Besides all the other horrors which the Nazis committed during World War II, a story that is ongoing still over 80 years later is the looting of precious works of art. Most of what was taken was by Hitler and Hermann Goering. Two men who were both art lovers and also wanting to wipe out an entire culture. Most of the art taken belonged to Jewish families or galleries. Over the course of the war it has been estimated that over 600,000 pieces were taken and still until today 100,000 have yet to be found.
It all began in 1937 where two art exhibitions happened in Germany. One was of the art hated by the Nazis. This exhibit featured works by Chagall, Picasso, Monet, and Matisse. The other one featured art approved of by Hitler. It was called classical art. A war was declared on the art not approved of by the Nazis. They labelled it as degenerate art which was communist and cosmopolitan. The exhibit stigmatized the unapproved work and decreed it a threat to white power. Even at this time Hitler began to confiscate art with the goal of opening his own museum in his home city. It would be known as the Louvre of Linz. Art was to be used as propaganda during the war.
Goering was the man responsible for selecting the paintings for the Fuhrer. He was a general and Hitler’s deputy. Over the course of the war he became one of history’s greatest (?) looters with the collection he amassed being worth today over 18 million euros. Goering was a complex man who was obsessed with money and power.
He was aided by a man named Walter Hofer. He acted as Goering’s primary art dealer. When later questioned he claimed to not have known where the money came from for the art. He assumed it was from the State. Goering was also helped by historians, artists and curators to amass his and Hitler’s collections.
At the beginning of the looting the two previous best friends, Hitler and Goering, became rivals. The competition was fierce.
As part of their quest to destroy Jewish people the looting of the art was a weapon. Much of the art taken was owned by families like the Rothschilds. Art was seen as a way to shape the identity of the German nation. Also, a way to aesthetically purge the Jewish population of their identity and culture. Even though most of the art was not done by Jews it still was seen by Hitler as emblematic of their corrupt way of life.
After the war an American division began operating which was known as the Monuments Men. Their mandate was to find and return art to their rightful owners. When it became apparent that the Germans were going to lose Goering gave the order to blow up Carinhall (where he had previously kept his art stash) and sent the art by train to different hiding places. Hitler’s artwork was hidden underground in mines in Austria. In May of 1945 the American group found part of it – paintings, coins, weapons, furniture, statues, and books.
Today many of the pieces have found themselves in art galleries around the world in cities like Bern, Switzerland, Bonn, Germany, Paris, France, and Deventer, Netherlands. Many owners/families and institutions are still fighting for what is theirs. An example of this is the Goudstikker family. They are from the Netherlands and like many other Dutch families in 1935 they left. Patriarch and art gallery owner Janques stayed and kept his gallery open. When he finally had to leave he could not save his collection of 1,240 paintings. Some went to Hitler and some to Goering. The rest were sold.
Tracing the ownership of a painting is not easy. You have to check whether a title or artist’s name has been changed to cover its tracks. Then find out if it is in a museum or to be auctioned off.
The Germans have made efforts to right the wrongs of World War II. But they have not done so when it comes to the art issue. Seens as WWII’s unfinished business.
Documentary is narrated by Toni Servillo (Il Divo, The Great Beauty) and is in English, French, German, and Italian. It is comprised of black and white stock footage from the war, interviews with art experts, professors, and lawyers.
It intertwines amazingly the recovery or saving of works by Picasso, Botticelli, Klee, Renoir, Gaugin, etc. with the more personal stories of the people involved.