city, they arrested known anti-Nazis and broke into the homes of Jews, forcibly removing much of their contents. Hours earlier, Austria had been annexed by Germany and now formed part of the Third Reich. The Anschluss had taken place.
Almost immediately the Nazis turned their attention to the largest and most valuable Jewish-owned art collections. The fabulous treasures of Louis de Rothschild, comprising paintings, statues, books, furniture, coins and armour, were all seized and removed from his house in Vienna's Theresianumgasse, prior to the Gestapo commandeering the building as its headquarters in the city. Rothschild was subsequently forced to sign a document giving his agreement to their removal, plus the appropriation of all Rothschild assets in Austria, in return for his brother's release from the concentration camp at Dachau and safe passage for them both out of Austria. Elsewhere in Vienna other collections were removed and taken to a collection point where they were examined. In all 163 confiscations, with a total value of 93 billion reichsmarks (RM), took place. From this booty 269 paintings of high value were picked out, of which 122 were later selected to be considered by Hitler for inclusion in the Linz collection.
Hitler decreed that all works confiscated in Austria should remain within the country, although items purchased could be exported. This measure was introduced as a result of the acquisition by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring of two paintings from the Lanckoronski collection. Göring kept the pictures despite an order from Hitler to return them; nevertheless, the decree prevented the loss of the majority of Austria's works of art beyond its borders.
Germany itself was not spared from the Nazi cultural onslaught which commenced even before Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 and proceeded to `cleanse' German museums and galleries of works of modern art which he deemed `degenerate'. In 1930 Dr Wilhelm Frick, Thuringia's Minister of Interior and Education and a leading Nazi, turned his attention to the collection at the Weimar Castle Museum: frescoes by Oskar Schlemmer were obliterated with whitewash and modern paintings by artists such as Dix, Nolde, Klee, Kokoschka and Kandinsky were removed. Thereafter, a similar fate was visited on other museums which suffered the removal of their collections of non-Nazi modern works of art. This process continued throughout the 1930s, with over 1,100 modern paintings removed from galleries in Berlin and 900 from the Hamburg Kunsthalle alone, culminating in 1937 with the enforced closure of the Berlin National Gallery's exhibition of modern art. The gallery lost 164 paintings as well as 326 watercolours and drawings. Curators in some museums and galleries made efforts to save what they could of their collections: at the Berlin National Gallery, the curator of the modern art department removed his most important works from those selected for confiscation and substituted less valuable pieces.
This persecution extended to the artists, who found themselves shunned unless they joined a union founded by Dr Josef Goebbels, the head of the Ministry for Enlightenment and Propaganda. Some, such as the Swiss Paul Klee and the American Lyonel Kleininger, returned to their native countries. Ernst Kirchner committed suicide after having his entire life's work confiscated. Emil Nolde had two years' work removed, despite the fact that he was a member of the Nazi party and that some of his watercolours were hanging in Goebbels' sitting room. Others, such as Carl Hofer and Erich Heckel, were forced to go underground, the latter having had over 700 paintings confiscated.
In 1938 the Nazis assembled an exhibition of `degenerate' art which went on tour throughout Germany and Austria. The pictures shown were removed from their frames and hung in a haphazard fashion so as to give an impression of chaos. The intention was to show how Jewish and Bolshevik artists were responsible for a deterioration in art since the beginning of the twentieth century. The fact that some of the artists included were neither Jewish nor Bolshevik appeared to be of little or no consequence to the organizers. In early 1939 the exhibition completed its tour and the pictures were put into storage in a disused granary in Berlin while consideration was given to their disposal. It was suggested to Goebbels that any works of value could be sold abroad while the remainder were destroyed. Accordingly, an auction took place in June 1939 at the Grand Hotel in Lucerne, Switzerland, conducted by Theodor Fischer, a leading Swiss dealer who possessed close links with the Nazis. A total of 126 paintings were auctioned, although prices paid were not as high as expected. Among the works auctioned were Gauguin's Landscape of Tahiti with Three Female Tigers from the Frankfurt Museum, Picasso's The Harlequins from the Eberfeld Museum, Franz Marc's Three Red Horses from the Essen Museum and a self-portrait by van Gogh from the Munich State Art Gallery. Also up for sale were four more by Marc, fifteen by Lovis Corinth, nine by Oskar Kokoschka, nine by Carl Hofer, five by Ernst Barlach, a self-portrait by Paul Modersohn, three works by Max Beckmann, two by Paul Klee, seven by Emil Nolde, and three each by Erich Heckel, Ernst Kirchner, Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.
Hitler's grandiose plans for transforming Linz into a world art centre were given renewed impetus by his visit to Italy in 1938 after the Anschluss. Touring the magnificent collections in Rome and Florence, he realized that if the Führermuseum was truly to outclass all other European art collections, he had to acquire the best works not only from Germany and Austria, but from throughout Europe whether by purchase or plunder. Determined that his ideas should be realized, he set up a special commission to manage the entire project in secret. He named it Sonderauftrag Linz `Special Operation Linz'.
Principal among those who advised Hitler on artistic matters at that time was his personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, who shared his patron's taste for nineteenth-century German paintings but was otherwise largely ignorant about art. Nevertheless, such was his favoured position that his assistance was often sought in bringing to Hitler's attention paintings for the Führer's consideration. Others who advised and influenced Hitler during this period included an art dealer named Karl Haberstock, who had joined the Nazi party in 1933 and, because he too subscribed to the preference for nineteenth-century German paintings that was in accord with party dogma, soon came to the attention of Hitler and found favour. In 1936 he sold Hitler Venus and Amor by Paris Bordone: it was to be the first of many contributions to the Führer's collections.
Haberstock used his position within Nazi circles to his own advantage. He put pressure on the directors of German museums to accept from him nineteenth-century works by artists such as Carl Schuch and Wilhelm Trübner in exchange for paintings of greater value which he would claim had no place in German museums and which he would then sell abroad at a large profit. This tactic did not always work, however: the Karlsrühe Museum refused to give up some works by Chardin and the Schloss Museum at Darmstadt resolutely held on to its Mayer Madonna by Holbein.
Another major supplier of paintings to Hitler, and subsequently to the Linz collection, was a dealer named Maria Almas-Dietrich, who owned the Almas Gallery in Munich's Ottostrasse. An energetic buyer, Frau Dietrich was well known among German auction houses and in particular at Lange's in Berlin, where she was notorious as a high and formidably competitive bidder. She also employed a large number of agents in other countries, notably France. She made frequent use of Hoffmann, with whom she had a close business relationship, to offer the Nazi leader pictures; she had a keen understanding of Hitler's tastes, and sold him many items, though none of them was of major importance, her emphasis apparently being on quantity rather than quality. Moreover, her limited knowledge and expertise sometimes betrayed her: she was later rebuked when a number of paintings supplied by her to Hitler were discovered to be fakes.
On his return from Italy in 1938, Hitler asked Haberstock whether it would be possible for Germany to possess museums and collections such as those which he had seen in Italy. Haberstock pointed out that the Dresden Art Gallery was already in the same category, although its director, Dr Hans Posse, had recently been dismissed by a local Nazi party official, Mutschmann, for supposedly anti-Nazi sentiments. In Haberstock's opinion, Posse was the only man capable of masterminding the Linz project. Hitler's response was to go straight to Dresden where a surprised gauleiter was strongly rebuked and an equally astonished Dr Posse reinstated. On 26 June 1939 Posse joined Sonderauftrag Linz with the title of Sonderbeauftrager (Special Envoy), bringing with him his assistant at the Dresden Art Gallery, Dr Rudolf Oertel. Posse was charged by Hitler with responsibility for the acquisition of paintings, tapestries, statuary, coins and armour. He was assisted by Dr Fritz Dworschak, an expert in coins who had previously been Curator of Coins and subsequently Director of Collections at the Kunsthistorisches Institut of Vienna. The assembly of a library for the Führermuseum at Linz was the task of Dr Friedrich Wolffhardt, a hauptsturmführer in the SS and a dedicated Nazi.
Although Hitler exercised overall authority over Sonderauftrag Linz, effective power in the operation rested with the less public figure of Martin Bormann, the Führer's private secretary, over whose desk all correspondence concerning the project passed, and whose own secretary, Dr Hanssen, dealt with all its financial aspects. Since the very early days of Hitler's rise to power Bormann had exercised a formidable degree of control over the Nazi leader. It has been claimed that this influence dated back to a night in September 1931 which saw Hitler's involvement in a crime of passion, namely the murder of his 24-year-old niece who was also his mistress. In his book The Bormann Brotherhood William Stevenson gives an account, apparently based on information from a Nazi intelligence source, of how the girl had taunted her uncle over his sexual impotence, accused him of having Jewish blood and informed him that she was pregnant by a Jew, upon which he shot her in a fit of rage. Panic-stricken, Hitler called for Bormann already his right-hand man who disposed of any incriminating evidence and, with the help of Oberkriminalinspektor Heinrich Müller (later head of the Gestapo), ensured that the subsequent investigations concluded that the girl had committed suicide. Thereafter, Bormann's hold over Hitler was apparently unshakeable.
Once appointed to his new role, Posse, to whom Hitler confided his dreams for the Führermuseum in Linz, was quick to seize the opportunity thus presented to him. Determined to ensure that the Linz collection would be outstanding and that its museum and galleries would become an important centre of European culture, he decided to improve the quality of Hitler's acquisitions, which had until then been heavily influenced by the ill-informed taste of Heinrich Hoffmann. Hitler insisted that the emphasis should be on nineteenth- and twentieth-century German painters such as Waldmüller, Lenbach, Makart and Spitzweg, and Posse thus commenced his search in this area. In early 1939 Gauleiter Josef Bürckel, head of the German administration in Vienna, had written to Hitler's headquarters asking for a decision on the disposal of material from the confiscated Jewish collections, which had remained in storage in the Hofburg since being seized. Now, shortly after taking up his appointment, Posse travelled to the Austrian capital to see for himself what the piles of booty contained.
Posse's inspection of the looted collections took several weeks, during which he selected those items which he deemed suitable for the Führermuseum. On 20 October 1939 he submitted a list of paintings to Martin Bormann for Hitler's approval. Of the 269 items selected from the confiscated Jewish collections as being of particular note, 122 were selected for Linz while forty-four were earmarked for the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Vienna and a further forty-three for other museums in Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck. The remaining sixty paintings would be held in reserve for Linz, pending a decision from Hitler. A further 324 paintings were also selected from the Oskar Bondy collection, which totalled some 1,500 works.
Posse's recommendations, however, did not meet with unqualified approval from Hitler, who was determined that all the best works would go to the Führermuseum: annoyed at seeing that fifty-seven of the Rothschild paintings were set to remain in Vienna, he reallocated to Linz twenty of those marked down by Posse for two of the capital's museums.
During a second visit to Vienna in December 1939, Posse extended his selections for Linz to the very fabric of the buildings in which the confiscated collections had been housed. In one of his reports to Martin Bormann, he recommended that two rooms in the Palais de Rothschild be stripped of their valuable antique wainscoting, leather wallpaper, gothic and Renaissance period chimneys, portals and doors. The ever-increasing numbers of looted art treasures were sent to the headquarters of Sonderauftrag Linz in Munich; here they were stored in a special underground repository known as the Führerbau in the charge of a minor Nazi party official, Dr Hans Reger. All major items were catalogued and photographed, the prints being bound in leather volumes over which Hitler would pore for hours in his retreat at Berchtesgaden.
On a number of occasions Posse found himself competing with other German museums or collections for the same works of art, and more than once was forced to enlist Bormann's aid in acquiring items for the Linz collection. One such contested work was the famous painting The Hay Harvest, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which formed part of the Lobkowitz collection located in Radnitz Castle in Czechoslovakia. Having decided that the painting should be acquired for the Führermuseum, Posse was anxious lest it be lost to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. He wrote to Bormann, suggesting that the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, Constantin Freiherr von Neurath, be advised that all the contents of Radnitz Castle were to be inspected so that German museums and collections could subsequently make bids for them. The Führermuseum should naturally have first choice of everything. Bormann obliged and in due course Posse was successful in acquiring The Hay Harvest.
Competition was not the only hindrance encountered by Posse in his quest for treasures for the Linz collection. He also found himself encumbered by the red tape that wound throughout the highly bureaucratic Nazi machine, and confronted on a number of occasions with opposition from senior Nazis seeking to make acquisitions of their own. Chief among these was Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, whose activities are dealt with in detail in chapter 3. As was frequently the case among the higher levels of the Nazi party, intrigue and deceit figured largely in the machinations of those who decided to cash in on the rich haul of works of art from the occupied countries of Europe.
Where there were no grounds for confiscation or forced sale, Hitler resorted to straightforward coercion in order to acquire those items he desired most. The most prominent of the paintings commandeered in this manner was the Portrait of an Artist in his Studio by the Dutch master Jan Vermeer, which was in the possession of a German family living in Vienna. The head of the family, Count Czernin, had previously refused many offers for the painting from wealthy collectors throughout the world, among them reputedly one of $6 million from the American connoisseur Andrew Mellon. Hitler coveted this painting above all others and was determined to have it. All pretexts for confiscation were considered, including tax arrears; however, an investigation by the Reich finance ministry in Berlin produced only a letter of 21 September 1941 to Martin Bormann informing him that the Czernin family's tax affairs were in order and that there were no grounds for sequestration of the painting. So all pretence at subtlety was abandoned. Posse's assistant Fritz Dworschak played a major role in the negotiations in this particularly disgraceful affair: with the assistance of Baldur von Schirach, by then Gauleiter of Vienna, he personally applied pressure to the Czernin family, who were only too well aware of the fate of certain of their friends at the hands of the Gestapo. By the end of September 1941 Count Czernin had capitulated and agreed to sell the Vermeer for the paltry sum of RM1.4 million, a mere fraction of its real value. On receiving this news Posse travelled to Vienna to take delivery of the painting, which eventually arrived at the Führerbau in Munich on 12 October. There it remained until its later removal to Austria and safety in the depths of a salt mine, where it joined the rest of the Linz collection.
In early 1939 Czechoslovakia suffered similar treatment to that meted out to Austria a year earlier: on 15 March the country was invaded and occupied by German troops. Such was the low esteem in which Czechs were held by the Nazis, who regarded them as subhuman Slavs, that Aryan and Jewish property alike was confiscated. The university in Prague lost its entire library; the Czech National Museum was stripped, as was the palace of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Lobkowitz collection of paintings was removed, along with unique collections of armour and coins, to a repository in Munich to await their ultimate transfer to Linz.
Poland was the next country to fall victim to the Nazi juggernaut in the invasion of 3 September. Here too, the policy on works of art was quite clear: everything was to be confiscated and the Poles allowed to keep nothing. Under the overall direction of Dr Kajetan Mühlmann, an Austrian and an obersturmbannführer in the SS, a repository was established in Warsaw under Josef Mühlmann, his half-brother, and two officials of the much-feared Sicherheitsdienst, the SS security service. Another was located at Krakow under Dr Gustav Bartel and Dr Kuttlich, the directors respectively of the Breslau and Tropau Museums.
The stripping of Poland had been meticulously planned. Before the war, members of the East Europe Institute, a German cultural research centre, had paid many visits to the country during which they had established friendly relationships with the directors and staffs of its museums and art collections. Now the Polish curators suffered a rude awakening with the arrival in Warsaw and Krakow of their erstwhile German friends, dressed in the black uniform of the SS and accompanied by members of the Gestapo. It transpired that the work of the institute had merely been a cover for the compiling of inventories of Polish art treasures, the listing of their locations and accumulation of information concerning measures taken by the Poles to safeguard them.
Among those who followed the Wehrmacht's panzer divisions into Poland was a special unit of an organization with the cumbersome title of SS Scientific and Research Community for Heritage of the Ancestors more usually known as the Ahnenerbe. Like all German units formed on an ad hoc basis it bore the name of its commander, in this case that of Peter Paulsen, the Professor of Prehistory at the University of Berlin. Kommando Paulsen was originally tasked with carrying out archaeological work for the purpose of determining whether German tribes had once inhabited lands within Poland's frontiers. Operating under the direct command of the SS Reichsicherheithauptamt (RSHA: Reich Central Security Office), however, its remit was widened to include looting of historically significant works of art and important Polish library collections.
The most valuable piece lost to Poland in this process was the Veit Stoss altarpiece from the Church of Our Lady in Krakow, carved during the period 1477-87 by the German artist Veit Stoss as a commission for the King of Poland. The centre panel depicts the Virgin Mary asleep surrounded by angels, the side panels show scenes portraying Christ and the Virgin, and the base or predella gives the genealogy of Christ himself. This altarpiece, nine paintings by Hans von Kulmbach and a number of gothic and baroque chalices all fell prey to the Kommando Paulsen.
Monasteries and churches throughout Poland were systematically denuded by the Germans of all their treasures, as was the National Museum at Krakow, which lost two major works: Venetian Palace and Christ Carrying the Cross by Guardi and Rubens respectively. At Warsaw's royal castle twenty-five paintings by Canaletto were taken, along with floors and wall panellings ripped out for subsequent installation in the Zwinger Palace in Dresden, considerable damage being done to them in the process by the brute force and ignorance of the removers. The Czartoryski collection, concealed in vaults at Sienewa, soon fell prey to the marauding Germans. Works by Dürer and Van Leyden were among the many items carried off, as were three paintings: Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man, Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with Ermine and Rembrandt's Landscape with the Good Samaritan. (The fate of this collection is covered in detail in chapter II.) Other works confiscated or stolen in Poland included The Pretty Polish Girl by Watteau, taken by Mühlmann and sent as a gift to Göring, and Rembrandt's Portrait of a Young Man, taken from the Lazienski collection by the Gestapo and presented to Poland's new ruler, Reichskommissar Hans Frank, who was only too happy to adorn his new official residences, the castles at Krakow and Kressendorf, with such treasures.
The scale of the German looting in Poland was immense. In Warsaw alone, a total of 13,512 paintings and 1,379 sculptures were confiscated. In addition to these, collections of antique furniture, books, coins, armour, tapestries and porcelain were also carried off by squads of Nazi officials and troops. Worse still were the results of wanton vandalism displayed by some of the invaders: items of valuable porcelain were used for eating from and then smashed; Gobelin tapestries were torn up and used for bedding; sculptures were used for target practice. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW: Armed Forces High Command), unaware of Hitler's Sonderauftrag Linz and extremely unhappy about the plundering of Poland decided to take measures to prevent such a disgraceful episode happening again. It formed a special department, named the Kunstschutz, to provide protection for all cultural material, including works of art, throughout France, the Low Countries and Italy.
In fact, though the invasion and occupation of the Low Countries and France in May and June 1940 offered Hitler access to some of the greatest treasurehouses of Europe and the opportunity to acquire yet more priceless art works, whether through purchase, forced sale, confiscation or coercion, the orgy of looting and destruction suffered by Poland was not repeated. On the contrary, orders were given by Hitler that a more subtle approach was to be used: here, the cooperation of the populations was to be won through considerate treatment by the German occupying forces, who were to ensure that normal life was maintained as far as possible. Yet despite such outward signs of apparent benevolence, Hitler never wavered in his plan for the wholesale looting of Europe. On 16 May, the day after the Netherlands surrendered, Mühlmann arrived fresh from his activities in Poland. Without delay his organization, the Dienststelle Mühlmann, was established in The Hague; here it came under the direct authority of Dr Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who had become the Nazi governor of Austria after the Anschluss before being appointed Deputy Reichskommissar of Poland and subsequently Reichskommissar of the Netherlands. Mühlmann and his staff set to work with enthusiasm to gather works of art for the Linz collection. During the next twelve months, the Dienststelle Mühlmann acquired a large number of paintings for Hitler's Führermuseum, among them works by Canaletto, Rubens, Rembrandt and several other seventeenth-century Dutch artists.
Two months after the invasion of the Netherlands Hans Posse arrived in The Hague, where he set up an office under the somewhat nebulous title of Referent für Sonderfragen (Adviser on Special Questions) and set about making acquisitions for the Führermuseum, rapidly establishing a network of informers and agents as he did in each of the Nazi-occupied countries. The majority of Hitler's art acquisitions in the Netherlands were made by purchase rather than confiscation or forced sale, and although the prices paid were in many cases far below the true value of the works in question, money was no object when it came to acquisitions for the Linz collection. Inevitably, it was not long before the Dutch art market became so overpriced that it was out of reach to all but the most affluent buyers. German works in particular fetched fantastic prices, such was the demand for them by the Nazis, who readily paid whatever was asked. A veritable army of dealers, agents and informants emerged, seeking to take advantage of the large commissions to be made from catering for the tastes of the Nazi hierarchy.
One particular collection, however, continued to elude its pursuers until after the death of its owner, a committed enemy of Hitler named Fritz Mannheimer. The priceless Mannheimer collection, comprising a large number of paintings, tapestries, crystal, silver and gold, belonged to a 50-year-old German Jew who lived in Amsterdam and was the senior controlling partner in the long-established Dutch private bank of Mendelssohn & Co. Born in Stuttgart, Mannheimer had worked as a banker in Germany, but faced with the rise to power of the Nazis and the consequent spread of anti-Semitism throughout Germany he had moved to the Netherlands and joined Mendelssohn & Co., one of the most powerful banking houses in Europe. Thereafter he had prospered greatly, and he had used a part of the huge personal fortune he amassed to assemble his fabulous art collection, which came to include paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Fragonard, Watteau, Crivelli, Canaletto, Chardin and Guardi. Some of these treasures were housed in his substantial residence in Amsterdam's Hobbemastraat, the rest in France at his other home, the Château Monte Cristo at Vaucresson, not far from Paris.
Mannheimer, a fervent anti-Nazi, actively used his financial expertise as a banker to frustrate the ambitions of Hitler and his henchmen. Believing that only France possessed sufficient military might to withstand Germany's increasing belligerence and expansionist ambitions, he channelled his efforts and financial acumen into supporting the neighbouring country. Some of this support took the form of donations from his own resources, amounting to several million francs. This generosity inevitably attracted a venomous response, not only from Germany but also from the Nazi party in the Netherlands. Other measures taken by Mannheimer in the attempt to support France and stem the spread of Nazism included the formation of a syndicate of Dutch and Swiss banks which handled short-term French government bond issues. With the German occupation of the Rhineland, and subsequently of Austria and Czechoslovakia, conditions became more difficult for Mendelssohn & Co. as the Nazis began to coerce banks in the occupied territories into refusing to conduct financial transactions with Mannheimer's bank. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn & Co. continued to support France in this manner and by June 1939 was heavily involved in doing so. Although the bank continued to find buyers for the French issues in Switzerland, the market in the Netherlands had fallen off dramatically under Nazi influence. Faced with a temporary shortage in liquidity the bank turned to others for short-term support in the normal way: however, no such assistance was forthcoming, as by then the Nazis had frightened most of Europe's bankers into submission.
The end came on the morning of 9 August 1939 when Mannheimer received a telephone call at his office. He left Amsterdam immediately afterwards, without disclosing the caller's identity or the substance of the call, and travelled to the Château Monte Cristo where his wife of two months was staying. On the same day, Fritz Mannheimer died. The official explanation was that he had suffered a heart attack, and this could well have been the case, as he weighed over eighteen stone and suffered from a weak heart. However, there were strong suspicions never investigated of suicide.
The immediate consequence of Mannheimer's death was that Mendelssohn & Co. was forced to cease trading. It was subsequently declared insolvent with a deficit of over Fl 5 million. Mannheimer's assets in the Netherlands were frozen and the bank's creditors seized the Dutch part of his collection. In February 1941, eighteen months after Mannheimer's death, they came under considerable pressure to sell. Responsibility for negotiations with the new owners on behalf of Hitler was given to Seyss-Inquart and Mühlmann. Faced with competition from other German organizations which also wished to acquire parts of the collection, Mühlmann appealed for support from Hitler; this soon arrived in the form of a letter from Martin Bormann to Generalkommissar Schmidt in The Hague, instructing him to block any bids other than those made on the Führer's behalf. Mühlmann's offer of Fl 5.5 million for the Dutch part of the collection, which included Rembrandt's Jewish Doctor, was initially turned down as it was considerably less than the collection's true value, estimated to be at least Fl 7.5 million. Threats of confiscation followed, and eventually Mendelssohn & Co.'s creditors, in the absence unsurprisingly of interest from other quarters, resigned themselves to the inevitable and accepted Mühlmann's offer. Shortly afterwards the collection was transported to the Führerbau in Munich, where it was catalogued and where it remained until 1944 when, because of the increasing threat from Allied air raids, it was moved to safety in an Austrian salt mine. The rest of the collection, meanwhile, had been moved by Mannheimer's widow from the Château Monte Cristo to a temporary refuge in the unoccupied zone of Vichy just before the German invasion of France in June 1940. Here it stayed undisturbed for three years until Hitler once again turned his attention to acquiring it.
Belgium also fell prey to Hitler's insatiable lust for art treasures, losing its most precious artwork of all: the fabulous twelve-panel altarpiece called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in the cathedral of Ghent, painted in 1432 by the van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert. In 1939, after the outbreak of war, the altarpiece was moved for safe keeping by the French to a repository in the town of Pau, in the Pyrenees. This was not the first time that the altarpiece had been removed from its home city. During the sixteenth century, which was a period of Protestant rule in Ghent, it had been hidden for safe keeping until such time as Catholicism should be restored. Subsequently, after the invasion of Belgium by France under Napoleon Bonaparte, the four central panels were taken to Paris and placed in the Louvre. After Napoleon's defeat by the British at Waterloo in 1815 and his subsequent exile, the French king Louis XVIII, restored to his throne, returned them to Ghent. Six of the twelve panels were later sold by the Vicar General of Ghent, in the bishop's absence; these were eventually purchased by King Frederick William III of Prussia, who presented them to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin where they were kept until 1920. The remaining panels were left in the cathedral at Ghent until the outbreak of the First World War, when they were removed and hidden in a house in the city. The invading Germans, demanding to know the whereabouts of the altarpiece, were told that it had been evacuated to Britain. In the aftermath of the war the altarpiece was reassembled, with the return by Germany of the six panels from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum and of the remainder from their hiding place in Ghent. In 1930, however, one of the panels was stolen; and despite the success of the Belgian police in tracing the thief, who died in custody from a heart attack while being questioned, it was never recovered and was replaced by a copy.
Two years after the next invasion of Belgium, and of France, Hitler set about attempting to obtain the altarpiece. Pau lay within the territory under the control of the Vichy regime, but the Germans were well aware where the paintings were being kept. The French obtained written agreement that they could not be moved without the express agreement of the Mayor of Ghent, the French authorities and the Kunstschutz, and initially the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain resisted pressure to relinquish them. The collaborationist Prime Minister Pierre Laval, however, proved more amenable to the German demands and on 3 August 1942, under conditions of great secrecy, the altarpiece was taken from the repository at Pau and transported under armed escort to Germany.
Nor did the Germans waste much time in laying their hands on France's own art treasures. On 30 June 1940 Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of Staff of the OKW, ordered that all publicly and privately owned collections and works of art were to be `safeguarded against possible loss'. On 17 September he issued a directive that any disposals of French-owned property which had taken place since 1 September 1939 were null and void and that the German military authorities in France were empowered to confiscate Jewish-owned works of art for transportation to Germany. Three months later Hitler proclaimed his right of disposition over all confiscated works of art, decreeing that German commanders throughout occupied France were to keep Hans Posse fully informed of their efforts to acquire such booty.
In addition to appropriating entire collections, Hitler's representatives were active in the French art market. In March 1941 Posse was allocated an account at the Reichskreditbank in Paris containing RM500,000 with which to purchase works of art for the Führermuseum at Linz. As will be described in further detail in chapter 3, some French dealers joined those from Germany and elsewhere flocking to Paris to take advantage of the Nazis' willingness to spend large sums of money in the effort to satisfy the Führer's dreams. As in the Netherlands, prices rocketed and dealers unencumbered by conscience made large profits. Where neither confiscation nor straightforward purchase would serve, because the owners were non-Jewish and refused to sell, Hitler and his representatives resorted to forced sale. A notable example of this method of acquisition was the case of the Schloss collection of 333 paintings, including a number of Dutch masters signed and dated by the artists. A detailed account of the forced sale of this collection and its ultimate fate is given in chapter 12.
In 1943 Hitler renewed his efforts to secure the French part of the Mannheimer collection, which was still in the possession of Mannheimer's widow. The paintings included Chardin's Soap Bubbles and Mary Magdalene by Crivelli, as well as works by Guardi, Watteau, van Ruisdael, Molenaer, Ingres and Canaletto. Once again, Kajetan Mühlmann was tasked with handling the negotiations. Instead of making a direct approach to Mme Mannheimer, who was by this time in Argentina, he employed the services of Ferdinand Niedermeyer, who had been appointed Administrator of Property Seized by the Reich in France. In May 1944 negotiations were successfully concluded and the paintings sold for a price of FFr 15 million, paid to Mannheimer's creditors. Shortly afterwards they were shipped from Paris to Austria, where they joined the rest of the collection.
Hitler's plundering of collections in France was confined for the most part to those owned by Jews and private individuals and did not extend openly, at least to those belonging to museums. The only exceptions to this rule related to certain works of art of German origin, which he ruled were to be returned to Germany forthwith notably 2,000 items acquired by the French during the Napoleonic, Franco-Prussian and First World Wars which were removed from the Musée de l'Armée and sent to Germany. The reasoning behind this relative restraint lay not in any affection on Hitler's part for the French but in his ultimate plan that all France's most valuable treasures would form part of the compensation to be paid to Germany as one of the conditions to be laid down in any peace negotiations. Until then, he knew he could rest assured that such treasures, whether remaining in the museums or hidden away, would be well looked after by their French custodians.
Such was Hitler's determination that the Linz collection should possess the finest of the world's art treasures that the tentacles of Sonderauftrag Linz even found their way into the territory of Italy, Germany's principal ally. Hans Posse was represented in Rome by Prince Philipp von Hessen, a descendant of Britain's Queen Victoria and Emperor Frederick III of Prussia. An architect by profession, von Hessen had settled in Italy and married Princess Malfada, one of the daughters of King Victor Emmanuel. Having joined the Fascists, he maintained strong links with the Nazi party in Germany, and his extensive network of contacts among Italian dealers and collectors made him extremely useful to Posse. The latter paid his first visit to Italy in March 1941 and stayed for two weeks, during which he travelled to Rome, Florence, Naples, Genoa and Turin, acquiring a total of twenty-five paintings for the Linz collection and paying for them from a special fund of RM500,000 which had been established for him at the German embassy. Only a few days after returning to Germany in late March, Posse was back in Italy at the request of von Hessen, who had located some works of art which he knew would be of great interest to Hitler. Having exhausted his special fund at the embassy on his first visit, Posse had to request additional finance; this was arranged by Reichsminister Dr Hans Lammers, the Head of the Reichskanzlei (State Chancellery), who supplied a further RM500,000. June of the same year saw Posse returning for a third visit. Once again he exhausted his initial allocation and had to call for supplementary funds; once again these were forthcoming, when at the end of June Bormann sanctioned the despatch of a further RM1.65 million to the German embassy in Rome. All of Posse's purchases in Italy were legitimate, effected on the open art market. On instructions from Hitler, he and his representatives were careful to avoid any contact with those acting on behalf of Göring, who was also busy making a large number of acquisitions in Italy (described in detail in chapter 3).
A point of dispute between the Germans and their Italian allies was the status of the South Tyrol, which the former claimed as belonging to Germany, the latter to Italy. An agreement had been drawn up and signed in October 1939 in which the Italians had consented to the return to Germany of monuments, archives and works of art of German origin in the disputed region. During the following year a special commission was established by the Ahnenerbe of the SS to protect German interests in the South Tyrol, and Posse was appointed as its art adviser.
Posse's tireless quest for additions to the Linz collections came to an end in mid-December 1942, when he died of cancer of the mouth. His health had been poor for some time but he had refused to lighten his workload. He had been the driving force behind Sonderauftrag Linz and his death left a gap that would be hard to fill. Indeed, such was the esteem in which he was held by Hitler that the Führer ordered a state funeral for him, which was attended by every museum director in Germany; the eulogy was read by Goebbels. The rivalry among those who sought to replace Posse was fierce, and the selection of his successor took some weeks. On 22 March it was announced that Dr Hermann Voss, the Director of the Dresden Gallery, had been chosen for the post. This appointment sent shock waves through the German museum and art establishment: Voss was not a member of the Nazi parry and indeed was well known for his antipathy towards senior Nazis.
Changes were made in the management structure of Sonderauftrag Linz. Voss was placed in sole charge of the Führermuseum, but with reduced responsibilities and powers, confined principally to paintings. The collections of armour and coins became the responsibilities of two experts in the respective fields, Drs Leopold Ruprecht and Fritz Dworschak, while overall day-to-day control of the project was vested in Dr Helmut von Hummel, who had been appointed personal secretary to Martin Bormann in October 1942 and reported to the Reichsleiter on all matters concerning the Linz project.
After the Allied invasion of Sicily on 10 July 1943, and of the Italian mainland two months later, the Germans abandoned any pretence at consideration for the feelings and property of their erstwhile allies. As Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the commander of German forces in Italy, was forced to withdraw his forces northwards under relentless pressure from the advancing Allies, SS units indulged in a wanton orgy of destruction and looting of works of art despite the presence of Kunstchutz personnel who had been tasked with protection of monuments and art works. In at least one instance they were reported to have killed Italian guards attempting to prevent the terrible and senseless devastation. The Royal Society Library in Naples was set ablaze, as was the Villa Montezone at Livardi which housed the Naples State Archives, earlier evacuated there for safety. Archives of immense historical value were lost, including those of several of Europe's monarchies. Among scores of works of art destroyed were seventy paintings including Luini's Madonna and Child. The Ahnenerbe played its own part in the looting, albeit acquisitive rather than merely destructive, and established large repositories in the South Tyrol, at the Castle of San Leonardo and at Campo Tures. The latter was used to store paintings taken from the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace and other museums and galleries in Florence.
The Italian authorities were not entirely unprepared for this onslaught, having taken some measures to protect the country's art treasures when it was realized that the collapse of the Fascist regime meant an increased threat of looting and destruction from German forces, principally those of the SS. A former official of the Uffizi Palace Gallery, Rodolfo Siviero, had formed an underground organization, its members recruited from among art experts, artists and museum officials, which had contacts within the Italian army's intelligence arm, the SIM (Servizio Informazioni Militari), elements of which had been incorporated into the SS Sicherheitsdienst in Italy. SIM officers provided Siviero's group with information about German plans and warned of impending confiscations of collections or major works of art. On one occasion, a former SIM officer provided the leader of the underground group in Florence with copies of German documents which contained details of a meeting to be held between the German consul and two members of the Sicherheitsdienst to discuss plans for the removal of the city's art treasures. Siviero himself discovered that the Sicherheitsdienst was equipped with lists of the works of art stored in repositories at Montegufoni and Montagnana.
The underground activists succeeded in removing a large number of individual works of art before the Germans could lay their hands on them; on many occasions this work was carried out at great risk to the lives of those involved. One such item under threat of confiscation was Fra Angelico's Annunciation which, until spirited away by two monks working for Siviero's organization, was in a monastery near Giovanni Valdarno. Göring coveted the painting and the Kunstchutz had been instructed to obtain it for him. On demanding to know the reasons for its removal, Kunstschutz officials were told that it had been carried out on the orders of the Vatican.
When it came to looting or confiscation on a large scale, however, there was little the Italians could do to stop the Germans. In June 1944 orders were issued by Standartenführer Dr Alexander Langsdorff of the Kunstschutz for the contents of the Montagnana repository to be evacuated by troops of the 362nd Infantry Division, commanded by Generalmajor Greiner. The operation began in the following month and convoys of trucks transported the art treasures northwards to the repositories in the South Tyrol, from where they would eventually be sent to Germany. Complete collections, including those of Finaly Landau and the Duke of Parma, were seized and despatched to the South Tyrol under orders from the Kunstschutz.
The movement of these convoys and their precious cargoes, by both road and rail, was closely monitored by Siviero's organization and its allies in the Italian partisan movement, difficult as this was at times because of tight security maintained by the Germans. Through their contacts within the SIM, the underground activists were able to pinpoint the location of works of art belonging to Florence which, as noted above, had been taken to the repositories at San Leonardo and Campo Tures; among them were Botticelli's Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Cranach's Adam and Eve, Rubens' Return of the Peasants, Donatello's St George and Michelangelo's Bacchus, as well as works by Brueghel, Tintoretto and other great masters.
The tentacles of Hitler's mass looting stretched ever further eastwards as the war unfolded. Before the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, responsibility for stripping Russia of its art treasures was given to a special organization formed for the task, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), which will be discussed in detail in chapter 2. However, the task proved beyond the capability of the ERR and three months later was taken over by the foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who formed a special unit to carry out looting in countries invaded by Germany. Commanded by Sturmbannführer Eberhard Freiherr von Künsberg, the Sonderkommando Künsberg comprised four companies, each of which was assigned to a different area of operations. The unit first saw service in 1939 when elements took part in the invasion of Poland, during which they captured and looted embassies and other buildings belonging to enemy or neutral nations. Thereafter detachments were deployed in Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Greece and the Balkans. The role of the unit was to seize items on behalf of other German organizations, including the OKW, the Sicherheitsdienst and the foreign ministry. On occasions, Ribbentrop issued orders to the unit on his own account: in France it seized works of art on his personal instructions.
During Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, Ribbentrop ordered von Künsberg to deploy his unit to Russia to undertake the confiscation of works of art there. This move was opposed by the High Command of the Army and several other bodies, including elements in Ribbentrop's own foreign ministry, which attempted to limit the unit's role to confiscations of records and documents from embassies and diplomatic missions. Despite such disapproval and von Künsberg's own reluctance, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Companies were subsequently despatched, each being attached to one of the three Army Groups operating in the Soviet Union; logistical support was provided by units of the Waffen-SS. The 1st Company was meanwhile sent to North Africa, where it joined Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps.
Assisted by Waffen-SS troops, the 2nd Company laid waste to the palaces and museums of Leningrad, emptying Pavlosk, Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo of paintings, tapestries, sculptures, porcelain, antique furniture and other treasures, as well as complete libraries of priceless books and manuscripts. Meanwhile the 4th Company accorded similar treatment to the city of Kiev, ransacking the Museum of Ukrainian, Russian and Western Art and the Schevtchenko Museum. The Medical and Research Institute and the Ukrainian Academy of Science also fell victim to the marauders, losing valuable equipment, books and documents. So vast were the quantities of looted items that large freight trains were employed to transport them back to Germany and Hitler's repositories. Nor did the Germans restrict themselves to looting alone: they also waged a campaign of deliberate destruction which resulted in 427 museums in Stalingrad, Leningrad, Smolensk, Poltava and Novgorod being razed to the ground.
One of the most priceless of Russian treasures to fall into German hands was the panelling of the Amber Room in the palace of Catherine the Great at Tsarskoe Selo. The room was so called because its panelling was formed from sheets of amber, and it was furnished with tables, chairs, chests and ornaments also fashioned from solid amber. Whereas the Russians had been able to evacuate the furniture before the arrival of the Germans, the panelling had had to be left behind. The 2nd Company had been given the Amber Room as one of its primary objectives on reaching the palace and had thus come fully equipped for the task of dismantling and packing it for shipment. Within a relatively short space of time, the panelling had been removed and packed into twenty-nine crates which were then despatched to the museum at Königsberg, where the amber was subsequently installed.
In March 1942 the Sonderkommando Künsberg held an exhibition in Berlin, displaying a selection of the items confiscated museum exhibits, archives, books and valuables during the campaigns in which it had been deployed. By the end of 1942 the unit had confiscated 304,694 works of art which had been distributed to other organizations, principally the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Regions, which also received four library collections totalling 97,500 books looted from the Soviet Union. At the beginning of August, the unit was absorbed into the Waffen-SS and given the designation of `Waffen-SS Special Disposal Battalion'. By then, however, von Künsberg had fallen from grace: von Ribbentrop considered that he had taken too many decisions on his own authority, and shortly afterwards removed him from his post as commanding officer. In 1943 the Waffen-SS Special Disposal Battalion was itself disbanded and its personnel dispersed among other SS units.
Meanwhile, such was the volume of art looted, confiscated or purchased, forcibly or otherwise which continued to pour into the Führerbau in Munich that it was not long before other secure locations had to be found for storage. Three main ones were established, at the Schloss Neuschwanstein near Füssen in Bavaria, the Schloss Thürntal near Kremsmünster and a monastery at Hohenfurth in Czechoslovakia, close to the border with Austria. The first of these to be used as a repository was the Schloss Thürntal. Between August 1941 and November 1943 a total of 1,732 paintings and other works of art were transferred there in convoys under military escort. They included most of the collection of Baron Cassel, taken from the south of France; valued at at least RM1.5 million, its most important element was a group of late nineteenth-century French paintings. When the Thürntal repository was full, subsequent consignments were transported to the monastery at Hohenfurth. Among the treasures stored there were a large number of items from the Rothschild collection, over 1,000 pieces of silver from that of the David Weill family, and furniture and objets d'art from the Mannheimer collection. The largest of the three repositories, however, was that at the Schloss Neuschwanstein, which ultimately was filled almost to overflowing with art treasures. By 1944 its contents numbered 21,903 works of art (including some 6,000 paintings) from 203 collections almost all of them Jewish.
Lesser repositories containing works destined for the Linz collection included the Schloss Kogl at St Georgen in Attergau, the Schloss Steiersberg near Wiener-Neustadt, which housed the Lanckoronski collection from Poland, and the Schloss Weesenstein near Dresden, which contained not only art treasures but also the card index listing the items intended for Linz; other works of art were concealed in an old monastery at Buxheim which housed among other things 200 paintings looted from Russia.
As the threat from Allied bombers increased in the spring of 1944, Hitler gave orders that all art treasures were to be evacuated to places of greater safety. Collections in German museums were moved underground, to the salt mines: those from Karlsruhe and Mannheim and part of the collection at Stuttgart to Heilbronn, the remainder of Stuttgart's along with those of Cologne and Heidelberg to Kochendorf, and Vienna's collection, including 1,408 paintings by Brueghel, Rembrandt, Dürer and Titian, near Bad Ischl.
By far the largest repository was in a huge salt mine north of the Austrian spa town of Bad Aussee, in the mountains fifty-six kilometres east of Salzburg, just outside the summer resort of Alt Aussee. Here, from early 1944, large convoys of trucks arrived bearing the contents of the Führerbau in Munich in an evacuation overseen by Hans Reger, the officer in charge of the Führerbau since the beginnings of Sonderauftrag Linz. During the months of May to October, most of the contents of the Führerbau, numbering some 1,788 paintings and other works of art, were transferred to Alt Aussee. At the same time, works of art were still arriving in large quantities at the Führerbau from other smaller repositories which were being closed. Inevitably this resulted in a huge workload for those responsible for recording and cataloguing, and eventually, at both the Führerbau and Alt Aussee, the system broke down.
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