The Spoils of War: World War II and Its Aftermath: The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property
Spoliation has been the concomitant of war since earliest times. It was standard practice long before
Mighty Caesar, thund’ring from afar,
Seeks on Euphrates Banks the Spoils of War
or Napoleon Bonaparte paraded the horses of San Marco on the Champs de Mars in Paris in 1798.1 It would be difficult, however, to find in the history of armed conflict a conqueror who pursued it as systematically and on such a grandiose scale as Adolf Hitler. Driven by the desire to make his country the greatest cultural center in the world and, at the same time, to purge it and its conquered lands of art that was by his standards degenerate and hence dangerous to the moral health of society, the German dictator brought about an unprecedented displacement of art and cultural property in Europe. His agents forced Western museums to sell selected masterpieces to the Reich and confiscated the collections of Jews and Freemasons and other presumed enemies of National Socialism as his victorious armies in the eastern lands indulged in orgies of looting and burning.
There was nothing adventitious about this—the seizure of Jewish property was intended to humiliate the victims and was a prelude to liquidating them, and the destruction in the Slavic lands was a deliberate expression of contempt for the local culture—and it was not intended to stop when military victory was achieved. Indeed, not only did Hitler plan to demand the return to Germany of everything that had been taken from it as a result of the Versailles Treaty, but Nazi scholars were set to the task of compiling lists of German art objects that had wandered abroad since the year 1500 and would be reclaimed when Germany had attained world mastery.
This is not to say that greed was not at times as important a motivation as ideology. Hitler’s extensive private acquisitions, intended for the museum of his home town of Linz in Austria, encouraged his subordinates Goering, Ribbentrop, Himmler, and Hans Frank to build up their own collections by confiscation and forced sale, and the confusion of war gave many less important people opportunities to enrich themselves by theft. All of this contributed to the general process of dispersal that was described with such masterful detail by Lynn Nicholas in her book The Rape of Europa in 1994.2 By the end of the war thousands of masterpieces were scattered over the continent, far from their former homes, and postwar society was faced with the horrendous task of trying to locate them and, if that was successful (for many of the treasures were lost beyond recall), to restore them to their owners. Fifty years later, that problem is still—given the lack of energy or the open opposition of various governments—far from resolution.
The Spoils of War is a collection of the papers presented at a symposium with that title held at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in January 1995 and attended…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.