Sunday, Apr 14, 2024

Rolling Back Germany’s Holocaust Amnesia

As the saga over Nazi-looted art discovered in Munich, Germany continues to unravel, it forces open a window on Holocaust history that is fast fading from German consciousness. The German public's drift toward historical amnesia has been jolted by international protests - and voices in Germany itself - calling for the government to stop hiding artifacts tainted by Nazi theft, and reminding Germany of its moral obligations to Hitler's victims.

U.S. officials, joined by their counterparts in England, Israel, and Europe are urging Germany to put on display a large collection of Nazi-extorted paintings, recently uncovered in the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of a Nazi collaborator, after being hidden there for over 60 years. Publication is essential to give the rightful owners a chance to identify and reclaim their property, officials say.


And in Germany, Bavarian Minister of Justice Bausback and prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz, in charge of the Gurlitt case, drew fire by throwing their weight behind the right of Holocaust survivors to recover artwork stolen from their families as they tried to flee the Nazis.


Their stance runs counter to public sentiment in Germany where the media has cast Gurlitt as an innocent victim to be pitied, as opposed to the accomplice to a crime.


“What kind of government are they to intrude on my privacy?” Gurlitt cried to reporters. “I won’t give anything back! I committed no crime and even if I did, it expired already,” he said, referring to the Statute of Limitations on Holocaust claims of stolen artwork.




In an unexpected move, Minister of Justice Bausback announced last week that his office is working on a new restitution law for Germany that will abolish all “technical defenses” now used to defeat claims, such as the Statute of Limitations alluded to by Gurlitt.


Raising the stakes higher, prosecutor Nemetz in an interview with a leading German paper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, dropped a bombshell when he implied that Germany doesn’t even need a new restitution law to return artwork sold under duress by persecuted people during the Hitler regime.


“Under German civil law,” the German prosecutor said, “forced sales of works of art made by persecuted people after January 1933 are null and void.” The art still belongs to the heirs.


In other words, Gurlitt — neither the father, who amassed the artwork as an agent of Nazi chief Herman Goering, nor his son, Cornelius — could ever become the owners of these items. The original owners never lost ownership rights and under German civil law, the heirs are entitled to restitution.


Nemetz, at the same time, defended Gurlitt’s right to artwork acquired after 1945 which allegedly accounts for roughly half of the paintings found in his home, and indicated that these would be returned to him.




By not allowing survivors to reclaim their property, “Germany is violating its obligations under the Washington Principles,” said Stuart Eizenstat, former Undersecretary of State under the Clinton Administration, in an interview with Time Magazine. Eizenstat was the chief architect of the Principles, endorsed by 44 countries, including Germany, in 1998.


“It was a time of good will,” recalled restitution attorney Mel Urbach, who served on one of the commissions that led to the codification of the Washington Principles and was also involved in negotiations leading to the Swiss Banks and Nazi Slave Labor Settlements.


“These settlements covered looted property, unpaid life insurance policies and other injustices, but they did not include stolen or extorted artwork,” Urbach explained in a lengthy interview with Yated. “These items were thought at the time to be largely untraceable.”


“The mood at that point in time was, ‘Let’s work on a restitution plan for any future Holocaust claims regarding looted artwork, should they ever surface,’” Urbach said. “That was the guiding spirit behind the Washington Principles.”


Under the Principles, “every effort would be made to publicize art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis, in order to locate their pre-war owners,” said Mr. Eizenstat, who today is an advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry on Holocaust issues.


“Germany is mandated under the Principles to form a special government commission to review these claims,” Eizenstat said. “So far in the Gurlitt case, Germany does not appear to have complied with any of the steps in this process.”


More than 20 months have passed since German authorities raided a secret cache of over 1400 artworks, worth over a billion dollars, that the Nazis looted during the Holocaust, planning to sell them to foreign dealers for hard currency. Yet, as of this writing, only about 80 of those works have been made public.




The shroud of secrecy has drawn international criticism, with survivors and relatives of the artists whose paintings were discovered in Gurlitt’s keeping, expressing their outrage in media interviews.


The granddaughter of the famous artist, Otto Dix, a few of whose works were discovered in the treasure trove stashed in Gurlitt’s home, called Germany’s approach “scandalous,” AFP reports. 


Nana Dix’s grandfather was persecuted by the Nazis, and his artwork attacked as “degenerate” for violating Nazi principles. Dix’s work “was heavily influenced by the horrors he witnessed in the trenches of World War I” wrote AFP. His paintings reflected what he saw as the ugliness in German society. While the Nazis glorified the military and war triumphs, Dix deplored his war experiences as “hideous,” marking him as “degenerate” in Nazi eyes.


His granddaughter called for transparency in the government’s handling of the Gurlitt case, saying that the elderly Gurlitt had deceived everyone into believing her grandfather’s paintings as well as thousands of other items had been destroyed or lost in the war.


“I had a strange feeling, knowing that for years, these works were hidden in the home of this man who was living a lie, and I was living in walking distance from him,” said Dix, in an interview with AFP and Arutz Sheva.


In another case, a 76-year-old retired university professor, Lionel Salem from Paris, deplored the excessively long, “drip-drip” process of identifying and publicizing stolen artwork. “When people have been trying to recover paintings which were stolen over 70 years ago, you don’t feel happy about waiting even a month more. At some point all the people who are involved will be dead,” he said in an interview with DW, a German online publication. Maybe that is what the holders of Nazi loot are waiting for.”




Urbach said the encouraging comments made by the Bavarian Minister of Justice Bausback and the “Gurlitt” prosecutor “are likely to be a game-changer in the legal battle over the artwork.”


The statements send out a message of hope to claimants that their restitution claims might yet be justly resolved.


“The statements dispel the confusion surrounding the Gurlitt case,” Urbach said. “Some people want to pretend the robbery and disenfranchisement of Jews under Hitler and Goering didn’t happen, or is not relevant today. That distortion of history can’t be allowed to stand.”


Yielding to popular sympathy, police were expected to return a treasure trove of looted artwork to Gurlitt, who helped his father hide the loot from Allied forces after the war’s end.


Following the Süddeutsche Zeitung interview with prosecutor Nemetz, that scenario is now doubtful.


These developments are expected to have a positive impact on other restitution cases, experts say. Among those cases is the dispute over what is known as the “Guelph Treasure” currently before the Limbach Commission in Munich, a mediation board founded in 2003 to mediate claims over looted artwork.


The collection of gem-studded artifacts, valued at more than $200 million, was appropriated from Jewish art dealers in 1935 by Hermann Goering, and is now housed in a Berlin Museum.


The heirs of four of the dealers, represented by Urbach and co-counsel Markus Stoetzel, have argued before the Limbach Commission that the owners were coerced into turning over the items to Goering, and the “sale” is therefore invalid.


The German Cultural Heritage Foundation, a government agency, is fighting the claims, saying the 1935 transaction was made when conditions in Germany were still benign for Jews.




“This argument reflects an ominous trend in Germany today to minimize the horrific crimes of the Third Reich by pretending the Nazi nightmare began with the outbreak of World War II,” said Urbach. “Unless the facts are set forth, the truth will soon be buried under historical amnesia and revisionism.”


“Sales of art by Jewish collectors or dealers after 1933 are assumed to have been made under duress and are therefore invalid transactions under laws crafted by the Western Allies that remain valid in Germany,” attests Bloomberg News, discussing the Guelph dispute. “The onus is on the current holder to contradict that assumption.”


To reinforce this axiom, and to recapture for the Limbach Commission the exact conditions besieging German Jewry in the 1930’s, Urbach and Stoetzel commissioned a report by Professor Andreas Nachama, the director of a Berlin museum called The Topography of Terror. The museum’s founding mandate was to document the earliest stages of Nazi terror after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany in 1933.


Nachama’s hard-hitting report makes clear that while the outbreak of World War II took place in 1938, in Germany, a concurrent war against the Jews was launched as soon as Hitler and the Nazi party came to power.




“1933 was a turning point year in every respect for the Jewish population of Germany,” the Nachama report said. “Jews were first systematically deprived of their livelihoods; in subsequent years there were downgraded to “non-persons” and “non- humans” Drastic reprisals and psychological terror destroyed the psychological and spiritual foundations of the Jewish population.”


Immediately after the seizure of power in 1933, the expulsion of the Jews began in all parts of the economic and social sectors. By the end of March 1933, the Nachama report documented, the SA [forerunners of the SS and Gestapo] in the Berlin district were carrying out arbitrary raids in which Jewish citizens were robbed, arrested and locked up in violently run concentration camps.


The terror measures of the early Nazi dictatorship continued to mount in the months immediately following, with outbreaks of Jewish book-burnings and national boycotts of Jewish businesses, department stores, attorneys’ and doctors’ offices. Nazi thugs would position themselves in front of Jewish businesses, coercing the owners into a “voluntary” closure of the stores.  


State-legalized plunder of Jews began in the middle of July 1933, with the passing of the law revoking German citizenship for Jews who had been naturalized. The law was soon used as an effective tool to plunder all Jewish immigrants.  


Thousands of Jewish art collectors, dealers and museum directors were marginalized and boycotted. Defamed as sub-people, they suddenly faced ruin and shocking terror. Fearing for their lives and those of their family, they were forced to liquidate their businesses for sums far below their value, desperate to raise funds mandated by the Nazi regime for exit out of the country.


This is the environment in which the Guelph treasure was “sold” to Herman Goering by Jewish art dealers, the Topography of Terror report made clear.


There is no question that as Jews, the four dealers were victims of Nazi race policies and lost their livelihoods in Germany,” notes Bloomberg News. Three of them fled Germany before World War II. The fourth died in Frankfurt in 1937 – his family fled to Britain.


The Nachama report was filed with the Limbach Commission in September, shortly before an upcoming September 15 hearing. When the museum’s directors read the report, they immediately filed for an extension, saying it would take months to study the report’s “findings” and prepare a response. The hearing has been rescheduled for January 25.


As for the Gurlitt collection, “it’s reportedly worth a fortune, but its worth to the families is not so much in financial terms as what it symbolizes in historical and emotional terms,” said Anne Webber, co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe. This is a non-profit organization that has helped families around the world retrieve more than 3,000 artworks stolen by the Nazis.


“The sentimental significance of recovering a long-lost work of art that had been stolen under the most horrific of political circumstances far outweighs the monetary value,” Webber said in an interview with DW, a German English-language online site.


She noted that claimants are often treated scornfully by Germans, as if they are asking for charity handouts, as opposed to the long-overdue payment of a moral and financial debt.


“Hitler’s project was to erase the Jews from history,” Webber commented. “So to treat claimants as if the history and circumstances of their suffering and loss were of no consequence can feel like a re-run of that history.”


That attitude is a large part of what is fueling the international scandal over the Gurlitt case, families of survivors, restitution attorneys and government officials agree. Does Germany get it?








The Gurlitt case has turned back history’s pages to the Nazi wholesale pillaging of the Jews. Yet the bulk of anti-Semitic looting during World War II was not limited to Germany; it encompassed Europe and was industrialized to an astounding degree, a New York Times article reported.


The article went on to describe the German appetite for plunder in France. “In Paris, the pillage of Jewish possessions began with the arrival of German troops in June 1940. At first, it applied only to art collections.


“But as soon as the Final Solution was devised in January 1942, the confiscations spread to the entire Jewish population. Stripping Jews of their belongings was part and parcel of the effort to destroy them; pillage was an essential tool of extermination.”


In Berlin in February 1942, Hitler himself ordered his henchmen to strip bare the apartments of Jews who had been deported or arrested and to ship the plunder back to Germany.


This massive theft, known as Möbel Aktion, was carried out in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The Times gives the following statistics: “From 1942 to 1944, at least 70,000 dwellings were emptied; in Paris 38,000 apartments were cleaned out. It took 674 trains to transport the loot to Germany. Some 2,700 train cars supplied Hamburg alone.”


“Everything was taken: toys, dishes, family photos, tools, light bulbs. The goods were placed in crates and taken to warehouses and sorting centers specifically established for this purpose in the heart of Paris.”


The Nazis systematized the greatest theft in history in their characteristically methodical way: Pianos were stored in the cellars of this or that street; porcelains and fabrics were shipped to a nearby boulevard. Books and music were centralized at a third location; furniture amassed at a fourth.


The chiefs of Möbel Aktion set aside the most luxurious items for themselves and their friends, the article said. Former prisoners from the sorting work camps later described how German soldiers would come to shop at the sorting sites, “just like at the Galeries Lafayette,” the Parisian department store, helping themselves to whatever suited their taste.


“The plunder of the Jews spread far beyond the famous Jeu de Paume and Louvre museums, the main gathering sites for looted art,” the article reports. Even much of the lower quality items were sorted and shipped on.


This was extermination with a twist; destroying not only the Jews but all trace of their very existence, while exploiting every last spoon, shoelace, pair of glasses, strand of hair.



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