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Vol. 14, No. 2, 2015
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

the long arm of nazi terror



Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available at

Although much of the horror enacted by Hitler's Nazi Germany has been exposed and analyzed, a disturbing number of events and incidents remain largely uncovered. As the decades roll on, the work of relatively few dedicated scholars and historians continues to unveil more of the nightmare in books, films and essays. Awhile back I reviewed a remarkable book Inside Hitler’s Greece by Mark Mazower (available on my website) which supplies a mountain of data that buttresses the current outcry by the new government of Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras for more wartime reparations -- a protest that has been largely ignored in the current argument between Athens and Berlin over euro-economics.

The longest saga of Nazi atrocities (over 80 years old at present) is the story of stolen art. It is a narrative that goes back to pre-history but develops an epic dimension in modern times during the Napoleonic era. In the late 18th century, Napoleon began the practice of state-sponsored art robbery during his 1797 campaign when he began caravanning tons of Egyptian treasures to France. Much of this mother lode still sits in the Louvre. Drawing upon this historical precedent, Hitler turned this evil Napoleonic practice into an industry that has no equal in the annals of history.

Despite the incredible statistics associated with Hitler's epic thievery, this chapter in his reign of terror has been buried under the multitude of stories of his crimes against humanity during the holocaust and allied campaigns of terror conducted against most of the nations of Europe. Having previously appeared only in back pages of newspapers, these stories have never been given their due. At last, with Aristotelian irony, it has taken film artists to give the world the whole truth about the Nazi looting of the fine artists.

In 2007 a memorable documentary, The Rape of Europa, was produced detailing the chronology of Hitler’s diabolical scheme. In a prophetic review of the film, the San Francisco Weekly predicted that the documentary “had enough drama for at least three Hollywood films.” After setting the stage for such projects with references to thousands of famous stolen artworks, the documentary introduced audiences to the work of the The Monuments Men and the notorious case of the five Gustav Klimt paintings that were stolen from a Viennese Jew in 1938.

In 2014, George Clooney produced, directed and starred in The Monuments Men -- the first of the Hollywood films derived from The Rape of Europa documentary. Unfortunately, Clooney’s movie was offhandedly glossed over by many unthinking critics. The film discloses the heroic work of the small band of art scholars commissioned by President Roosevelt to find and recover the wholesale art pilferage that the Nazis undertook during World War ll. The group, officially dubbed the Monuments, Fine arts, and Archives Program (MFAA), undertook regular allied military training and, under fire from the Nazis retreating back into Germany lost two of their number. Because of their expertise, ‘the monuments men’ were able to identify some five million pieces of stolen art, much of which belonged to Jewish collectors who later died in concentration camps. The scenes in the film of the huge storehouses of art treasures that the group discovered in the mines of small German towns are astonishing.

Before the war began, Hitler, a failed art student in his youth, had his lieutenants draw up plans for a Fuhrer Museum to be built in his hometown Linz, Austria. The vastness of this project is accurately delivered in the movie where a gigantic model of the structure is seen. Before and during the war Nazi legions began hauling to Germany the thousands of tons of paintings, sculptures and artifacts that they ruthlessly seized from homes, churches and museums of the countries they occupied. Included in the trove is the legendary Ghent Altarpiece and Michaelangelo’s “Bruge Madonna” stolen from a Belgian church where they murdered priests and one of the Monuments Men trying to stop the theft. As the scenes roll on we see famous Vermeers, Monets, Renoirs, Raphaels and countless other art masters ripped from walls in museums and houses and hoisted away. There is also grim irony as we see the abstract art of Picasso, Cezanne and their peers being destroyed during this mega-theft because the Fuhrer deemed them decadent as he exercised his unquestionably prescient artistic judgment. Later, as he finally realized that his “thousand year Reich” was about to collapse, in his madness he issued his infamous “Nero Decree” ordering his troops to destroy all that they had stolen lest it fall into the hands of his enemies. Fortunately, many of his commanders disobeyed this lunatic proclamation.

Despite recovering and painstakingly restoring as much of the five million pieces to the rightful owners as they could, the scholars mourned the loss of many chef-d’oeuvres. Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man” stolen from Poland has still never been recovered and is presumed lost forever. The film references it several times to symbolize the goal of the The Monuments Men -- to preserve the record of human culture.

This titanic Nazi crime against humanity does not resonate with all. In a scene at the end of the film where Clooney’s character -- Lieutenant Stokes -- is showing Raphael’s lost masterpiece to Harry Truman, the president questions whether the recovery of the stolen art was worth the lives of the two men lost. Stokes politely but firmly responds in the affirmative. The scene is a sharp reminder that the standards of culture represented by acknowledged world masterpieces are sadly underappreciated. The dramatization of this reality could not be rendered in a documentary and so the Hollywood treatment indeed adds meaning to the story.

At this writing, a new movie Woman in Gold will be released -- the second film emanating from The Rape of Europa documentary. The film tells the true story of Maria Altmann (played by Helen Mirren), an elderly holocaust survivor living in Los Angeles who, together with her young lawyer Randol Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds) and an Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czemin (played by Daniel Bruhl), battles with the Austrian government for almost a decade to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s painting of her aunt. This now world renowned work Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer l was stolen from the family in Vienna by the Nazis prior to the war. The film is directed by Simon Curtis and written by Alexi Kaye Campbell. With stellar performances and thoughtful technical achievement, the film successfully dramatizes the extended truth of an important chapter in this marathon of Nazi terror.

In addition to the Klimt narrative, the movie flashbacks reference the wider story of Nazi activity in Austria as they invade the homes of Jews, steal all of their belongings, and assign them to concentration camps. Some have criticized the director for going over old territory but the horror of this story is unknown to younger audiences and film art should continue to communicate the depth and breadth of Hitler’s Machiavellian deeds whenever possible.

In addition, this movie exposes the insidious legal machinery that has for so long abetted the practice of protecting collectors, museums, and governments who acquire stolen art and want to keep it, defying standards of justice at every opportunity.

In March of 2012, 121 framed and 1,258 unframed artworks were seized by a prosecutor in Munich. The art was immediately suspected as being part of the Nazi mass looting conducted during the war. This enormous treasure trove was in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of art historian and dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. In the aftermath of this monumental discovery, an agreement was negotiated with Gurlitt in exchange for his cooperation with a government-led task force to determine the owners of any stolen art. Gurlitt died in 2014 naming the Museum of Fine Art Bern in Switzerland as his sole heir. Of course, the litigation surrounding the hoard will take forever insuring that owners of any stolen art who may still be alive when the final result is in, will be lucky to receive justice.

This latest story in the litany of Nazi crime receives slapdash and unsystematic coverage in even the most reliable news sources. Once again, it will take the efforts of a talented filmmaker to uncover the historical background and paint a successful cinematic canvas where the total reality of this story can be dramatized. Then the insight of the San Francisco reporter who said that the documentary The Rape of Europa had enough “drama for 3 Hollywood films” may become a reality.



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