Hitler's Wristwatch: A Nazi Legacy Hidden in German Museums

By Steffen Winter

Photo Gallery: A Problematic Nazi Legacy Photos
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Part 2: A Train Full of Art

Not everyone in Hitler's entourage had a passion for art. But because Hitler, a former postcard painter, collected art, they all collected art. In this absurd way, says US historian Jonathan Petropoulos, the party luminaries complied with the so-called Führerprinzip (leader principle), which held that they were to treat the interests of the Führer as their own.

At the CCP, the Americans examined and registered everything that the Nazi leaders had collected. If the provenance was easy to determine (and when soldiers or civilian employees had not already sold the loot on the booming black market), the works were quickly returned to their original owners. Petropoulous estimates that, using this approach, the Americans and the British had returned some 2.5 million cultural assets -- including 468,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures -- to their rightful owners by 1950.

In the initial postwar years, the Germans were largely uninvolved spectators in the Munich art market. But starting in the summer of 1948, the US entrusted the remaining inventory to the care of then Bavarian Governor Hans Ehard, who later turned it over to the Foreign Ministry in Bonn. There, a specially formed restitution committee conferred for almost three years, ultimately setting the objective that the restitution issue was to be resolved by the 1960s.

This, of course, was much easier said than done because, in many cases, it proved enormously difficult to determine the rightful owners. Nevertheless, in 1966, the German parliament decided that suitable works of art were to be lent to museums as well as to top- and upper-level federal government agencies. This resulted in something of a roadshow for Nazi art. At CCP headquarters in Munich, as well as at the Baroque Schleissheim Palace and the Bavarian National Museum, curators from all over Germany were invited to pick out works that might fit well into their museums. The event was closed to the general public.

'Painful Matter'

Treasury Minister Werner Dollinger announced the results to the world press in 1966. Almost 2,000 works went to 111 German museums and 660 paintings to 18 federal government offices at home and abroad. As a result:

  • There is a Sultanabad rug from the Göring collection at the Chancellery today;
  • a painting once owned by Göring hangs in the federal government's guesthouse near Bonn;
  • a three-drawer cherry secretary from the collection of Hans Posse, one of Hitler's top art thieves, stands in the Office of the Federal President;
  • a copy of a painting by Giovanni Canaletto, "Canal Grande with Punta della Salute and Doge's Palace," acquired by Hitler, can be viewed at the German Parliamentary Society.

At the time, the government led citizens to believe that the subject of restitution had been resolved. According to Minister Dollinger, a "painful matter" had been brought to a close. SPIEGEL at the time also praised the government's efforts, noting that the works of art were no longer burdened with the "taint of unlawful acquisition."

But, as it turned out, we and others were mistaken. In fact, the provenance of the works had not been thoroughly investigated by any means. It remains unclear today in some cases, such as the painting in Bonn, the desk at the president's office and the Canaletto copy at the Parliamentary Society.

To understand why Germany never truly cleared up the biggest art theft of the last century, it's worth taking a look back at the perpetrators' obsession with collecting.

The White Leather Tuxedo

In May 1945, the Allies found two trains in Berchtesgaden, a town in the Bavarian Alps, that had apparently been used by Field Marshall Göring. The cars were filled with art from around the world. Göring had engaged in a true rivalry with Hitler to acquire the most significant works in the European market. In his Carinhall estate, some paintings were hanging on the ceiling because there was no room left on the walls.

It is unclear how the heavyset Wehrmacht officer developed an appreciation for art. Although he was from a wealthy family and had lived in castles as a child, unlike Hitler, Göring had never shown a passion for art. He had finished high school at a cadet school and taken an officer's exam, a test which likely didn't address Rubens and Rembrandt.

The art collection that the Americans uncovered in Berchtesgaden had an estimated value of 600 million reichsmarks. His other assets included Veldenstein Castle, a bombed-out villa at the Obersalzberg mountainside retreat, a hunting cabin near the town of Bayrischzell, an account with the Reichs-Kredit-Gesellschaft bank in Munich worth 1.1 million reichsmarks, as well as curiosities like a collection of antlers, a white leather tuxedo and a French blanket from 1730.

Under an agreement with the Allies, the top Nazis' private assets went to the state in which they had been found after the end of the war. This meant that Bavaria benefited more than most other states. In addition to Göring, with his homes in the foothills of the Alps, many other key players in the Nazi system, like Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler and Julius Streicher, had moved their possessions to secret hiding places in the south as the Allies advanced into Germany. The Munich State Archive has a list, compiled in 1949, of the confiscated assets of former Nazi Party leaders in Bavaria. The value of their real estate and bank accounts alone was estimated at 51.4 million deutschmarks at the time.

What happened to the Nazi properties is a particularly disturbing chapter in Bavarian postwar history, as documented in a 1971 report by the Bavarian Supreme Audit Court -- a document which was long kept secret and later forgotten. The auditors had scrutinized the State of Bavaria's real estate transactions between 1952 and 1967, including the sales of confiscated Nazi villas.

The 'Jovial Austrian'

It's a shameful report that tellingly demonstrates how quickly the victims of Nazi rule were once again given short shrift when it came to government transactions in the reconstruction years.

An unbelievable case occurred in the town of Kochel am See. It revolved around a 4,312-square-meter (about an acre) waterfront property with a wooden house on it. It was where Nazi youth leader Baldur von Schirach went to relax -- before he was sentenced in Nuremberg to a 20-year prison term for crimes against humanity. The property went to the State of Bavaria. In 1939, the idyllic site was already valued at a land price of 2.50 reichsmarks per square meter. But in 1955, Bavaria sold the property for 1.45 deutschmarks per square meter, which was well below its value, as the Audit Court later wrote in its critical but classified report.

To add insult to injury, the property was then resold after only 10 months, with the fortunate buyer managing to sell it at a 100 percent profit.

The short-term owner was very familiar with the house. It was Von Schirach's wife Henriette, who was also the daughter of Hitler's personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann and the Führer's secretary for a time. As recently as the early 1980s, Henriette -- the grandmother of attorney and bestselling author Ferdinand von Schirach -- attracted attention with a book in which she had reinvented Hitler, turning him into a "jovial Austrian."

An isolated case? Hardly. Heinrich Hoffmann owned an attractive, 956-square-meter (about 10,000 square feet) villa in Munich's Bogenhausen neighborhood, worth millions today. In 1954, the State of Bavaria, which had been awarded the assets of the long-time Nazi (Nazi Party membership number 59), sold it for 52,000 deutschmarks. For the appraisal, the government's real estate agents had used a 1936 construction index. The government chose not to sell the property at public auction.

And the list goes on. Nazi Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick, executed in 1946 as a major war criminal, owned a magnificent villa on 32,196 square meters of land (8 acres) in Kempfenhausen on Lake Starnberg. In 1959, a publisher bought the estate from the government. It was appraised at only 6 deutschmarks per square meter, even though the authorities themselves had described the property as a "luxury property" on "park-like grounds in an excellent lakeside location." According to the Audit Court, the price was too low, and it concluded: "Even in 1959, there was also considerable interest in large properties in such preferred locations."

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