The Nazi regime in Europe wreaked havoc and destruction on every aspect of civilization in every country that it came across. Nothing was safe as the Nazi’s killed millions, pillaged and burned, looted and depleted any signs of humanity from entire landscapes throughout Europe. Their horrendous actions and crimes against humanity would imply that there would be no respect for any form of art, yet one of the greatest crimes in art history is that of the Nazi’s.
Over 650,000 artworks were stolen throughout the Nazi invaded countries. Many were never recovered. These artworks were referred to as Raubkunst- art looted by the Nazis.
It all began in 1933 when Hitler declared that the Nazi army would be performing a merciless war on cultural disintegration, and in his mind one of the most horrendous instances of this disintegration came from the newest forms of art. This war would be waged on any sort of art that deviated from classic representationalism. This included any form of Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, Fauvism, futurism or objective realism. It also spanned to include the Impressionists art, from the likes of van Gogh, Matisse, Kandinsky and Cezanne. According to Hitler, even if it was not actually made by Jews, it fell into the category of Jewish Bolshevik art, which was subversive in intent and corrosive to the moral fiber of not only Nazis, but all of Germany.
Interestingly enough, Hitler himself had once been an aspiring artist; he was even rejected from an art school in Vienna. Perhaps it was his own love of art and belief that he was an expert that actually drove the start of the Nazi art crime scene.
At the time, the majority of the art scene was dominated by Jewish dealers, gallery owners and collectors. So in a sense, this war on cultural and artistic disintegration worked only as more support for even the most heinous aspects of the Nazi plan.
Later, in 1937, the Reich minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda creased a commission to confiscate the so-called degenerate art from both public institutions and private collections within the Nazi. He declared that all modern –isms were the poisonous flower of a Jewish parasitical plant, and the madness of the artwork was only further proof of the necessity of a radical solution to the ‘Jewish’ question.
Yet the art collected by various German looters was not destroyed as one might expect. In fact, many of the looters only worked to steal the art for themselves. One notorious looter had over 1,500 works, including those of the degenerate artists van Gogh and Cezanne.
Looters had no qualms about stealing the collections of escaped Jews. When rich Jewish collectors were found to have fled areas of Nazi occupation, the Nazi art ‘collectors’ would enter their abandoned homes and cart off all the pictures and paintings found.
The art stolen was meant to be exhibited in a show of Degenerate Art, to show the madness, crippled minds of Jewish artists, and was shown at the same time as The Great German Art Exhibition. Oddly enough, the stolen collection received far more visitors and revenue than that of the so-called Great German Art. The era of Nazi occupied Europe was one of the most criminal in terms of stolen art. Between 1941 and 1943, over 137 freight cars shipped nearly 22,000 art objects of all kinds through various parts of Germany. In France alone there were at least 100,000 works looted by Nazis from Jews there.
Even after the war ended, much of the art that the Nazis had looted went unfound, the pictures’ locations unknown. Former Nazi collectors would lie to famed groups like the Monuments Men. They would tell them that much of their stolen collections had been destroyed during the war. One Nazi collector had over 47 crates in his apartment alone, and convinced investigators that during his campaign against Degenerate Art much of what he had collected was sadly destroyed in Dresden, when in reality much of it was hidden in water mills and secret locations in the French countryside.
Of the arts recovered by experts, the pieces that were once stolen loot, many came from the Degenerate Art that had been meant to be destroyed or sold to recover and exalt ‘classic’ art that Hitler believed to be the most exemplary and of the highest German standard.
In the end I suppose it is not surprising that one of the most horrendous aspects of our modern history would also include the most massive art crime. Yet in the end it is humanity that suffers at the loss of thousands of pieces of art that have yet to be found or discovered.