Art Dealer to the Führer: Hildebrand Gurlitt's Deep Nazi Ties

Photo Gallery: 'Connections within High-Level Nazi Circles' Photos
DPA

Hildebrand Gurlitt, the man who assembled the astounding art collection recently discovered in a Munich apartment, was more deeply involved in the trade of looted artworks than had been previously assumed. He also profited from Nazi injustices after the war.

The Americans moved in from the west around noon. There were two tanks, followed by infantry soldiers, their weapons at the ready.

There are people in Aschbach, a village in the Upper Franconia region of Bavaria, who remember April 14, 1945 very clearly. They were children then, helping out in the fields as the soldiers marched past. They remember that some of the men had dark skin and gave them chewing gum.

At the time, Aschbach was a town of a few hundred residents, complete with a castle on a hill that belonged to the aristocratic Pölnitz family. The castle, its façade covered in brownish plaster overgrown with wild grape vines, was part of an estate that included a lake and several hundred hectares of forest. It still stands on the outskirts of Aschbach today, a fairytale castle in Franconia.

During those last days of World War II, Aschbach residents hung white sheets from their windows and were later registered by the American soldiers. The Americans arrested local Nazi Party leader Baron Gerhard von Pölnitz. The residents who were registered included a man named Karl Haberstock, who appeared on a wanted list of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. Haberstock, an art dealer, had been living in the castle with his wife for several months.

The American army had a special unit to handle such cases, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section. Their job was to search for art stolen by the Nazis.

Monuments Men

When Captain Robert K. Posey and his assistant, Private Lincoln Kirstein, known as "Monuments Men," inspected the castle in early May they found an enormous art warehouse. It contained paintings and sculptures from the museum in nearby Bamberg and a picture gallery in the central German city of Kassel, whose directors had sought to protect the works from Allied bombs. They also discovered suspicious private property, some 13 crates of artworks marked as belonging to Heribert Fütterer, the commander of the German Air Force division for Bohemia and Moravia. The estate chapel contained suitcases and bags full of art, which Ewald von Kleist, the former commander of Army Group A of the Wehrmacht, had left there. Captain Posey declared the estate a restricted area and had signs reading "Off Limits" posted at the property.

A few days later, a Monuments Man noted: "In addition, rooms containing paintings, tapestries, statues, valuable furniture and documents from the belongings of two notorious German art dealers were found in the castle." They were the collections of Karl Haberstock and a certain Hildebrand Gurlitt, who had also lived in the castle with his family since their house in Dresden was burned down.

A note dated May 16 reads: "A large room on the upper floor with 34 boxes, two packages containing carpets, eight packages of books … one room on the ground floor containing an additional 13 boxes owned by Mr. Gurlitt." Most of these boxes contained pictures and drawings.

'Connections Within High-Level Nazi Circles'

In the following months and years, the American art investigators wrote letters, memos, inventory lists, reports and dossiers to clear up the origins of the art. With regard to Haberstock, they wrote: "Mr. Karl Haberstock, from Berlin, is the most notorious art collector in Europe. He was Hitler's private art collector and, for years, seized art treasures in France, Holland, Belgium and even Switzerland and Italy, using illegal, unscrupulous and even brutal methods. His name is infamous among all honest collectors in Europe."

Gurlitt, they wrote, was "an art collector from Hamburg with connections within high-level Nazi circles. He acted on behalf of other Nazi officials and made many trips to France, from where he brought home art collections. There is reason to believe that these private art collections consist of looted art from other countries." For the Monuments Men, Gurlitt was also an "art dealer to the Führer."

Now, almost 70 years later, what the Monuments Men discovered at Aschbach Castle in May 1945 has shown a spotlight on Germany's past once again. Customs officials found an enormous treasure trove of artworks from the Third Reich in an apartment in Munich's Schwabing district. It includes 380 pictures that the Nazis had dubbed "degenerate art" in 1937 and removed from museums. The Schwabing find also included 590 other artworks that the Nazi regime and its henchmen may have stolen from Jewish owners. The owner of the apartment is Gurlitt's son Cornelius, the current heir of the collection, who was 12 and living in Aschbach at the end of the war.

Consequences of Munich Discovery

With the origins of the individual pictures still unclear, a task force appointed by the German government is investigating the history of each artwork. It will be a lengthy effort. But a search performed by SPIEGEL staff, in such places as the French Foreign Ministry archives and the National Museum in Wroclaw, Poland, has revealed the substantial extent to which Gurlitt dealt in looted art and how ruthless his practices were.

A Hollywood film about the Monuments Men will be screened for the first time at next year's Berlin Film Festival. George Clooney produced and directed the film, in addition to playing the main role: a US soldier who is part of a special unit made up of art historians, museum experts and other assistants, whose mission is to recover art stolen by the Nazis and rescue it from destruction in the final days of the war. Apparently the film depicts the historical events with some degree of accuracy.

But perhaps what happened in Aschbach in those last few days of the war and the first few months of peace would make for a more interesting film: an enchanted castle in Upper Franconia owned by a baron who had joined the Nazis, and who served during the war in Paris, where he worked with art dealers with dubious reputations, some of whom he eventually harbored in his castle near the end of the ill-fated Third Reich.

It would be a film about the country's elites, who benefited from the crimes of the Nazis, a story about culprits who quickly transformed themselves into supposedly upstanding citizens and, in a new Germany, became the pillars of society once again.

In a bizarre twist, for several months after the war Schloss Aschbach housed a group of young Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Ironically they, and not the Nazi baron, lived in the castle's elegant rooms before leaving the land of the Shoah for good. But more on that later.

'Extremely Nervous'

The Monuments Men questioned Hildebrand Gurlitt in Aschbach in June 1945. They noticed that he seemed "extremely nervous" and noted it seemed as if he were not telling the whole truth. It was during those days that Gurlitt, the "art dealer to the Führer," reinvented himself: as a victim of the Nazis, a man who had saved precious artworks from destruction and someone who had never done anything malicious.

Of course, not everything Gurlitt told the Americans was false. He pointed out that the Nazis classified him as a "mongrel," because of his Jewish grandmother, and that he had feared for his future and even his life after 1933, which led him to cooperate. As Gurlitt stated during the three-day interrogation, there was a risk that he, as a so-called quarter-Jew, would be drafted into forced labor for the Todt Organization, a Third Reich civil and military engineering group. Gurlitt also said: "I had to decide between the war and the work for museums. I never bought a picture that wasn't offered to me voluntarily. As I heard, laws were also enacted in France so that Jewish art collections could be confiscated. But I never saw it with my own eyes."

The Monuments Men in Aschbach felt that Haberstock was the more egregious criminal. He was taken into investigative custody in May 1945, and in August he was brought to Altaussee in Austria, where all those who were viewed as truly serious art criminals were required to testify near a salt mine filled with artworks. Gurlitt was allowed to stay in Aschbach.

Haberstock later told German officials that the Americans had underestimated Gurlitt's role during the Nazi period. In a 1949 letter to a government official, he wrote: "I was able to prove everything, including, for example, that I was not the main supplier for Linz, whereas Mr. Voss, during his short term in office, bought about 3,000 artworks and took over confiscated collections together with his main buyer, Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt."

Linz was to be the site of Hitler's massive Führer museum. It was never built, and yet the Nazis bought enough art to fill three museums. Hermann Voss, a museum director from Wiesbaden who had also run a museum in Dresden, ran the art-buying program from 1943 onward. From then on, Gurlitt worked for Hitler through Voss, who served as a middleman. He also bought art for German museums that had been brought into line by the regime, as well as for private citizens like Hamburg cigarette manufacturer Hermann F. Reemtsma, Hanover chocolate magnate Bernhard Sprengel and Cologne lawyer Josef Haubrich.

Gurlitt's Early Career

In 1930, art historian Gurlitt was removed from his post as director of the museum in the eastern city of Zwickau, because he was viewed as a champion of modern art. He went to Hamburg, where he ran the city's Kunstverein art museum, until he was fired once again over his preference for the avant-garde, as well as his Jewish grandmother.

Gurlitt remained in Hamburg, where he became an art dealer and opened a gallery. At the time, the kind of modern art he had consistently supported had become a risky business. Gurlitt increasingly bought and sold older, more traditional art. He had a knack for the business, developing relationships with collectors and finding ways to gain access to pictures. Before long, he was buying art from people who were being persecuted, mainly Jews, who sold their art because they were being forced to flee Germany, had lost their jobs and needed money to feed their families, or were being required to pay the so-called "Jewish wealth levy." Through middlemen, Gurlitt also bought art that had been seized by the Gestapo.

One of the paintings the Monuments Men found in Aschbach Castle, in a crate Gurlitt had marked with the number 36, was by the Bulgarian painter Jules Pascin, born in 1885. It depicts two women, one nude and another wearing a shirt, and a man. They seem to be strangers, and they are not looking at each other -- a metaphor for the bleakness of life. Pascin painted it in Paris in 1909 and called it "The Studio of the Painter Grossmann." He committed suicide in 1930.

Gurlitt told the Americans that the painting had belonged to his father, who had bought it before the Nazis came into power. In fact, Gurlitt bought the Pascin in 1935 for 600 Reichsmark, significantly less than it was worth, from Julius Ferdinand Wollf, the longstanding editor-in-chief of a Dresden newspaper, the Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten. Wollf was a passionately ethical and respected journalist, until the Nazis forced him out of office in 1933. Because of his Jewish background, he soon lost his assets and the SS laid waste to his apartment. In 1942, shortly before his scheduled deportation to a concentration camp, he took his own life, together with his wife and his brother.

After initially confiscating the painting, the Americans returned it to Gurlitt in 1950. It must have been sold later. In 1969, at any rate, it was included in several exhibitions, on loan from a French family of collectors. In 1972, it was sold at auction at Christie's in London for almost $40,000 (€29,000). The work later turned up in Chicago.

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1. Gurlitt
afgmoeller 12/23/2013
I wonder if there was a connection with Bruno Lohse (1911-2007) who was the chief art looter for Goehring in Paris. I wonder what Gurlitt's connection with Kornfeld and Klipstein in the 1950s might have been. Gurlitt organized a Sam Francis show in Dusseldorf in 1956 and K & K was the artist's dealer.
2. Redemption failure
Albert Leo 12/24/2013
"the country's elites, who benefited from the crimes of the Nazis, a story about culprits who quickly transformed themselves into supposedly upstanding citizens and, in a new Germany, became the pillars of society once again." The Third Reich is an existential stain on Germany's history, but the real tragedy is how Germany failed to cleanse itself of the perpetrators of that monstrosity, and allowed many to live comfortable lives instead of receiving the punishment they were due. It’s too late to undo that now.
3. Gurlitt's interrogation
Guy Walters 12/24/2013
The three-day interrogation of Gurlitt in June 1945 was not carried out by the 'Monuments Men', but by a war crimes investigator called Lieutenant Dwight McKay of the Judge Advocate's Section of General Patton’s 3rd Army. A small thing perhaps!
4. Redemption
sneeekysteve 12/28/2013
I'd like to respond to Albert Leo who says that "The Third Reich is an existential stain on Germany's history". Why is this more of a stain on Germany than slavery in the United States, or the mass genocide against American Indians caused by Spanish settlers in the Americas, or the mass murder caused by communists in the Soviet Union? Why do some people hold modern day Germany to a different standard than modern day Spain, modern day United States, or modern day Russia? Is it possible that the lessons of the "Third Reich" are conveniently being used to justify a modern day political agenda on immigration, social welfare and foreign policy?
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