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The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany

The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany

by Jonathan Petropoulos Jonathan Petropoulos
Pub. Date:
Oxford University Press
Pub. Date:
Oxford University Press
The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany

The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany

by Jonathan Petropoulos Jonathan Petropoulos
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Nazi art looting has been the subject of enormous international attention in recent years, and the topic of two history bestsellers, Hector Feliciano's The Lost Museum and Lynn Nicholas's The Rape of Europa. But such books leave us wondering: What made thoughtful, educated, artistic men and women decide to put their talents in the service of a brutal and inhuman regime? This question is the starting point for The Faustian Bargain, Jonathan Petropoulos's study of the key figures in the art world of Nazi Germany.
Petropoulos follows the careers of these prominent individuals who like Faust, that German archetype, chose to pursue artistic ends through collaboration with diabolical forces. Readers meet Ernst Buchner, the distinguished museum director and expert on Old Master paintings who "repatriated" the Van Eyck brother's Ghent altarpiece to Germany, and Karl Haberstock, an art dealer who filled German museums with works bought virtually at gunpoint from Jewish collectors. Robert Scholz, the leading art critic in the Third Reich, became an officer in the chief art looting unit in France and Kajetan Muhlmann—a leading art historian—was probably the single most prolific art plunderer in the war (and arguably in history). Finally, there is Arno Breker, a gifted artist who exchanged his modernist style for monumental realism and became Hitler's favorite sculptor. If it is striking that these educated men became part of the Nazi machine, it is more remarkable that most of them rehabilitated their careers and lived comfortably after the war. Petropoulos has discovered a network of these rehabilitated experts that flourished in the postwar period, and he argues that this is a key to the tens of thousands of looted artworks that are still "missing" today.
Based on previously unreleased information and recently declassified documents, The Faustian Bargain is a gripping read about the art world during this period, and a fascinating examination of the intense relationship between culture and politics in the Third Reich.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195129649
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 03/30/2000
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 9.55(w) x 6.49(h) x 1.40(d)
Lexile: 1790L (what's this?)

About the Author

As of September 1, 1999, Jonathan Petropoulos will be a Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. Considered one of the preeminent experts on Nazi art plunderers, he is the Research Director for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States and the author of Art and Politics in the Third Reich. Presently a resident of Baltimore, he will soon relocate to Pasadena, California.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Art Museum Directors

                          The history of art museum directors in Germany is an illustrious one, as royal collections were transformed into public ones in the nineteenth and early twentieth century under the guidance of a number of talented and committed experts. Indeed, it has often been rendered as a kind of hagiography: a succession of great men, from Wilhelm von Bode (1845-1929) and Alfred Lichtwark (1852-1914) to Hugo Tschudi (1851-1911) and Ludwig Justi (1876-1957). These complimentary portrayals are not entirely unjustified: museum directors often combined public service with stellar scholarship. But this history cannot be written as a story of uninterrupted progress and triumph. Because these individuals oversaw significant portions of Germany's cultural patrimony and occupied such highly visible positions, they were subject to extreme political pressures. Scholars including Peter Paret, Christopher With, and Robin Lehman have documented the tribulations and sometimes compromised behavior of museum officials during the Wilhelmine period.

    The profession, of course, suffered even more intrusive political interference during the Third Reich. Those museum directors who endured the early purges of the Third Reich were pressured to conform to National Socialist ideological dictates to an extent that not only compromised the ethical principles traditionally associated with humanistic enterprises, but made themcomplicit in the crimes of the regime. The Nazi administration provoked an unprecedented series of crises and so devastated this once august group that the postwar recovery and reconstruction process could not be—or at least was not—carried out without the involvement of tainted members.

    Museum directors, while possessing considerable erudition and even international renown, comprised one of the most nazified professions in Germany. An inspection of directors' dossiers from the Reich Chamber for the Visual Arts files housed in the former Berlin Document Center reveals a frequency of Party membership that rivals those of physicians, one of the most highly nazified professions (Michael Kater estimates that 44.8 percent of doctors in the Third Reich "followed the Nazi Party"). One should note that below the level of director, museum staff remained more professional and were not as highly nazified. The Berlin State Museums, for example, had fifty-eight staff members in 1943 who were curators, conservators, or scholarly associates; of these, ten were members of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (National-sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter-Partei, or NSDAP), or about one-and-a-half times the national average of 10 percent. Like physicians, museum directors—as the case of Ernst Buchner demonstrates—facilitated and even occasionally initiated significant components of the National Socialist ideological program of Gleichschaltung ("coordination, which really meant the elimination or nazification of the social and political institutions"), racially based persecution, and military conquest. Of course, there are limitations to this comparison: doctors were involved in the killing operations far more directly. But the purging of Jews from museum staffs, the expropriation of Jews' artistic property, and the rapacious forays into neighboring lands must be seen as related to the genocidal program.

    Similarly, a number of museum experts espoused a mixture of hateful anti-Semitism and Teutonic arrogance that characterized many perpetrators of the Holocaust. Certain subfields in particular attracted Nazi ideologues. Archeology (Früh- und Vorgeschichte, literally, early and prehistory), for example, became so nazified that one postwar administrator lamented in a letter to Bavarian Prime Minister Franz Meyers that a "Professor Wagner is the only pre-historian in Bavaria left over from the war." Besides Wagner, the Bavarian administrator thought, archeologists were either so politically tainted so as to preclude rehabilitation or they were dead. Others in the museum field, such as Ernst Buchner, the director of the Bavarian State Painting Collections (Bayerischen Staatsgemäldesammlungen, or BSGS) from 1933 to 1945 and then from 1953 to 1957, did not adhere to a zealously Nazi outlook. However, his complicity in the oppressive policies of the regime is a central theme in this chapter.

    Another concern is the postwar rehabilitation of many museum officials who committed criminal acts in the service of the regime. As with many fields, two explanations can be offered. The first was a perception of necessity: millions of artworks had been displaced during the war and the physical state of German museums was disastrous. Even with the assistance of Allies' Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA and A) officers, trained professionals were at a premium, and many compromised German museum directors began to resurrect their reputations by cooperating with the Allies in their postwar reconstruction efforts. The second reason was a general antipathy on the part of Germans for postwar justice. Norbert Frei has documented in his recent study on the Germans' engagement with their own Nazi past:

In autumn 1949, immediately after the opening of the Bundestag, all parties began efforts to end, even in part to reverse, the political cleansing [of Nazis] that had been implemented by the Allies since 1945.... Above all, this entailed lifting sentences and [pursuing] integration measures to the benefit of an army of millions of former Party members, who almost without exception regained their previous social, occupational, and civil—if not political—status that they had lost in the course of denazification, internment, or similar "political" penalties. By the middle of the 1950s, almost no one continued to fear that their Nazi past would be exposed by state or legal authorities.

     In other words, unless fired and prosecuted by Allied authorities prior to 1949, those responsible for criminal acts normally went free and resumed their lives. And during the occupation the Allies were, with reason, almost exclusively concerned with murderers. The failure of postwar justice and denazification is not a new story, but what has not been recognized is that so highly regarded a profession as museum administration featured such criminal behavior and that there was such tremendous continuity between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic.

    It should be underscored that not all museum directors in the postwar period had been complicit in the crimes of the National Socialist regime. But this is because many either emigrated or pursued a course of "inner emigration" after 1933. Many chose one of these options out of necessity: the 7 April 1933 Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which provided for the firing of individuals who were Jewish or politically "unreliable," was invoked to dismiss museum directors, as well as numerous professors at art academies. Across the Reich, twenty-seven museum directors and numerous art academy professors were removed from their offices. The former included Gustav Hartlaub in Mannheim, Ludwig Justi in Berlin, Gustav Pauli and Max Sauerlandt in Hamburg (the directors of the Kunsthalle and Art and Crafts Museum, respectively), Carl Georg Heise in Lübeck, Karl With in Cologne, Karl Ernst Osthaus in Hagen, Julius Baum in Ulm, Alois Schardt in Berlin, and Emil Waldmann in Bremen. Others attempted to work with the new regime and endured a little longer: Georg Swarzenski continued on in Frankfurt through 1934 and Eberhard Hanfstaengl remained at the Berlin Nationalgalerie until 1937. For those museum directors who were not National Socialists and who tried to resist from within, the challenges were often overwhelming. Between intrusive politicians and aggressive local organizations, such as the Combat League for German Culture (Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur), the pressures could be, and often were, tremendous.

    But the fact remains that the museum officials always had the option of resigning (and the choice of remaining in Germany or leaving). It is true that emigration, even before 1939, was not easy: museum professionals were tied to language and national culture more so than artists or musicians, and they often specialized in German art, which had less appeal abroad than in their native country. But these educated men had options and were not forced down the path of criminality. Eberhard Hanfstaengl, for example, even at the late date of 1937, when forced out as director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, went to work as an editor for the Bruckmann publishing house in Munich.

* * *

Ernst Buchner was raised in Munich, arguably the artistic center of Germany after 1871. As Peter Gay wrote of Walter Gropius, "he had Kultur in his bones." Born on 20 March 1892 as the son of an academic painter, Georg Buchner (a representative of the conservative though flourishing "old Munich school" and then a member of the more progressive Munich Secession), the future director of the Bavarian State Painting Collections was constantly surrounded by artists and members of the related professions. His father was quite successful, with paintings in the Munich Glaspalast, the municipal museum devoted to contemporary art. His mother was the sister of sculptor Josef Flossmann, who was sufficiently famous to have a street named after him in the Munich suburb of Pasing where Buchner grew up. Buchner was raised in an environment populated by artistically inclined individuals, and this also seemingly affected his brother Georg, who became a successful architect and professor at the Munich Arts and Crafts School.

    Buchner was raised with a high regard for artistic accomplishment. From the time of his youth he was brought up with an awareness of the prestige and power possessed by museum directors, and he admitted in later accounts that he had long dreamed of holding the preeminent post in his native Bavaria. It was extremely common for members of the artistic professions to come from backgrounds where they had been exposed to the arts early in their lives. While one commonly finds that writers with bourgeois roots, like the Mann brothers or Franz Kafka, rebelled against parents who worked in the commercial or mercantile sphere, those who entered into the arts administration typically stemmed from backgrounds where their parents were already familiar with this world.

    Buchner was educated to revere high culture and to believe in German superiority in this regard. Such ideas were not uncommon, especially in Bavaria, where conservative forces were among the strongest in the nation. These views were perhaps best reflected by the transplanted Munich citizen Thomas Mann in his wartime reflections on the relationship between culture and nationality, including "Thoughts in the War" (1914) and Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (1918): German Kultur, with its depth, profundity, and engagement with spiritual matters, towered over rational French Zivilisation, let alone the English with their empiricist obsessions. Ernst Buchner shared such views with Mann prior to the latter's evolution into a liberal democrat and critic of fascism during the Weimar Republic. As OSS officer Theodore Rousseau noted after an extensive interrogation of his prisoner at Altaussee, Austria, in 1945: "Any conversation with [Buchner] on his own subject, German painting, reveals at once his fixed belief in a Greater Germany—whether the Führer be Frederick the Great, William II, or Hitler."

    Such nationalistic sentiments were inculcated at an early age in a traditional education of a Volksschule (1902-9), followed by three years at the Theresien Gymnasium (1909-12). Buchner went on to the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, but abandoned his studies when war erupted in 1914. He volunteered for the Seventh Bavarian Field Artillery and spent four years at the front. He demonstrated remarkable courage in the field, meriting the Iron Crosses (both first and second class), the Bavarian Military Service Award with Honors, and the War Service Cross. By the end of the war, he had been promoted to first lieutenant and commanded a battery. These experiences during his youth were formative and arguably explain later behavior. Historian Neil Gregor, discussing managers at Daimler Benz, has commented on this link between conservatism in Wilhelmine Germany and National Socialism: "Although many were by no means Nazis, they shared the nationalist attitudes of their class and generation and had been socialized in an authoritarian political culture which facilitated their compliance." Buchner himself was to claim after the war, "I felt and acted nationalistically and as a patriot, not as a National Socialist or Party member."

    When Buchner returned from the front in 1919, he resumed his studies in art history at the university in Munich, with an interlude in Berlin, and developed his professional persona. He became a student of the famed art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945), who wrote, among other landmark works, The Principles of Art History, which offered a systematic approach to the analysis of paintings. Buchner was not as theoretical as his mentor, but exhibited an aptitude for connoisseurship and developed a remarkable knowledge of Bavarian painting. Buchner was also perhaps influenced by the political views of his Doktorvater: Wölfflin was a conservative nationalist who later joined the pro-Nazi Combat League for German Culture in 1929 and evinced sympathy for Hitler's cultural program. But Buchner's relationship with Wölfflin predated the Nazis' rise to power and the two focused more on scholarship, even if there was talk of artistic "instincts" found in the "blood" of certain people, and other ideas not incompatible with National Socialism. Buchner was very hardworking and needed only three years to complete his dissertation, titled "Jan Polack: The City Painter of Munich." Focusing on a local figure proved a shrewd decision not just because of the availability of sources, but because he widened his circle of contacts and developed an area of expertise that would have direct application in finding a job. Buchner's scholarly method here, where he examined virtually all of Polack's works and subjected them to careful formalist analysis, laid the foundation for his later reputation as the preeminent authority on early Bavarian painting.

    As was often the case in the fine arts administration in Germany, those seeking to make their career relied upon the patronage of senior members of the profession. Accordingly, Buchner remained close to home at the start of his career, as he utilized the connections that his father and he had made over the years. His links to Wölfflin, who possessed considerable influence, were also helpful: Buchner's longtime assistant in both Cologne and Munich, Dr. Ernst Holzinger (1901-?), as well as Dr. Karl Feuchtmayr (1893-1961), who left the BSGS to succeed Buchner at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne in 1933, all shared the same supervisor. A more important and lasting supporter, however, was the Generaldirektor of the BSGS, Dr. Friedrich Dörnhöffer (1865-1934). Dörnhöffer thought highly of Buchner, as his recommendation of Buchner for a curatorial position in 1926 attests: "Dr. Buchner is a museum man of the very first rank.... He combines to a very rare degree all the qualities of intellect and character that constitute a museum expert: an unusually receptive artistic talent, a passionate devotion to the researching and investigation of individual artworks, a strong sense for quality, an astonishing memory, a love for organizational work, [and] practicality." Dörnhöffer's concern for his protégé later extended to encouraging Buchner in 1933 to become a Nazi Party member, thinking that this step would aid his career.

    With Dörnhöffer's help, Buchner rose through the ranks of the Bavarian State Painting Collections, beginning with an unpaid internship in 1921. From 1922 to 1928, Buchner occupied junior staff positions at various Munich museums. He began as a technical assistant in the graphic arts collection and then moved over to the Residenzmuseum. By 1923 he had become an assistant curator, and by 1926, with the help of the recommendation quoted above, he was promoted to the position of curator at the BSGS. Another major break came in 1928 when, at the age of thirty-six, he was offered the directorship of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne by Lord Mayor Konrad Adenauer. The museum, arguably the finest in Rhineland-Westphalia, was a perfect stepping-stone for an ambitious young museum official with eyes set upon the first-tier positions in Berlin, Munich, and Dresden. Buchner spent four years in Cologne, staging well-received exhibitions, including the 1928 retrospective of Wilhelm Leibl, and developing a reputation as a scholar. In addition to his position as director, he edited the Wallraf-Richartz Jahrbuch, which, although founded only in 1924, was rapidly growing into a distinguished journal.

    For curators and museum directors in Germany during the first half of the century, advancement within the profession depended upon not only patronage but scholarly productivity. These two elements determined most appointments in what was a highly competitive profession, so scholarship could not be ignored. One need only look at the other top museum administrators to see that they had carved out areas of expertise: Otto Kümmel of the Berlin State Museums was a leading figure in the study of Asian art, and Hans Posse in Dresden published numerous studies on Dutch masters and Renaissance art. Ernst Buchner built on his knowledge of Bavarian art to become a respected authority on the broader field of Northern Renaissance and German Baroque painting, which featured masters such as Grünewald, the Cranachs, and Dürer. He subsequently published a number of studies, including The German Portrait in the Late-Gothic and Early Dürer Period, Historical and Battle Pictures of the German Renaissance, Concerning the Work of Hans Holbein the Elder, and Martin Schongauer as Painter. Buchner was frequently consulted by other curators concerning this field. His stature as a scholar was later confirmed in 1941 when he was inducted into the Bavarian Academy of Scholarship and in 1942 when Hitler elevated him to professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. His specialization in German art not only reflected his nationalist orientation, but was also a calculated decision that would position him well for the post he coveted most: director of the museums of his native Munich. Bavaria housed more examples of the German old masters than any other region in the country, thanks to the long tradition of Wittelsbach patronage.

    Buchner realized his longtime ambition to become director of the Bavarian State Paintings Collections in July 1932. This post was regarded as the second most important in Germany, just behind the head of the Berlin network of museums. Thus, the forty-one-year-old Buchner, after a successful interview with the Bavarian Education Minister, Franz Goldenberger, and "highly confidential" discussions with Konrad Adenauer in Cologne (who let him out of his contract), succeeded his friend, the venerable Geheimrat (Privy Counsel) Dr. Friedrich Dörnhöffer, who had held the post since 1914. Because of Buchner's contractual obligations, he did not begin in Munich until 1 March 1933. Still, he had realized his ambition to oversee the collections of what were then fifteen institutions (the number has now more than doubled), including the Alte and Neue Pinakotheken, the Neue Staatsgalerie, provincial museums in Aschaffenburg, Augsburg, Bamberg, Burghausen, Ingolstadt, Landshut, Schleisheim, Speyer, and Würzburg, and the castles at Ansbach, Bayreuth, and Neuschwanstein (Füssen). These various museums housed some 10,500 pictures. Despite the worsening economic crisis, which cut into budgetary allocations and made acquisitions increasingly difficult, it was a dream job for an ambitious young museum administrator. Buchner oversaw a talented curatorial staff and started with the considerable salary of RM 14,000 per year (RM 2.5=$1); by comparison, his colleague Ernst Holzinger, a curator, earned RM 4,800 in 1933.

    With the National Socialist seizure of power in January 1933, Buchner faced the prospect of losing his new job. The 7 April 1933 Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service sanctioned the wide-ranging purges, especially of Jews and socialists, and many non-Party members perceived a threat. While Buchner was not vulnerable because of ethnicity or a left-wing past, it was abundantly clear that top positions, such as his directorship, would be evaluated in terms of the current political climate. Buchner joined the Nazi Party on 1 May 1933—one of approximately a million Märzgefallenen (March violets) who entered the Party that spring—and he viewed the affiliation as a career move. It should be stressed that Party membership was not necessary to retain one's museum position. Many of Buchner's colleagues kept their posts without joining. But Buchner felt vulnerable. He had been attacked in a 28 March article in the Nazi Party paper, Der Völkische Beobachter, for "his relation to Jews," and letters between him and a colleague, the curator August Levy Mayer, were found when the police searched the latter's home in March 1933. Buchner therefore perhaps thought that he needed protection from similar attacks in the future. After the war, Buchner reflected that many museum directors perceived challenges on the part of "opportunists hungry for jobs and unleashed by kitsch painters." He was apparently not a very demonstrative Nazi: he refrained from using the Heil Hitler greeting, refused to wear the Party pin on his lapel, and occasionally elicited substandard evaluations from Party functionaries. One evaluator even suggested that Buchner intentionally avoided interviews and contact with the Party representatives. While it is difficult to gauge the degree to which Buchner initially embraced National Socialism, his behavior suggests that he qualified as what Martin Broszat, in his study of German elite of the period, called a "pre-National Socialist." That is, Buchner stood among the national conservatives who embraced many of the Nazis' objectives of revising the Treaty of Versailles and reorganizing the country, without supporting their "boundless racial and geopolitical goals."

    Buchner, despite having certain reservations about the Nazi Party, complied with most official policies. His three children, for example, all joined either the Hitler Youth or the Association for Young Girls (Bund deutscher Mädel) before membership became compulsory. In the professional sphere, Buchner carried out his administrative functions in line with the new regulations specified by the Nazi regime. In one recommendation supporting a subordinate's promotion, he wrote to the Bavarian Education Ministry, "Dr. Busch is of Aryan extraction and his orientation is national." Granted, Buchner had limited autonomy and his decisions concerning personnel were vetted by the Bavarian Education Ministry. But Buchner, like most Germans, did not buck the system. When one of his employees, the restorer Franz Xaver Durneder, was turned down for promotion because he was not a member of the Party, Buchner communicated the decision to Durneder, and there is no evidence of any argument or appeal.

    Buchner was fortunate that he did not have to contend with the purges that arose from the Law for a Restoration of the Professional Civil Service. There was only one individual in the employ of the BSGS to whom the law appeared to have some application—the Jewish curator, Professor August Levy Mayer, who specialized in Spanish Old Masters—and he was evidently already on his way out because he had been caught dealing art on the side (behavior which to this day constitutes grounds for dismissal among museum staff). Levy Mayer and Buchner had a cordial relationship, but Buchner never came to the defense of Professor Levy Mayer. Then again, the curator's situation was hopeless both because of the art dealing and his Jewishness. It is therefore not surprising that Buchner chose not to intervene here. What is more remarkable is that the BSGS in 1933 had no other Jewish or left-wing employees, a fact that speaks to the conservative orientation of the institution.

    Buchner generally played according to the rules as they were presented to him by the Nazi regime, and this meant that he at times became a cog in the propaganda machinery. In mid-October 1933, for example, as Hitler laid the foundation stone for the House of German Art, Buchner oversaw the work of artists and artisans as they turned the city into "a sea of banners, floral decorations, pine branches, [and] red cloth ... white-blue Bavarian flags were expressly prohibited." And prior to the opening of the House of German Art in 1937, he succumbed to political pressure and provided space in the Neue Pinakothek for the work of living, officially approved artists. Buchner evidently did not welcome these annual shows. As he noted in 1945, "the temple of art became the annual art fair ... the great masterpieces of Schwind, Feuerbach, Böcklin, among others, were stuck in a corner each year in order to make room for modern works that were mostly mediocre." But neither did he do much to protest these shows either, as he waited patiently until the House of German Art was completed in 1937 when he could "reclaim" the exhibition space.

    The files of the Bavarian State Painting Collections also record the loans made by Buchner and his colleagues to other institutions and groups that staged exhibitions. The BSGS, for example, lent art in support of the 1935 show Blood and Soil, organized by the local chapter of the National Socialist Cultural Community (NS-Kulturgemeinde, or NS-KG), and for Volk and Family, which was arranged by the Schutzstaffel (SS) Race and Settlement Main Office, which appeared in the Hamburg Kunsthalle. In general, Buchner did not appear overly enthusiastic about crudely political shows (he turned down Robert Scholz, the subject of chapter 3, who requested works for Sea Travel and Art). But throughout the 1930s, he proved compliant with respect to requests made by those who embraced the Nazi line. There were even instances with regard to exhibitions when he himself appeared rather "brown." In 1935, for example, Buchner voiced "the strongest objections" to the idea of sending German Romantic art on a tour of the United States, noting that, "America is one of the lands that shelters many enemies of Germany, who persecute with hate all that is German." In sum, despite his occasional discomfort with Nazi policies and practices, it is not surprising that a 1940 evaluation of Buchner by Party functionaries "raised no political objections."

    Buchner took great pride in his professional reputation, and there were instances when official policies conflicted with his duties as a custodian of these collections. He claimed after the war that he could not bring himself to purchase "Nazi art" that was exhibited in the official shows, and indeed, he resisted pressure to add such works to the BSGS collection. Buchner also maintained that he was censored by the Bavarian Education Ministry for criticizing officially sponsored art shown at the Munich Kunstverein (he used the word "banal"). Additionally, he continued to promote premodern German art, even when this provoked controversy. The best example of this was the 1938 exhibition, Albrecht Altdorfer and His Circle, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the death of the artist. Because of the religious nature of the art, Hitler, Minister President Siebert, and Gauleiter (Party District Leader) Adolf Wagner all refused to visit the exhibition, and Buchner was accused of turning the gallery into a "Catholic platform." Although he had been promised a subvention of RM 45,000 for the exhibition, Buchner received only RM 15,000. Yet because of positive public and critical reception, revenues came to RM 96,000 (against costs of RM 92,000). The difficulties associated with staging exhibitions in Nazi Germany eventually became moot for Buchner: with the advent of war in 1939, the Alte and Neue Pinakotheken closed their doors to the public and the artworks were sent to the provinces for safekeeping. Although restoration work continued in the museums' workshops through 1944, there were no wartime exhibitions to organize.

    Yet prior to this point, Buchner became embroiled in a more vivid and important conflict concerning the purging of the so-called "degenerate" works from the state collections. This program began in the summer of 1937, but had roots earlier in the decade. In 1935, Buchner had resisted the efforts of Bernhard Rust and other officials in Berlin to sell works by Manet, Van Gogh, and others that had been acquired largely by legendary museum director Hugo von Tschudi before World War I. Later, in July 1937, Adolf Ziegler, the president of the Reich Chamber for the Visual Arts, led a commission that toured museums and selected works to be removed. Ziegler wielded orders from Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and later from Hitler, and himself occupied an important post where he had the ability to issue fines of up to RM 100,000 to members of the Reich Chamber of Culture who failed to obey regulations.

    Buchner did not recognize the right of the Ziegler commission to seize artworks from public galleries. He considered such actions to be an unlawful incursion into an independent (or quasi-independent) sphere, and accordingly, he defended most of the works in his care with great tenacity. Buchner, like Eberhard Hanfstaengl at the Nationalgalerie, refused to meet Ziegler and the commission; he was absent when they appeared at the Neue Staatsgalerie on 9 July 1937 to undertake their "cleansing" action and then even stood up to Hitler directly in a face-to-face meeting that took place shortly thereafter. Hitler made certain concessions in this meeting, promising that all affected museums would be compensated for their losses after the seized works had been sold abroad. OSS officer Theodore Rousseau noted that Buchner "was one of the very few German museum directors who succeeded in holding on to their collections of 'degenerate' art." While this is not completely true—108 works from the BSGS were taken, including paintings by Franz Marc and Emil Nolde—Buchner did resist this sort of encroachment and also ultimately obtained at least RM 100,000 and certain traditional works as compensation for the Bavarian State Painting Collections.

    Buchner's record with respect to modernist art is a mixed one—arguably the best that could be expected of a museum official who endured until the end of the Third Reich. There were certainly cases where his sentiments were laudable: he fought to keep works by the German-Jewish Impressionist Max Liebermann in the galleries; he defended the art of Edvard Munch, citing Goebbels's letter of praise on the artist's seventieth birthday in 1933; he defended a number of younger Bavarian artists whose work was proscribed; and he vehemently opposed proposals to destroy the purged art, though he was unable to prevent works from being burned in the furnaces of the Berlin Nationalgalerie in 1936 or at Berlin's Main Fire Station in 1939 (only the latter contained works from the Bavarian collections). But Buchner's record with regard to modern art is not entirely unambiguous. Buchner, for example, wrote to Emil Nolde in 1935 declining the artist's request for a show, and he noted two years later in an August 1937 letter to Professor Lösche that he had never bought or even wanted to buy art created by Emil Nolde (and signed this letter "Heil Hitler!"). Ernst Buchner, like a number of Nazis with "moderate" aesthetic views, admired much modern art, including the French Impressionists and Van Gogh but also extending to the more abstract work of Franz Marc. Yet he evinced little sympathy for many other Expressionists (especially those often viewed as more "primitive") or for the exponents of the New Objectivity (who, like George Grosz, were often politically engaged in support of the left).

    While Buchner demonstrated certain scruples with respect to the "degenerate" art to be confiscated from the collections under his purview, the same cannot be said about his behavior regarding Jewish-owned artworks that were seized by the Gestapo in the wake of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938. Just as 1938 marked a turning point in the broader history of the regime—in terms of not only cultural matters, but also foreign policy and the persecution of the Jews—it was also a critical juncture in Buchner's own personal evolution. By this time, he was on frequently familiar terms with the top Nazi leaders. His meeting with Hitler about the "degenerate art" was the first of many, as the Führer frequently consulted with Buchner on artistic matters while amassing a collection for a great museum he planned at Linz. Yet it is difficult to explain Buchner's behavior, which, as will be seen, became gradually more immoral with greater proximity to those with power. His motivation for collaborating with the Nazi leaders reflected a combination of rationalization and indoctrination, a very complex process that entailed an inner struggle.

    Ernst Buchner undoubtedly believed that he was safeguarding the artworks that came under his care. He later portrayed himself as a protector of art with respect to both confiscated works and those endangered by aerial bombardment. There was certainly an element of the classic rationalization: "If I don't take these paintings, somebody else is going to do it; and it is better that they are in the hands of an expert who will care for them." He was also faced with the dilemma, what else could be done that would be more credible? Buchner was hardly in a position to countermand the orders of Hitler, Himmler, and the other Nazi leaders. And other German museums were also adding to their collections by way of works seized from Jews. In many respects, his ethical principles were compromised once he had decided to work with the Nazis. Yet he saw himself as a moderate in the arts administration—someone who mitigated the destructiveness of the regime's policies.

    Buchner, however, did not act solely due to these considerations or rationalizations; he also internalized many of the beliefs that formed the basis of Nazi policies. From an early point in the Third Reich, he exhibited a willingness to administer confiscated art. In December 1933 he wrote the Bavarian Education Ministry, expressing the desire to acquire a bronze sculpture that belonged to, in his words, the "known pacifist and women's rights activist Anita Augspurg," who was now in exile (with the collection in custody of the Bavarian Political Police). Buchner also gradually evinced less sympathy for Jews. After the difficulties he experienced as a result of his relationship with Professor Levy Mayer, he exhibited a reluctance to assist old friends or acquaintances who came under attack. By the late 1930s, he had become involved with the artworks taken from local Jews by the Gestapo—first as a response to emigration, then as part of the more extensive Aryanization measures. "Aryanization" was the Nazi term for the transfer of Jewish property to gentiles as a means of ridding the economy of Jewish influence, and the regime developed the idea as an organized program: in 1938, Jews were required to report all wealth and register businesses; they were prohibited from functioning as business managers, then finally pressured to cede their assets or sell them for a fraction of the true value. Individuals lost their collections in this manner, and many Jewish galleries, like the renowned Bernheimer firm in Munich, were taken over by Aryan trustees. As the confiscated works mounted up, Buchner cooperated with the Gestapo by making rooms available in the Bavarian National Museum.


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