Looted, But Not Forgotten

During my senior year of undergraduate studies as a history/art history double major I wrote a thesis, “Art, Race, and Politics: How the Nazis Used Art as Cultural Instruction.” In it I argued Hitler and the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda used art as the medium to teach the German people “pure” Aryan morals.

In so doing they labeled modern, German expressionist artists, as well as other contemporary artists, degenerate. Works by Klee, Kandinsky, and the Bauhaus, jazz music, and African-inspired works by Picasso were ridiculed in a flamboyant public manner.

To counteract the art they deemed, “sub-human,” the ministry, under the guise of Joseph Goebbels, hired artists to illustrate Aryan families and “pure” values, thereby instructing the people in right vs. wrong, as defined by the Third Reich government.

On top of creating and commissioning art under their government-outlined aesthetic, the Nazis looted, stole, and confiscated hundreds of thousands of sculptures, paintings, and other priceless works of art and cultural artifacts. This stolen property was then stored, waiting to exhibited in a grand museum when the war was over. The museum; proposed as one of the cornerstones of the Albert Speer-designed new world capital in Linz, Austria, Hitler’s birthplace; would have held, “the world’s greatest works of art,” as defined by the Nazi aesthetic. Here Hitler and Goebbels would rewrite history.

Art was the medium of choice both because Hitler believed himself an artist, and because during the 1930s and 1940s art exhibits were popular public events and an easy method to disseminate ideas. During their reign the Nazis designed and held a number of art exhibits displaying, separately, degenerate and “pure” Aryan art, the most infamous and renowned of which was the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibit.

On November 4 a worldwide story broke that two years ago the Munich police uncovered just over 1,400 works of art taken by the Nazis during Wold War II. Held in a Munich apartment by Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer, this trove holds heretofore undocumented works by artists including Otto Dix, Marc Chagall, and Gustave Courbet, as well as degenerate and government-approved works known to have been pilfered by the Nazis.

In a BBC article, art expert Meike Hoffmann said, “When you stand before the works and see again these long-lost, missing works, that were believed destroyed, seeing them in quite good condition, it’s an extraordinarily good feeling.”

The allegations that the Munich police department did not disclose the existence of this collection for so long are severely troubling to me. Just think about how families whose personal property was stolen during the war can emotionally recover and perhaps gain closure from knowing these works still exist. International art restitution organizations, museums, and art historians like Hoffmann will also benefit from this find. Research into still-lost works will gain insight and perhaps even yield more discoveries like this one.

Frequently overlooked, the status of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II is still an open and incredibly painful, fraught, and controversial issue 72 years later.

I only hope that the discovery of this collection brings some peace to those families who only have paintings like these to remember their loved ones.

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