Nazi Art Plunderers Wanted High Culture

By and

Adolph Hitler’s personal art collection contained 5,600 paintings.

These paintings were collected through legitimate purchases, gifts from other prominent Nazi leaders and as plunder from the nations Nazi Germany conquered.

Jonathan Petropoulos, a professor of history from Claremont-McKenna College in California, discussed the Nazi interest in art and the fate of those works in a lecture Wednesday.

“No other individual has collected as much art as quickly as [Hitler] did,” Petropoulos said. “Art was everywhere he went.”

All of the Nazi leaders had an interest in art, according to Petropoulos. To the Nazi elite, art was a basis for their interpersonal relations, as well as evidence of their social climbing and cultural sophistication.

“All the Nazi leaders amassed art collections that today would be worth millions of dollars,” Petropoulos said.

Petropoulos attributed Nazi leadership’s emphasis on art to Hitler’s personal interest.

“He was obsessed with visual arts,” Petropoulos said. “He thought of himself as a real artist. He was a skilled draftsman and a skilled artist.”

Hitler planned to build a museum in his hometown to hold his art collection. According to Petropoulos, Hitler spent hours fantasizing about this museum.

The Nazi art plunderers participated in a kind of cultural hegemony. They wished to see Germany as a country owning every historic treasure. They also emphasized a Germanic-centric interpretation of art history.

“The goal was to rewrite the narrative of art history,” Petropoulos said.

According to Petropoulos, art was not the only interest of Nazi leaders who seemed out of sync with their brutal policies toward humanity. They were also fascinated by sports, even in their day to day lives, and Hitler was very fond of animals.

“It’s a source of unending fascination for me,” Petropoulos said. “They were the most malevolent, destructive leaders in history. How could they devote so much time to amassing art collections?”

Petropoulos told the stories of three prominent Nazi art plunderers and what happened to them after the war. One of them was celebrated as a national hero and allowed to continue acting as curator in a museum, while another had a foundation created in his name and a street named after him. Americans captured the third one, but after working with them, he was allowed to escape.

Toward the end of the war, the Nazis were very careful to protect their stolen works. They hid the paintings in salt caves or castles, and very few of the works were damaged or destroyed.

When the Americans got to the works, they set up bureaucracies to deal with the plunder.

“Fifteen million cultural objects went through the hands of the allies,” Petropoulos said. “Not just stolen art, but art belonging to German institutions.”

The United States set up a policy to give stolen artwork directly back to the countries from which they came, but not back to the specific person or museum. This work was not credible, however, and there were many security problems and mistakes in returning the art to the rightful owners. Petropoulos told the story of a Yugoslavian who forged a list of artworks and told the United States they belonged to his country. He was able to take all of them.

Petropoulos ended his lecture by discussing the pieces of art, the whereabouts of which are still unknown. The less valuable property has been dispersed worldwide, though mostly in central Europe, while the museum-quality pieces are probably still in private collections.

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