Göring’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and his World, by Jonathan Petropoulos, Yale University Press, 408 pp, £25, ISBN 978-0300251920
Students were enjoying themselves at the 1950 Oktoberfest in Munich when Bertolt Brecht’s face went purple. A case of apoplexy, the playwright’s friends thought. No. He kicked over his bench and stormed out of the beer tent. One of his two companions, Eric Bentley, thought they were listening to traditional German “student tunes” at the nearby table. But Bentley, Brecht’s English translator, had not caught the words that pushed his friend into a rage: “Saujud” or “Jewish swine”. The students were belting out an antisemitic song. When Brecht calmed down a little, he exclaimed: “And they say these people have changed! Good liberals now, are they? I know this sort! They will never change! And in the East, they know this! Over there these hoodlums would be behind barbed wire! And never, never would they be let out.” Bentley later wrote that the thought that “the Nazis were in our midst, and that we were in the midst of Nazis, remained with us throughout our stay in Munich …”
Brecht had a point about the toleration of neo-Nazis in Bavaria after the Second World War. Most Germans believed they had done nothing wrong under Hitler; in establishing the criminality of the Nazi leadership, the Nuremberg trials strengthened the view among the population at large that they, the vast majority, were innocent. In 1946, on two occasions, West Germany’s future chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, spoke out against denazification measures, such as removing Nazi teachers from their posts, restocking libraries and compelling people to watch films documenting the horrors of the concentration camps. Adenauer feared the denazification process would provoke a nationalist backlash and therefore prove counterproductive. Nazi-like attitudes, in this argument, had been around for a long time, and it was better to remain silent: let sleeping dogs lie.
But Brecht in 1950 was being simplistic, if not disingenuous, about the official communist approach to Nazi attitudes in East Germany. The Soviets fired more than 500,000 ex-Nazis from administrative positions in their zone of occupation after the war, only to allow the German communist authorities to take them back if their public record wasn’t too awful. Overt Nazi sentiments were not tolerated in the East, but the state apparatus there had plenty of ex-Nazi personnel. It could not function without them.
In West Germany a lot of former Nazis quickly returned to their old jobs. About half the secondary teachers in Bavaria had been dismissed by1946, only to be restored to their jobs two years later. In 1951, 94 per cent of judges and prosecutors in Bavaria were ex-Nazis. In Bonn, by 1952 one in three foreign ministry officials had been a member of the Nazi Party. Businessmen were treated leniently. Friedrich Flick, convicted of war crimes in 1947, was released three years later and went back to his old company, Daimler-Benz, as the principal shareholder. In the American-dominated West, as in the Soviet-dominated East, the intelligence services recruited experienced and well-informed ex-Nazi operatives. The US authorities even spirited Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon”, to South America, where he lived as a businessman until his extradition to France in 1987 to face trial for war crimes. In relation to Germany’s Nazi past the Cold War between the communist East and the capitalist West changed everything. Forgetting, for political purposes, became the order of the day.
Bruno Lohse, the notorious wartime art plunderer in Paris, was one of the Nazis held in Nuremberg, but he was not called as a witness by the lawyers representing his patron, Hermann Göring, who escaped the hangman’s noose by committing suicide. Göring kept a close eye on Lohse and his operation in Paris. On one visit in November 1940 he spelled out who should get the largely Jewish-owned art: first, Hitler, then Göring himself, then Nazi “ideological schools”, and then German museums. In 1946 an art looting investigator wrote:
It is alarming to observe that in this first year of peace in Europe, a majority of the collaborationist dealers, collectors, and agents who willingly aided in the cultural despoliation of their own countries have avoided serious prosecution. Many of them, not only nationals of neutral countries, but also of formerly occupied countries are continuing their trade.
The French wanted to get their hands on Lohse. He was extradited to France in 1948 and held in a prison on the Left Bank in Paris. He was charged by a military tribunal with pillaging during a time of war and faced a ten-year prison sentence if found guilty. The most damaging witness against him was Rose Valland, the curator and Resistance member turned art restitution expert. She became a legendary figure after the war, her heroic deeds portrayed in the John Frankenheimer film The Train (1964) and, again, in George Clooney’s film Monuments Men (2014).
Lohse had a good French-German legal team at his 1950 trial, one of whom had defended the Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval and the collaborationist writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline. And, of course, the political climate had been transformed. France and West Germany were seeking to improve relations and in neither country was there much appetite for punishing Nazis. Lohse walked out of prison in 1950, a free man. “Put simply,” Petropoulos notes, “it did not help that the Germans were going after their own perpetrators with so little conviction and energy – or that the Americans, with the onset of the Cold War, had lost interest in bringing Nazi officials to justice.”
Lohse was back in business less than a year after his release from prison, finding a niche over the next decade acting as a consultant for wealthy collectors and helping broker sales for dealers and others that he knew. “Rehabilitation was the norm for Nazi art plunderers,” the author writes, “just as it was in other sectors.” Lohse lived in a modest apartment near the centre of Munich until the end of the 1950s, when he moved with his wife to one of the city’s leafy suburbs. He eschewed grandeur, unlike other old Nazis in Munich, many of whom favoured villas overlooking the nearby Lake Starnberg. Even though he had died in 1946, Hermann Göring was the key to this Munich network of stolen art criminality: those who had served the former Reichsmarschall – including the woman who had been his secretary and the registrar of his art collection – felt a kinship with each other. “There were other Nazis (or those who had assisted Nazis) in the network who had not been Göring’s minions,” according to Petropopoulos, “but they had to overcome a certain suspicion.”
Looted European art remains a scandal in the twenty-first century, as the story of one stolen Picasso illustrates. An art historian, not one of the Göring circle, Erhard Göpel, formerly one of Hitler’s agents during the war, wrote for the Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich. “His articles sometimes facilitated the trafficking of Nazi-looted art,” according to the author, “as when, for example, he wrote a piece in 1964 about the Bavarian State Painting Collections acquiring Picasso’s important Blue Period Portrait of Madame Soler.” Göpel, quoting the director, who had also been a Nazi, outlined the painting’s history. Neither mentioned that it had come from the collection of a Berlin Jewish banker, Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, even though they had been told of the painting’s provenance by the New York-based seller. The von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family filed a claim for ownership in 2010, and a lawsuit ensued. “The heirs were unable to establish jurisdiction in a US court, and thus far have not compelled the Germans to enter [into] arbitration; the magnificent Picasso portrait remains in Munich.”
As those former Nazis doing business in the art market found their feet after 1945, they formed networks centred in southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Switzerland’s legal code, and its culture of “turning a blind eye” to tax evasion, made it the favourite depository for stolen property. And many of those complicit in plundering or trafficking looted art during the war gravitated to the US. Despite being on the State Department’s “watch list” as a former SS member Lohse obtained a visa to visit America in the mid-50s to ply his trade in New York’s thriving art market. “A hallmark of the Cold War,” Petropoulos writes, “was that while the [US] government focused on tracking communists, many former Nazis were able to enter the country one way or another.”
Bruno Lohse stole and distributed up to 30,000 artworks, many of them going into Hermann Göring’s massive private collection. When Lohse died works by Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro were found in his Zurich bank vault and on the walls of his home. In telling Lohse’s story, and that of many others, in Göring’s Man in Paris, Jonathan Petropoulos highlights the issues around artworks plundered more than eighty years ago. He has written a meticulously detailed but passionate book: the mosaic of shady goings on presented here, while convoluted, is nonetheless fascinating.
John Mulqueen is the author of ‘An Alien Ideology’: Cold War Perceptions of the Irish Republican Left (Liverpool University Press), which is available in paperback.