Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jew­ish Col­lec­tors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice

Melis­sa Müller and Moni­ka Tatzkow
  • Review
By – August 31, 2011

Adolf Hitler’s inter­est in the arts was as intense as his racism. Hitler viewed him­self first and fore­most as an artist and pro­mot­ed the arts so as to cre­ate a supreme Aryan cul­ture state. View­ing mod­ern art as a form of degen­er­a­cy” that threat­ened to under­mine the so-called Nazi people’s com­mu­ni­ty,” Hitler’s war against the Jews was as much prompt­ed by his ide­ol­o­gy of Aryan suprema­cy as it was to rid Ger­many of what he believed to be the Jews’ cor­rup­tive influ­ence on cul­ture via their involve­ment in all aspects of moder­ni­ty. This all came to a head with the Degen­er­ate Art exhi­bi­tion, mount­ed by the Nazis in Munich in 1937, con­sist­ing of mod­ernist art­works chaot­i­cal­ly hung and accom­pa­nied by text labels derid­ing the art. Designed to inflame pub­lic opin­ion against mod­ernism as well as its alleged Jew­ish prog­en­i­tors, the exhi­bi­tion sub­se­quent­ly trav­eled to sev­er­al oth­er cities in Ger­many and Austria.

This war against mod­ernism, how­ev­er, is not to neglect a more sor­did aspect of Nazi Germany’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the arts, and a less under­stood aspect of the Holo­caust. The Nazis also engaged in the theft of art col­lec­tions, much of which came at the expense of Jew­ish art col­lec­tors. Begin­ning in 1933, Jew­ish art col­lec­tors were under extra­or­di­nary pres­sure from Ger­man offi­cials to sur­ren­der their col­lec­tions. Many yield­ed their mas­ter­pieces at ludi­crous­ly low prices in exchange for exit per­mits for them­selves or mem­bers of their fam­i­lies. In Lost Lives, Lost Art, Melis­sa Müller and Moni­ka Tatzkow present for the first time thor­ough­ly researched biogra­phies of major Jew­ish art col­lec­tors in Ger­many, Aus­tria, and the Nether­lands, whose art­works were stolen by the Nazis. Fol­low­ing Kristall­nacht, for exam­ple, the Nazis passed a num­ber of anti-Jew­ish ordi­nances to legal­ize” their loot­ing. After the annex­a­tion of Aus­tria in March 1938, one-of-a-kind col­lec­tions, such as that of the Roth­schild fam­i­ly, was seized with­out compunction.

Start­ing in 1940, the Ger­mans stole art col­lec­tions in the Nazi occu­pied coun­tries. As the authors write, whole truck­loads and trains filled with works of art made their way back to Ger­many, fill­ing muse­ums and pri­vate Aryan” col­lec­tions — first and fore­most those of the insa­tiable art fanat­ics Adolf Hitler and Her­mann Gor­ing.” This hand­some vol­ume filled with pho­tos and pic­tures of stolen art tells the entire sto­ry of colos­sal theft and the efforts of the heirs to retrieve their stolen pat­ri­mo­ny. The sto­ries of the legal clash­es between the heirs deter­mined to retrieve their inher­i­tance, and the cur­rent own­ers is a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry in itself.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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