Nazi Looting of Art
- LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0161
- LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0161
Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were not only the most systematic mass murderers in history, they were also history’s greatest thieves. Beginning with the duress sales of Jewish property starting in 1933 and escalating to expropriation as part of emigration in Austria to outright seizure in conquered nations during World War II, the Nazis carried out a plundering program that extended to millions of cultural objects. The Allied response began during the war: after concerned academics (such as the Harvard Defense Group) alerted military and civilian leaders to the dangers to Europe’s cultural patrimony, the United States created the Roberts Commission to study the issue, which in turn led to the creation of Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, where officers accompanied the invading armies and tried to mitigate the damage from combat, as well as track the looted works. The Monuments officers undertook a massive, international restitution effort, but could not complete the task: there is still much “unfinished business” from this era. The literature on Nazi plundering and Allied restitution is rich and varied: from the vivid accounts of the Monuments officers to the technical and occasionally arcane scholarly interventions (e.g., how to interpret labels on the backs of paintings). The opening of archives and the continued discovery of Nazi-looted works in museums and private collections has served as an impetus for continued research, and an international effort promises to yield further discoveries. This article is divided into twenty-two sections, with the entries in chronological order. It bears mentioning that there are four sections where the historiography is particularly rich: (1) plunder and restitution in France, (2) the literature on “degenerate art,” (3) Nazi-looted art and the law, and (4) anthologies. The first is likely due to the cultural riches of France, as well as the accessibility of archives. The scholarship on “degenerate art” took off in the late 1980s, with the observance of the fifty-year anniversary of the Aktion in 1987, and the public revelation of the Gurlitt cache in 2013 contributed to this impetus (Hildebrand Gurlitt had been one of the four official dealers of the purged art). Due to the emergence of myriad restitution cases starting in the early 2000s, the legal aspects of looting and recovery have attracted intense scholarly interest. And the international nature of the research, which has involved scholars from both North America and Europe, has led to many conferences, which in turn yielded a rich array of anthologies.
General Overviews: Comparative, Diachronic Studies
In an attempt to understand the greatest art looting campaign in history, scholars initially took two general approaches. First, there was an effort to understand the plundering campaign as part of a totalitarian political system created by the Nazis. Lehmann-Haupt 1954 utilizes totalitarian theory to compare the Nazis to Soviet Communists, arguing that plunder was part of both of these highly coercive regimes. The second approach attempted to understand Nazi plundering by placing it in broader historical perspective: a series of diachronic studies appeared starting with Treue 1957 that compares Hitler and his cohort to ancient Romans, Napoleon, and British imperialists. More popular works in this vein, such as Esterow 1966, Chamberlain 1983, and Lindsay 2014, brought this history to light—and indeed, helped reignite controversies such as the return of the Elgin Marbles—but had little effect on the fate of Nazi-looted art. When issues relating to Holocaust-era assets reemerged in the mid-1990s, a new trend in the scholarship of restitution appeared—often with a legal emphasis, such as in the work Greenfield 1995—and helped bolster the effort to revisit this “unfinished business of World War II” (to borrow from the subtitle of Eizenstat 2003). Later works like Eizenstat’s explored the practical work of restitution—often in a comparative context as events in Germany differed from those in Switzerland and so on. This comparative dimension can also be found in documentations of losses, such as Charney 2018, which chronicles the loss and destruction wrought by World War II.
Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut. Art under a Dictatorship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.
Pioneering study by a German émigré who worked for the American military government in Berlin from 1946 to 1948. His work was informed by totalitarianism theory, which was pervasive during the Cold War: the first half of this book concerns “the Nazi experiment,” and the second on the Soviet dictatorship, and the attendant cultural policies. Lehmann-Haupt focuses on the control of artists and art as propaganda more than art looting, but there is a good early discussion of “the archeologist in SS uniform” (the SS-Ahnenerbe Foundation).
Treue, Wilhelm. Kunstraub: Über die Schicksale von Kunstwerken in Krieg, Revolution und Frieden. Düsseldorf: Droste, 1957.
Comparative, diachronic study of looting over the millennia, with sections on Napoleon and Denon, Lord Elgin, and the Summer Palace in China. For the English version, see Wilhelm Treue, Art Plunder: The Fate of Works of Art in War and Unrest (New York: John Day, 1961).
Esterow, Milton. The Art Stealers. New York: Macmillan, 1966.
Examines famous thefts, ranging from the Mona Lisa in 1911 to the heist of eight Cézannes in Aix en Provence in 1961.
Chamberlain, Russell. Loot! The Heritage of Plunder. New York: Facts on File, 1983.
Account of plunder from the ancient world to the present, with focus on the Elgin Marbles, Napoleon, and Hitler. Explores ethical questions about ownership of national treasures.
Greenfield, Jeanette. The Return of Cultural Treasures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
First published in 1989. Eight case studies help the author distinguish between emotional arguments for restitution versus legal ones. Looks at Icelandic manuscripts, the Elgin Marbles, and Byzantine mosaics from Cyprus, as well as Nazi-looted art. Also offers useful suggestions for reforming restitution practices.
Eizenstat, Stuart. Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II. New York: Public Affairs, 2003.
A personal account of the complex politics and diplomacy involved with the restitution of looted property. Looks at many asset categories, including not only art but also gold, bank accounts, and insurance policies. Provides an inside look into key legal negotiations between Jewish organizations and the Swiss, Germans, French, and the Austrians. Includes an excellent foreword by Elie Wiesel.
Lindsay, Ivan. The History of Loot and Stolen Art: From Antiquity until the Present Day. London: Unicorn, 2014.
A survey of looting over the millennia by a British art dealer. Includes discussion of Nazi art looting.
Charney, Noah. The Museum of Lost Art. London: Phaidon, 2018.
Includes accounts of works of art stolen, lost, or destroyed for both intentional or unintentional reasons throughout history—including many cultural artifacts that fell into Nazi possession during World War II.
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