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 4: Receiving Honecker on Göring's Carpet

The paintings were apparently seen as a way to reinstate that portion of his assets which the denazification ruling had granted him. The estimated amount was 350,000 deutschmarks.

The act of mercy, largely unknown to this day, was the apparent result of settlement negotiations between the photographer and the finance minister. And Hoffmann was clever enough to keep the settlement quiet, and to not accept cash. The files suggest that no one was interested in wasting any further thought on the provenance of Hoffmann's paintings.

The consequences became apparent just two years later when the Austrian government lodged a complaint with Bavaria. According to correspondence in the archives of the Bavarian Paintings Collections, Austria demanded the return of two paintings from the Hoffmann collection: works by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, the most important painter of the Viennese Biedermaier movement. The Munich officials replied somewhat sheepishly that they had already turned over the paintings to Hitler's former confidant in 1954.

Even before reaching his settlement with the state government, Hoffmann had repeatedly managed to reclaim individual paintings from the state government's custody. A popular technique was to have associates tell the state authorities that they had received a painting from Hoffmann's collection as a gift during the war. Hoffmann's physical therapist was one of them. On July 22, 1955, he was handed "The Angler," a painting by Carl Spitzweg, at the Bavarian Paintings Collections. He had claimed that the photographer had given him the picture during the Hitler era as a token of his gratitude. Conveniently, the art-loving physical therapist brought along his personal art historian, who scrawled his signature on the handover document: "Dr. Kai Mühlmann."

It was the same Mühlmann whom Göring had once named his special envoy for art in the occupied eastern territories -- an SS man who had verifiably seized Jewish collections and supplied them to Hoffmann.

Missing the Dignified Route

In the roughly seven decades since the end of World War II, there was one moment in which Germany could have, and should have, succeeded in embarking down a more dignified path. In December 1998, 44 countries met at the Washington Conference, where they agreed to track down art confiscated during the Nazi era and identify the original owners. A "just and fair solution" for the return of the works or compensation was to be found with the heirs. For the first time in decades, it was once again possible to file restitution claims.

State Minister for Culture Michael Naumann, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), enthusiastically supported the implementation of the Washington Declaration and, by virtue of his office, expanded the definition of looted art: If Jews had sold paintings to support themselves while fleeing the Nazis, they or their heirs could also file claims for compensation. Naumann wrote to all leading German museums and urged them to address provenance research. But, as he recalls today, he received a response from only one institution, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

To this day, provenance research has remained a stepchild of accounting for Germany's Nazi past -- lacking in financial means and human resources, but replete with accusations that heirs care more for money than art. At least the federal government has now examined most of the paintings it holds, and German museums are gradually following suit.

The only specialist currently addressing the provenance of thousands of works in the Bavarian Paintings Collections is art historian Andrea Bambi. She likens her work to a police investigation. More than 10 years ago, her employer launched a research project to examine the provenance of 126 pictures from the Göring collection, 72 of which are still in the museum's hands. Bambi's job is to examine the rest of the massive Nazi legacy.

It's a role that is both unique in Germany and rather peculiar. In the spirit of the Washington agreement, she has an obligation to the victims of the Nazi reign of terror. On the other hand, she is paid by the museum and has lifetime tenure there. Her job is a balancing act, because she has to satisfy both sides. Heirs, such as those of Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, accuse the Collections of taking a restrictive approach.

A Chaotic Collection

In most of the cases, the art detective's job is a difficult one. Bambi walks out of her office, takes a sharp right around the corner and enters a dimly lit library, where there is a beige folder on a table. It contains parts of 3,500 document pages that Bambi has to comb through to ascertain the origins of the Munich paintings. It's a collection of loose sheets of paper, unsorted, with carbon copies on parchment paper, and with poorly legible notes made by long-retired colleagues. Estimated prices for sculptures are noted in red pencil on the back of a calendar sheet from February 1 of some year. It's a chaotic collection of documents.

Bambi says that she could use three staff members: an archivist, a historian and an art historian. The estimated personnel costs would be about €230,000 a year. The Bavarian finance minister, who holds both the rights to Hitler's book "Mein Kampf" and the entire legacy of the Führer, has refused to commit any funds to the project so far.

There is clearly a need for the federal government to step in. If the collections of the three Munich Pinakothek museums, the Schack collection and the 12 satellite galleries are combined, a total of 4,400 paintings and 770 sculptures that have accumulated in the Collections since 1933 will have to be examined.

The legacy is so extensive that not even Bavaria's senior-most politicians are unaware of the former Nazi property they use on a daily basis. The Bavarian State Chancellery, for instance, used a building on Prinzregentenstrasse for representational purposes for many years. Former Bavarian Governor and CSU Chairman Franz Josef Strauss used the great hall for cabinet meetings, as well as to receive state guests, like East German leader Erich Honecker.

A giant carpet was laid out on the floor of the room: 15.18 meters by 7.27 meters. The motif was Persian, but the carpet had been made in India. It still has the number 6498 on the bottom, which the Americans gave it at the CCP. The carpet also has a file card in the Federal Archives, where it is referred to as a "giant carpet" that was found in Berchtesgaden. It was on the Göring train.

Stuck Between Wooden Pallets

Very few people know what a significant role the carpet played in German history. It allegedly was once laid out at Göring's Carinhall estate, in the hallway to the library. And then there are photos of East Germany's anti-fascist leader Honecker's 1987 visit to Prinzregentenstrasse, with Strauss, Edmund Stoiber and a number of other prominent Bavarian politicians. And it all happened on Göring's rug.

Today the carpet is rolled up in a hallway at the Schack collection, where it illustrates the size of the dilemma the Nazi legacy poses. No one can use it anymore, and yet no one dares sell a carpet that is so steeped in history. A potential buyer from the US turned up a few years ago, but left empty-handed. Now the carpet lies, forgotten and wrapped in plastic, between old wooden pallets.

Of course, forgetting is also sometimes part of a strategy. The State Graphic Collection in Munich has 601 drawings and watercolors by the painter Rudolf von Alt (1812 to 1905), once owned by the Nazi Party. Hitler confidant Martin Bormann had procured the pictures for Hitler's Obersalzberg retreat, the Führer buildings in Berlin and Munich and the planned Führer museum in Linz. Drawings by the painter were also on the list of artworks returned to Hitler's personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann.

For decades, the Munich museum officials knew that, until the 1930s, the works were primarily the property of Jewish business people from Vienna. But what happened to them?

Since 1959, they were kept in two steel cabinets in the former Nazi Party administration building, which is now home to the State Graphic Collection. The status quo was only disturbed two years ago, when the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe came calling and filed claims for a watercolor. It demanded the return of the work "The Old North Train Station in Vienna," which had belonged to a Jewish woman from Brno, in the present-day Czech Republic, until 1938. The Commission announced its intention to pursue other claims as well, enough to finally push the State Graphic Collection to embark on a provenance project.

Breathtakingly Absurd

There are references to Jewish collectors like Eissler, Goldmann, Mautner and Zuckerkandl. The museum managers have promised to examine their collection "as thoroughly as possible." And they regret, of course, not having approached possible heirs directly.

It is a late start. And the fact that it has taken so long probably has a lot to do with an earlier generation of curators and their reluctance to exhibit the magnificent collection, for fear that Jewish heirs could promptly file claims for the art.

For years, a number of museum directors pursued a breathtakingly absurd line of reasoning. This attitude flared up as recently as 2006, when a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, "Berlin Street Scene," worth about €30 million, was handed over to the granddaughter of a former Jewish owner, who lived in England. The incident prompted Michael Eissenhauer, president of the German Museums' Association at the time, to sharply criticize the "big business" of restitution art. "It's worthwhile to embark on a hunt and take a look at which paintings could inject new blood into the art market."

A "hunt"? By the victims? Former State Minister for Culture Naumann recalls a speech by Berlin art auctioneer Bernd Schultz, which was published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, under the heading: "They Say Holocaust, But They Mean Money." That speech, says Naumann, "contained, without the man even noticing it -- which only made it worse -- a classic anti-Semitic sentiment. Shameless."

People like Gunnar Schnabel, who represents the interests of the heirs, continue to run up against the limits of openness and cooperativeness among museums today. Since the Washington conference, the Berlin attorney has taken on 30 cases relating to valuable paintings. The work often escalates. "I begin by researching three paintings and end up with 50," says Schnabel. On behalf of Jewish heirs, Schnabel has wrested a painting by Carl Spitzweg ("Fiat Justitia") from the Office of the Federal President. He is not particularly conciliatory as he sums up his experiences: "Negotiations with the museums remain tough and incredibly expensive."

No Evidence of Fairness

The cost of research is especially staggering for the victims. Schnabel remembers the case of a colleague, in which a painting was sold for €2.4 million after restitution. The legal fees amounted to more than €2 million, all but eliminating the concept of compensation. Schnabel accuses museums of sometimes "fighting with everything they have, and stalling the negotiations." Even if they do examine their collections once in a while, says the attorney, he knows of no cases in which a museum has approached heirs directly.

Monika Tatzkow agrees with his assessment. She too represents Jewish heirs, including her current clients, the heirs of Max Liebermann. A great-grandson has hired the Berlin provenance researcher to examine 62 paintings, 51 drawings, 10 volumes of graphics and one watercolor. The list includes top artists like Manet and Monet, and the works could be in museums or private collections. "The evidentiary requirements are getting more and more stringent and exaggerated," says Tatzkow. After 70 years, the heirs are still expected to furnish the "last sales receipt," to ensure that the restitution is completely watertight. The historian sees no evidence of fair and just agreements, as stipulated in Washington.

Former State Minister for Culture Naumann wants the next federal government to pass a law that goes beyond the moral impetus of the Washington agreement. "Lawmakers have to outline more specific restitution claims." He also has an idea of where the money for more intensive provenance research should come from. There are currently plans for a museum dedicated to the Sudeten Germans, those ethnic Germans forced out of lands belonging to present-day Czech Republic. The federal government together with the state government of Bavaria is to provide €30 million for the facility. It would be the third or the fourth such museum dedicated to the expellees, says Naumann, and hardly anyone visits the ones that already exist. "Diverting €10 million from this budget and putting it into provenance research is a possible approach." The states would also have to become more committed, says Naumann.

Of course, there are countless cases in which clarification of the ownership issue will no longer be possible, and in which doubts will never be set aside. But does the rule have to be: When in doubt, rule in favor of the state? Or the museum?

The Germans could learn from the Austrians. After the end of the war, 8,422 works of art, most of Jewish origin, were stored in a monastery near Vienna. Only in 93 cases were heirs able to prove ownership. After 50 years and many agonizing debates, the Republic of Austria decided on a solution that was morally unassailable: An auction at Christie's, with the proceeds benefiting Nazi victims. The October 1996 auction raised €11 million.

Could this be a solution for Göring's diamonds and Eva Braun's platinum watch? Perhaps it would only reignite the trade in Nazi devotional objects, as critics fear. But the Internet is already filled with such objects today: Hitler's brass desk set, notes by concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele, letters and postcards written by Joseph Goebbels. A few rings and tiaras are hardly likely to make a difference.

The idea at least merits a public debate. After all, the sale of the precious objects ought to raise enough money to pay for a few additional positions in provenance research.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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