Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Rape of Europa I

"The Rape of Europa" is the title of a book by Lynn Nicholas that is taken allegorically from the title of a famous painting by Titian in which the Greek godess Europa is about to be raped. The book, that has been made into a movie, describes the systematic and unprecedented plunder of art works from all over conquered Europe by the German Nazis and their subsequent recovery and return mainly by US forces. This book is an incredibly detailed account of this subject, that shows how well organized and prepared the German authorities were for this task and how rapacious was their appetite. For example, as soon as Poland was conquered by the German forces in 1939, within a month practically all of the most valuable paintings and objects d'art were already catalogued and being shipped to Germany!

This was not a random gathering of works of art, but a carefully considered aquisition depending on the value and provenance of the works. Immediately behind the conquering German forces came legions of art experts, connaisseurs and profiteers. There were several groups of them: First among them were the representatives of Hitler himself, led by his art representative Dr. Hans Posse, who was given carte blanche to "collect" (steal) whatever works the Fuehrer wanted. And the Fuehrer, previously a (bad) amateur painter, felt that he had impeccable taste and so he was directly involved in the decisions. He collected works for two reasons, first for his own collection and second for the mega-gallery that he planned to build in Linz (his birthplace) that was to have the greatest collection of art in the world. For this purpose several central collection points were set up in Germany where tens of thousands of works for the Linz gallery were gathered and annotated.

Then came the representatives of Field Marshall Goering. He fancied himself a connaisseur of art and collected paintings and other objects for his own collection at his huge mansion "Carinhall" that was named after his deceased Swedish wife. He particularly valued works by Cranach an early German painter. He boasted that his collection was to be the best in the world. Goering was no dilletante, he had frequented the best private collections and museums in Europe and had direct relations with many eminent dealers, some of them Jewish. As soon as the conquests occured he would visit these contacts in order to obtain the best works at the least price, and he had to be fast in order to outmaneuver Hitler's representatives. To show the degree of his commitment he visited art galleries and dealers in Paris 12 times from 1940-41.

Then there were the "local" German collectors, such as Gen Frank, the Governor-General of the Polish General-Gouvernement, the area of Poland under German military occupation. In this area, Frank could requisition anything he liked, particularly if it was suspected to be of German origin. Some of the best paintings in Poland were displayed on his office walls and other officers helped themselves to what they liked from various central collection points, although these were usually meticulously noted. Also there were various German museum directors and their representatives sniffing around Europe for any free masterpieces.

There were two other groups in charge of French owned artistic property, the Wermacht (German Army) unit called the Kunstschust and the so-called ERR (Einstatsztab Reichsleiter Rosenberg). While the Wermacht tried to retain all French property within France until a peace treaty was reached according to international law, the Gestapo unit under Alfred Rosenberg was to find and transfer to Germany all art items stolen or removed from Germany by the French during WWI and as far back as the Napoleonic War. These two groups were at loggerheads and the German officer in charge of the Kunstschust, Count Franz Wolff Metternich, an eminent art historian and Francophile and a distant relative of the German statesman, saw it as his duty to prevent the Gestapo from stealing French property. He did this by denying them transportation that was under Wermacht control. But, they got around this by having Goering use Luftwaffe (Air Force) transport. In one incident, Alfred Rosenberg was responsible ironically for transferring back to Germany the holdings of the Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who had moved his collection from Berlin to Paris and had hidden it in bank vaults and at the Louvre and had then managed to escape to New York. His collection, like many others had works by Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Matisse, Picasso, etc. A similar fate awaited the fabulous collections of the Wildensteins, David-Weill and the Rothschilds.

There were three ways the works were obtained by the Germans, first in areas of military occupation, like Poland, Occupied France and Belgium, all Jewish-owned works automatically became the property of the Reich and were confiscated. In order to avoid this many Jewish owners sold their collections at ridiculously low prices to non-Jews and fled the country. But, some did not flee far enough and were caught in the Nazi's net. Second, private collections of non-Jews, including those bought from Jews, could be bought at lower than market prices. Only in the Netherlands, which was put under civilian administration and considered part of the Reich (because the Dutch were racially acceptable) were the Germans forced to pay a reasonable price for the artworks. The third means of collection were the Nationally owned museums and galleries. Ironically in Holland, German soldiers helped to protect famous works of art (such as the huge canvas of the "Night watch") from bombing while in France, where strenuous attempts had been made to hide the greatest works of art, the Germans came with maps knowing almost all the hiding places in advance, and simply took what they wanted.

The ERR was responsible for removing all "degenerate" modern art from the collections and some of it was used as a touring show in Germany to expose decadent modern art, but ironically the German public preferred it to traditional art. In one case the ERR was responsible for deliberately destroying "Jewish" and "decadent" art found in the Louvre, including works by Pissaro and Picasso that they sloashed and burnt. But, generally they preferred to keep degenerate art for selling on the black-market and making money for their activities and for themselves. Ironically, many modern art paintings, including many abstract paintings, were saved because they were not wanted for any German collection and were either stored or sold at low prices to dealers who kept them until after the war. In particular, works by Pissaro could be obtained at rock-bottom prices because he was Jewish.

In all of this institutionalized robbery, while the war was continuing, the Germans typically kept meticulous notes, But, at the Jeu de Paume that was made the central collection point in Paris, the volume of works going in and out was so great that the German auditors were unable to keep up with it. But the French auditor of the famous collection of impressionist paintings, Rose Valland, kept a meticulous secret daily diary of where the Germans were shipping the treasures of France and she handed weekly copies to the French authorities in unoccupied Vichy France. Because of this some of the most valuable paintings in the world, by Michaelangelo, Van Gogh, Renoir and so on were ultimately retrieved.


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