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

By Steffen Winter

Photo Gallery: A Problematic Nazi Legacy Photos
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Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen amassed huge amounts of valuable art, jewelry and other collectibles prior to and during World War II. It is a poisonous legacy which German museums and governments have failed to properly address. The moral disaster continues to the present day.

For decades, item number 471/96 has only seen the light of day in exceptional cases. On those rare occasions, fingers encased in clean, white cotton gloves carefully lift the platinum watch out of its velvet-lined case. Diamonds encircle the round face, refracting the ambient light into a glittering cascade.

The watch, made in the southwestern German city of Pforzheim by Eszeha, was kept in a plain cardboard box after the war. It isn't difficult to discover whose wrist it once adorned. The following inscription, along with a handwritten signature, appears on the back of the casing: "On February 6, 1939. With all my heart. A. Hitler."

That February day was the 27th birthday of Eva Braun. The Reich Chancellor had dedicated the diamond-studded watch with a chain clasp to his mistress, 22 years his junior. The precious watch survived the turmoil of the ensuing violence virtually unharmed.

Today the watch is kept in storage at the Pinakothek der Moderne, a modern art museum in Munich, where it is registered as "Estate of Eva Hitler, née Eva Braun" -- in a cabinet that contains a large number of other devotional objects from the darkest period of German history.

The collection includes a 41-piece set of silverware engraved with Hitler's initials. There is also a diamond-studded gold cigarette case that belonged to Field Marshall Hermann Göring (inventory number 466/96), with an inscription from 1940 on the inside cover: "Filled with happiness and pride, we congratulate you on your appointment as 'Field Marshall.' With our deepest love, Emmy and Edda" -- Göring's wife and daughter.

For decades, the Pinakothek has had in its custody an entire case of blood diamonds that Hitler's paladin once called his own: a tiara with 32 carats of diamonds, a platinum tie ring with emeralds, gold cufflinks with rubies, a diamond ring and a large amethyst -- just the sorts of things a worldly fiend needs.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

It's the kind of legacy that is inconvenient in the extreme for a fledgling democracy. What should a newly emerging political system do with such valuable refuse, the true origins of which are unknown? What was to be done with the gaudy ornaments of a regime that no one wants to exhibit? The answer proved simple. They were placed into storage and locked away, never to be seen again. Out of sight, out of mind.

Even today, this remains Germany's preferred way of dealing with the treasures that Hitler, Göring and all the other Nazi leaders snatched up and stole from others during 12 years of tyranny. The items being kept in a Munich museum's storage rooms are merely a tiny portion of the Nazi legacy that fell into the lap of postwar Germany. Almost seven decades later, the German state continues to hold paintings, rugs, furniture, graphics, sculptures, silver vessels, tapestries, books and precious stones appropriated by the Nazi clique. The German government owns about 20,000 items, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, books and coins. According to a 2004 estimate, the 2,300 paintings alone have an insurance value of €60 million ($81 million). Hundreds more are in the storage rooms of museums in the country.

No one likes to talk about this enormous cache of Nazi treasure, partly because of a feeling of guilt for possessing assets that are often of unclear provenance: Art objects acquired from Jewish collections that were sold off in a panic after 1933, or that were simply taken from their rightful owners before they disappeared into concentration camps.

Not all of this art is being kept from the public. A number of works are distributed throughout Germany in public museums, private collections, at the office of the German president, at the Chancellery in Berlin, in government guesthouses and in German embassies around the globe.

The treatment of the gigantic art collections of Hitler, Göring, Chancellery head and Hitler confidant Martin Bormann and other Nazi top brass counts as a particularly macabre chapter in Germany's efforts to come to terms with its Third Reich past. For almost 68 years now, those in charge of the art -- no matter their political persuasion -- have done little to investigate the provenance of the valuable pieces that make up this poisonous legacy and return them to their rightful owners.

Ridiculously Low

None of Germany's chancellors, be it Konrad Adenauer, who was persecuted by the Nazis, or former Nazi Party member Kurt Georg Kiesinger, emigrant Willy Brandt, former Wehrmacht officer Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl, or those born near the end or after the war, Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel, showed an interest in going beyond the unctuous speeches that are traditionally given on Nov. 9 to commemorate Kristallnacht ("Night of the Broken Glass") and take the last step of doing everything possible to return the Nazi loot.

SPIEGEL embarked on a search for the legacy of the Third Reich and, in doing so, stumbled upon long transfer lists of the assets of former Nazi officials, as well as tax officers who were somewhat reluctant to remember the valuable legacy. Museum officials seemed embarrassed as they shamefacedly opened their vaults. The search led to contemporary documents that attest to how the Federal Republic of Germany and the State of Bavaria, in the 1960s and 70s, threw works from the Hitler and Göring collections onto the art market at bargain basement prices, but neglected to turn over the proceeds to the possible previous owners or to Jewish victim organizations.

Documents turned up that show how Bavarian lakeside real estate seized by the Nazis changed hands for ridiculously low prices, even though the proceeds from the sales were initially supposed to be paid into a special fund for victims of the Nazi regime. Hundreds of drawings were found that had been hidden in steel cabinets for decades, partly to avoid having to face the heirs of Jewish collectors. It is also possible now to reconstruct how Hitler's personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, quietly and secretly withheld more than 100 paintings that are now part of a collection, probably worth millions, from the Bavarian government.

The effort led to an unmistakable conclusion: The handling of this Nazi legacy is a moral disaster that began in the 1950s and continues to the present day.

To its credit, five years ago the federal government created the "Working Group for the Research and Study of Provenance," which receives €2 million a year in government funding. But the group, which has four employees, has not been able to launch more than 84 research projects in museums and libraries since it was established -- 84 projects in 6,300 German museums. At this rate, it will take decades more before German cultural institutions have searched through their inventories for possible Nazi loot.

'A Lot to Be Done'

It's clear that without additional funding and without political will, what is currently the last chapter of reparations by postwar Germany will not come to a dignified end. Restitution is actually the reestablishment of an earlier legal state. As far as the return of the artworks is concerned, the Jewish Claims Conference (JCC) laments that there is "still a lot to be done" in Germany. The organization says that the funds made available by the federal government cover "only a small portion of the necessary measures." Instead, the JCC argues, "the heirs are forced to do their own research and, in case of doubt, fight for their family legacy and go to court."

Munich is the best place to begin tracking down the Nazi legacy. In 1945, when Germany was in ruins, up to five million works of art were gathering dust in mines and castle basements, monasteries and 1,500 other warehouse facilities of the defeated German Reich. Hitler had had his officials buy, steal or simply confiscate paintings and other precious items throughout Europe. The Allies were so well informed about this that they developed a plan to deal with the sensitive loot long before the end of the war. They chose a collecting point in a historic location: two adjacent, monumental structures, faced with pale Danube limestone, in downtown Munich. Hitler had used one of the buildings to receive state guests, while the other housed the Nazi Party headquarters.

The Central Collecting Point, or CCP, was formed in this gruesome reminder of the Nazi past, complete with balconies, marble staircases and an elaborate bunker system. Beginning in the summer of 1945, the artworks that had been secured in the three Western occupation zones began to accumulate at the CCP. They included Hitler's treasures, more than 4,700 objects that had been intended for the Führer Museum planned for the Austrian city of Linz, the 4,200 objects in Göring's collection, most of which he had kept at Carinhall, his country estate near Berlin, as well as the smaller collections of Joseph Goebbels, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Heinrich Himmler, Baldur von Schirach, Albert Speer, Martin Bormann and Hans Frank.

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