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Unsolved Nazi mystery

Daniela Späth/ lbh
March 20, 2014

On the 75th anniversary of the alleged art burning, it's still unclear whether 5,000 works of 'degenerate art' fell victim to Nazi destruction in 1939. But a fake burning, say art historians, is highly unlikely.

Black and white photo of Goebbels visiting the "degenerate art" exhibition in Munich 1938 Copyright: German federal archives
Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H02648 / CC-BY-SA

"No picture gets mercy," Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbel scribbled in his journal on January 13, 1938. It was a scathing sentence with disastrous consequences.

Nearly one year later, on March 20, 1939, more than 5,000 works of so-called "degenerate art" are alleged to have been burned by Nazis in the courtyard of the "Old Fire Station" in Berlin. Nevertheless, it's not clear today whether this burning actually took place. There are no official photos of the event which, in contrast to the book burning of 1933, happened behind closed doors. Even Goebbels' journal revealed no clues about this infamous day.

But art historian Meike Hoffman, from Berlin's Research Center for "Degenerate Art" at the Freie Universität Berlin, has a different opinion.

"We believe that there was a burning. The Nazis were big bureaucrats, but they would not be able to cover up the arranged destruction of more than 5,000 works," she told DW.

In addition there are no traces of the allegedly destroyed collection in any formal documentation materials. In total, nearly 20,000 modern works of art were confiscated by the Nazis.

'Degenerate Art'

In June 1937, Goebbels instructed Adolf Zeigler, the president of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts, to scour all German museums for "German degenerate art." According to Hoffman, these included works created by German artists after 1910. "Everything considered modern art could be seized," she says.

Portrait of Meike Hoffmann who leads the databank for Freie Universität Berlin Copyright: DW/B. Schröder
Meike Hoffmann manages the 'degenerate art' databank at the Freie Universität BerlinImage: DW/B. Schröder

Ziegler assembled a commission that confiscated several hundred works, from which he pulled together a "Degenerate Art" exhibition. "Around us," he said, "you see these figments of insanity, of audacity, of good-for-nothingness and degeneration. We are all shocked and disgusted by the sight."

With these words, Ziegler opened the exhibition on July 19, 1937 in the gallery at Munich's Hofgarten. The show was a sensation: more than 2 million flocked to see the what the fuss was all about. A "Degenerate Music" exhibition was subsequently assembled in 1938.

Defamanation of modern artists

With the term "degenerate art," Nazi propaganda defamed art that didn't fit the regime's idea of beauty. They focused on modern works, especially those of German Expressionists: paintings by Emil Nolde and Käthe Kollwitz, sculptures by Ernst Barlach. But also international artists like Kandinsky, Chagall or Picasso were targets of the smear campaign.

A black and white photo of people visiting the 'degenerate music' exhibition, which also drew large crowds Photo: picture-alliance/dpa
The "Degenerate Music" exhibition in Düsseldorf, shown here, also drew large crowdsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The unexpected success oft he exhibition inspired a second wave of confiscations. Ziegler was instructed to seize the remaining products from this period of decay. Around 19,500 pieces were then removed from German museums.

"There was hardly any protest," says art historian Anja Tiedemann from the University of Hamburg, who has researched the Nazi art dealer Karl Buchholz. "Fear of repression was too great."

The majority of the paintings were placed in the Victoria storehouse in the Berlin harbor and in a grain silo in Köpenicker street. "The works considered to be of international value were placed in Neiderschönhausen Palace, where they could be shown to potential buyers," Hoffmann says.

Foreign sales

Four art dealers were selected by the Ministry of Propaganda to obtain foreign currency for the Nazi regimes: Bernhard Böhmer, Karl Buchholz, Ferdinand Möller and Hildebrand Gurlitt - the father of Cornelius Gurlitt. "They landed a relatively small sum for the war fund," Hoffman says, adding that someone once calculated that the money would've been enough to buy one tank.

But the sales to foreign investors had another side-effect: one of the four art dealers, Karl Buchholz, sold nearly 650 works to his Jewish business partner, Curt Valentin, who had emigrated to New York.

"Thus, the Jewish immigrants succeeded in establishing German Modernism on the North American continent," Tiedemann says. Hitler had certainly not intended for this art to become the "shooting star" of art museums and salons in other parts of the world.

Destined for destruction

Works that weren't "recycled" in this way were released by Propaganda Minister Goebbels for destruction. Rolf Hetsch, the head of the Department of Fine Art, had documented each of the examples of "degenerate art," forming neat, bureaucratic lists of all the pieces.

"Nevertheless, the list has only been partially preserved and is only somewhat accurate," Meike Hoffman says.

Photograph of the "Harry Fischer List," which is considered the only copy of the Nazi seized art list Copyright: Victoria & Alber Museum
The "Harry Fischer List" is considered the only copy of the Nazi seized art list to dateImage: Victoria & Alber Museum

One of the transcriptions remains - the "Harry Fischer List," which landed in the hands of historian Andreas Hüneke by coincidence in 1997. The list stems from the estate of art dealer Harry Fischer. In early 2014 it was made public - a treasure trove for provenance researchers around the world.

"The list is unique for the research of 'degenerate' art," Tiedemann says. And it's the only list that has been completely preserved. In addition it shows the vast extent to which "degenerate art" was confiscated from German museums.

'Missing' works surface

"Meanwhile, we've been able to reconstruct the [list of] confiscated art relatively well," Hoffmann says. With her team, she has built the most comprehensive database to date, with more than 21,000 entries of "degenerate art." But there are surprises from time to time.

"In Nazi inventories, all the works that were supposed to be destroyed received an 'x.' Nevertheless we have been able to locate some of these works."

Art dealers like Hildebrand Gurlitt may have "rescued" such works from fiery destruction by having bought them or having hid them in storage. In 2012, tax inspectors seized about 1,280 works of art from Cornelius Gurlitt - Hildebrand Gurlitt's son. From the confiscated works, about 380 could be identified as "degenerate art."

"I don't expect we will discover a collection of this magnitude again - at least not in terms of degenerate art," Meike Hoffman says. "But we have not lost hope that we'll find other works once marked with an 'x'."