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The Nazi Looting of Art in Europe

When it comes to looting conquered nations, no conquerors surpassed the Nazis in their plundering of the art and cultural treasures of Europe. As might be expected, Adolf Hitler, through his agents and with an eye toward creating a museum in his hometown of Linz to house his collection, was the preeminent player in this looting. But it was the avarice of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring that actually set the standard among his fellow Nazis. With residences that included a palace, two castles, a grand hunting lodge, three other hunting lodges, an Alpine villa, a house on the exclusive resort island of Sylt, and a large country estate north of Berlin where the future Hermann Göring Museum was to be built, Göring had much wall and courtyard space to fill. With most of Europe under Nazi control, the second most powerful man in the Third Reich, who unlike almost all his fellow Nazis actually knew something about art, was in a position to fill that need. And he did, with a vengeance.

With most of Europe under Nazi control, the second most powerful man in the Third Reich, who unlike almost all his fellow Nazis actually knew something about art, was in a position to fill that need. And he did, with a vengeance.

Göring acquired statues, tapestries, ceramics, ancient jewelry and other antiquities, furniture, objects d’art, and as many as 1,800 paintings—ultimately amassing the largest private art collection in Europe if not the world. Particularly vulnerable were art collections of wealthy Jews such as the Rothschilds and Goudstikkers. Faced with the threat of outright confiscation and deportation to concentration camps, they were forced to sell works at a fraction of their value in order to (not always successfully) save their lives. Göring’s plundering of art treasures in France began in earnest in 1941. He used his private train to bring looted works back to Germany. In February 1941, one such train shipment contained 26 rail cars laden with loot.

Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring

Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring departs the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume after one of more than twenty visits to select art stolen from French collectors. Bundesarchive photo

Göring’s avarice did not limit itself to conquered nations or Jews. Shortly after the Nazis came to power, Göring began “borrowing” important works from German museums. For instance Berlin’s Kaiser Friedrich Museum (now the Bode Museum) was ordered to deliver to his Berlin palace residence one of the prizes in its collection, “Diana at the Stag Hunt” by Rubens. He also established an “art fund” and wealthy industrialists and other high ranking individuals were expected to contribute either money or expensive artworks to it – or else.

“Many times we did not know about it, and thus the prices went very high with the art dealers.”

Though most items were obtained through confiscation or forced sales, some were actually purchased in the open market. In such cases art dealers cunningly exploited the cupidity of senior Nazis. To his annoyance Göring sometimes found himself in a bidding war with Hitler and Einsatzstab Rosenberg (Operational Staff Rosenberg), an art commission established by Nazi Party philosopher Dr. Alfred Rosenberg for the systematic plunder of art and cultural objects belonging to Jews in Europe. In an interview conducted after his capture Göring complained, “Many times we did not know about it, and thus the prices went very high with the art dealers.”

Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring

Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s appetite for art was exceeded, perhaps, only by his appetite for food. Göring is shown here stuffing his face in 1937. Bundesarchive photo

German, Dutch, and French Old Masters formed the core. But he also collected Italian and French art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and art labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis. Göring was proud of his collection, boasting, “Ich bin nun mal ein Renaissanztyp.” (“After all, I’m a Renaissance type.”) But after cataloging his sprawling collection, Nancy H. Yeide, head of the department of curatorial records at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and an expert in art looted by the Nazis, wryly commented, “Quantity was very clearly more important than quality.” She did note that it contained ten significant pieces, including Rembrandt’s “Portrait of His Sister Elizabeth van Rijn,” and Rubens’ “The Crowning of Saint Catherine.”

“Quantity was very clearly more important than quality.”

For Göring the ne plus ultra of his collection was “Christ with the Adultress” by Vermeer, for which he traded about 150 paintings to the Nazi Alois Miedl who had purchased it from the Dutchman Han van Meegeren. After the war van Meegeren was arrested and charged with being a collaborator and selling Dutch cultural property to the Nazis, a crime that carried the death penalty. That charge was dropped when in a sensational trial van Meegeren revealed that Göring’s Vermeer was a forgery and proved that he was the forger!

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...