Hitler's Bronze Horses How Fans Smuggled Nazi Art To West Germany
In one of the most curious stories of art smuggling from the Eastern Bloc prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, two classic car dealers smuggled Nazi artworks from a Soviet barracks to West Germany in 1989. The full account is only now coming to light.
After the fall of Adolph Hitler's Third Reich, his favorite sculptor managed to make a soft landing. Arno Breker lived during the postwar years in a huge red brick villa in Düsseldorf with a studio, fine carpets and antiques -- and surrounded by nearly three acres of parkland, complete with bronze sculptures on mossy pedestals.
And yet this recipient of the National Socialists' Golden Party Badge complained bitterly about his fate and was consumed with hatred. "One could not imagine a gloomier, more trivial yet more outraged man," German art historian Werner Spies wrote following a meeting with Breker.
In January 1989, someone rang at the old man's door. At Breker's doorstep stood an old acquaintance, vintage car dealer Helmut Schumacher, from the nearby city of Aachen. He had brought along an article from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, in which the young Berlin art historian Magdalena Bushart described how she had made an unusual discovery in the small eastern German town of Eberswalde in the spring of 1988, less than two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On the athletic field of a Soviet military base, she had found six bronze statues from the Nazis. The discovery consisted of two larger-than-life statues of muscle-bound men by Breker -- "Der Künder" (The Herald) and "Berufung" (Mission) -- two female nudes by Fritz Klimsch and, at the edge of the running track, the two monumental horses cast by Nazi sculptor Josef Thorak that Hitler, decades earlier, had placed in front of his office in the New Reich Chancellery.
Breker reacted differently to the article than Schumacher had expected. The old man was not surprised. He had already known for the past 25 years that his sculptures were in the possession of the Soviets, he said. For him, the notion that "his children" had fallen into the hands of the Russians was abhorrent. He said that he would love to see them finally come back home to the West. That is precisely what Schumacher wanted to hear.
Investigators hit the jackpot in the southwestern German town of Bad Dürkheim. After raiding a warehouse and searching the adjacent property of businessman Rainer Wolf, they confiscated all six bronzes from Eberswalde.
Third Reich Legacy
This investigative coup in southern Germany made headlines around the world and sparked a debate about how to deal with the artistic legacy of the Third Reich. Indeed, very few modern dictatorships took art -- or what they deemed as art -- as seriously as the Nazis under the failed painter Adolf Hitler.
What should happen now to these disputed works of art? Should they be placed in storage or exhibited to the public? "Let us see the art of the Third Reich at last -- and in all its colors," British author Giles MacDonogh urged in an op-ed piece published by the New York Times shortly after the police raids.
When they searched the premises in Bad Dürkheim, officials also seized a steel box filled with photos, letters, invoices and certificates of delivery. Thanks to these documents, René Allonge, the chief art investigator with the Berlin LKA, has managed to reconstruct the twisted path taken by the sculptures since they last disappeared in East Germany nearly three decades ago. The art sleuth is confident that Wolf acquired the bombastic Nazi sculptures illegally -- but he will have to come up with concrete proof if the German state is to lay claim to the bronze statues.
Over the past few months, SPIEGEL has met with the three protagonists of this East-West smuggling caper. At first, none of them were willing to talk, but they eventually decided to tell their stories.
They say that it all began on Jan. 14, 1989 with the article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Deep in the heart of West Germany, the story was read by a man who has always felt a deep affinity for Hitler's bronze and marble fantasies: Rainer Wolf in Bad Dürkheim. In this small town at the edge of a mountainous nature reserve called the Palatinate Forest, the businessman avidly pursues his hobby of collecting vintage cars, military paraphernalia and Nazi sculptures.
When his property was searched in May, Berlin investigators found a number of Hitler busts. One of his lawyers is Thor von Waldstein, who ran for Germany's far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) during elections to the 1984 European Parliament, and later regularly defended right-wing extremists like American Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter.
When Wolf heard about the six Nazi statues in January 1989, he called Helmut Schumacher. The dealer from Aachen had excellent business connections in the Eastern Bloc, where he acquired vintage cars and old military vehicles for collectors. Wolf was one of his main customers and now he wanted the statues from Eberswalde.
Schumacher says that the businessman handed him a bundle of cash that he referred to as "venture capital" -- and that it was clear to both men that this was intended as bribe money to pave the way for the sculptures to come to the West. The dealer says that he no longer remembers the exact amount, but he insists that Wolf regularly sent him large sums of money, usually in padded envelopes and personally delivered by his driver.
Schumacher needed help, so he turned to a man who had better contacts in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) than he did. Peter Schmitz, who lived near the western German town of Geilenkirchen at the time, not far from the Dutch border, dominated the trade in vintage cars from East Germany. All of the top goods went to him.
Schmitz promised to help. He sensed a lucrative deal in the works -- especially after Schumacher told him that Wolf was prepared to do anything to get his hands on the coveted sculptures. But since he didn't know the businessman, all contact to Bad Dürkheim and all of the payments went exclusively through Schumacher.
Schumacher personally headed for East Berlin. There was no time to waste. He was afraid that the newspaper article might put others hot on the trail. Schumacher stayed at the Grand Hotel on Friedrichstrasse, where he was a regular customer and knew the saleswomen at the hotel's in-house antiques shop, which was operated by a subsidiary of the empire run by GDR hard currency czar Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski.
One of the women who occasionally worked in the shop was Maria Deim, a Russian-born translator who was married to a major general in the East German National People's Army (NVA). Hans-Werner Deim had completed his general staff training at the Moscow K. Y. Voroshilov Military Academy, spoke fluent Russian and had excellent connections to the Soviet armed forces in East Germany.
The Deims can no longer be questioned -- they died early this year --and there are no other witnesses to the deal made with Mrs. Deim.
According to Schumacher, events transpired as follows: During his visit to East Berlin in January 1989, he spoke with Maria Deim about the sculptures in Eberswalde and asked whether she could help him acquire them. When he left, he slipped her an envelope with 10,000 deutsche marks in bribe money from Wolf.
Schumacher says that Deim then made contact with Soviet military officials -- naturally without involving Schalck-Golodkowski's currency trading operations. The initial response was negative. The Russians weren't interested in playing along. There were concerns that the fascist artwork on their military base could be used against them.
But a few days later, Deim had good news. The deal could go through after all in exchange for a donation to provide aid for the victims of the earthquake that had devastated the northern region of the Soviet Republic of Armenia in early December 1988. Schumacher says that he then gave the couple a second envelope, this time with a large five-digit sum. He says he didn't believe for a second that any Armenian earthquake victim ever saw a penny of this cash.
Suddenly Schmitz contacted Schumacher with sensational news. He already had the statues, he said, and he needed money.
This is where the story becomes somewhat chaotic, with each of the vintage car dealers claiming that he was the one who made the crucial breakthrough, but which of them is right? It is a question that -- over a quarter of a century later -- can no longer be answered.
If we believe Schmitz, then it was not the Deims, but rather the owner of a private junkyard in the town of Oranienburg who set up the deal with the Russians. The name of this local scrap dealer is Horst Stragies and he regularly worked with Schmitz to export vintage cars from the GDR to the West. According to this version of the story, Stragies drove to the military base in Eberswalde and demanded to speak with the general. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, he was finally given access to high-ranking officers, but the Russians were reluctant.
Schmitz says that he was the one who came up with the idea of disguising the bribe money as a donation for the victims of the earthquake in Armenia. According to Schmitz, Stragies was sent back to the military base, where he resumed negotiations and finally convinced the Soviets to make a deal. They accepted an alleged donation of 20,000 marks and the date was set for Stragies to pick up the statues.
When Stragies was questioned by SPIEGEL, though, he said that he could not remember having negotiated with the Russians or passing on money to them. The only thing that is certain is that he and his brother picked up the six statues in Eberswalde, probably in late January 1989.
The Russians were waiting for them with a crane and, with the help of dozens of Soviet soldiers, the heavy bronze statues were heaved onto the two trucks belonging to the Stragies brothers. The two men drove to a barn near Oranienburg that Horst Stragies had previously rented, where they pushed the statues from the truck bed onto the hay.
Now began the most difficult task. The sculptures had to be unobtrusively moved to the West. But since they were too large for that, Schmitz consulted with Schumacher and the two men agreed that the statues had to be sawn into pieces.
During his next visit to the GDR, Schmitz brought along a Makita electic saw for Stragies, and the two brothers went to work. For months, they toiled every evening in the barn to cut the bronze statues into pieces, leaving only the heads, hands and feet intact. "I nearly came down with a case of tendinitis," Stragies recalls.
Smuggling the Work into West Berlin
The small cut-up pieces of bronze were the easiest to smuggle. Schmitz disguised them as additional cargo for his veteran car transports and gradually shipped them, one by one, to the West. Whenever the border guards asked about the pieces of bronze, Schmitz said that replacement parts for old cars would be cast from the scrap metal. Schumacher had the more conspicuous heads and other extremities brought to a friend's place in a Communist-era concrete apartment complex in East Berlin, where they were wrapped in gray blankets and stored in her bedroom.
When Schumacher traveled to East Berlin, he arranged for the limousine service of one of the large hard currency hotels to pick him up at Tegel Airport in West Berlin. He knew that the drivers smuggled coveted Western goods into the GDR on such trips. Over the years, he had gotten to know some of them so well that he was able to ask them if they could smuggle in the other direction. "No problem," was the response.
Over the next weeks, the heads, hands, legs and hooves were smuggled separately to the western half of the city in the trunks of large black GDR Volvos and stored on the premises of a camper trailer dealer in the Wilmersdorf district of West Berlin. Schumacher paid 1,000 marks in bribes for each trip.
Schumacher then asked an old school friend who lived in West Berlin to drive the sawn-up pieces in his mobile home to Aachen via the transit route that connected West Berlin with the rest of West Germany. Schmitz also had his share of the scraps of metal driven over to West Germany. By the fall of 1989, three-quarters of a year after Stragies had picked up the statues from the Russians, the works of Nazi art were reunited in the West -- cut into many pieces, but virtually all accounted for.
Before the individual pieces were brought to Wolf in Bad Dürkheim, Schumacher wrapped the heads of the two muscular men in blankets, packed them into the trunk of his car and drove to Düsseldorf. He wanted to show Breker "his children" one last time. The old sculptor was touched.
An Illegal Deal
Over the next few years, Wolf spent a great deal of money to have the six statues carefully restored. Schumacher estimates that his client spent between 500,000 and 750,000 marks alone for the purchase, transport and bribe money.
These statements by Schumacher, Schmitz and Stragies are not always consistent with each other, but they do agree on one point. All three men assert that they were always sure of one thing: The deal was illegal and bribes were paid -- and they left no doubt about this in their statements to the police.
Based on the investigations by the LKA in Berlin, the Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues (BADV) -- which deals with illegal seizures of property under the Nazis -- has determined that the statues belong to the German government. Wolf has challenged this decision in a suit filed in the Berlin Administrative Court. In a comment to SPIEGEL, Wolf's attorney has said that the bronze statues "were legally acquired as cut-up pieces of scrap from the Eberswalde garrison in 1988 based on a certificate by the on-site Russian commander stating that the nonferrous heavy metal was suitable for recycling."
He went on to say that the acquisition in the GDR took place "with the cooperation of the commanding officer, who had been told to have the works of art recycled, and a scrap dealer, at the instigation and with the consent of the GDR controlling bodies, in return for a donation for the victims of the earthquake in Armenia at the time."
Works To Be Displayed in Berlin
The case is now in the hands of the Berlin public prosecutor's office, where legal experts have determined that Wolf cannot be brought to trial because all allegations against him exceed the statute of limitations. Meanwhile, Wolf's lawyer has stated that his client is unaware "of having committed the implied, alleged offenses of 'receiving stolen goods/fraud' in connection with the 'Horse Affair'" and that these allegations are false.
As soon as public prosecutors close their investigation and release the statues, the ball will be in the court of German Culture Minister Monika Grütters -- and she has already made up her mind. By next year, if possible, the minister -- who is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- would like to see at least some of the sculptures displayed in a special exhibition at Berlin's Topography of Terror Documentation Center and at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.
"To help us come to terms with the Nazi dictatorship, I think it is absolutely essential to present these works of art," says Grütters, "to allow us to take a critical approach to Nazi state art and its creation and instrumentalization within the Nazi system and Nazi ideology."
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen