A cache of 450 works of art seized by US soldiers from Germany at the end of World War II now sits in a basement suite of offices and storage rooms at the US Army Center for Military History in Washington, DC.
These paintings were made by or in support of the Third Reich. Although the current climate favours the restitution of works seized during the Nazi period, there are currently no plans to return this collection to Germany. However, ten works are currently on loan to the German Historical Museum in Berlin for the exhibition, “Art and Propaganda in the Controversy of the Nations: 1930-45” (until 29 April).
The holdings in Washington, DC include four watercolours of Vienna, signed “A. Hitler,” which curator Renee Klish says are correctly attributed to Hitler. Another work in the collection is Der Bannertraeger (The Standard Bearer), Hubert Lanzinger’s widely-reproduced 1937 painting of Hitler as a medieval knight on horseback in a suit of armour. The picture was damaged in 1945 when a US soldier slashed it with a bayonet. An even larger work, in which Hitler addresses a meeting of German citizens, has the biblical title, Im Anfang, War das Wort (In the Beginning, There Was the Word). On a similar scale is Hitler at the Front which shows the German dictator visiting adoring, combat-weary soldiers. As well as other Hitler portraits and busts, there are also battle scenes, portraits of Nazi soldiers and leaders (Rudolph Hess, Franz-Xaver Ritter von Epp), sketches of Russian and Jewish prisoners, and drawings in the style of Rubens showing women wearing swastika brooches.
Most of the pictures are in realist or heroic academic styles, yet there are some notable surprises. Some war scenes have expressionistic and grotesque elements associated with art that the Reich labelled “degenerate”.
The works have been in American hands since 1946, pursuant to a US military order issued in November 1945 to seize all German property, including art, “relating or directed to the perpetuation of German militarism or Nazism”. As part of the German War Art Project, US troops seized the works in official buildings and in the private studios of artists who painted for the Reich, eventually accumulating a group of around 10,000 pictures and other objects which were transported to the United States.
Almost as soon as the works arrived, US military lawyers pointed out that the Army held them in violation of the 1907 Hague Convention that bans the seizure of cultural property. Despite this, many of the works went into Pentagon offices as war trophies. In 1951, the US returned 1,650 objects to Germany, where the Bavarian government was designated the legal possessor of property that belonged to Hitler and Nazi leaders.
An additional 7,000 works were returned to Germany in 1986, in response to a German appeal which included claims on behalf of artists and their heirs who argued that the seized works were their private property. In June 2002, the US Supreme Court rejected a claim by heirs of Hitler’s private photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, that the four Hitler watercolours in the Army collection were pillaged private property. Since then, there have been no further claims.
After intense debate within the American government in the early 1980s, the US retained the 450 works that it now holds, on grounds that it was improper to return to Germany depictions of Hitler, Nazi leaders, Nazi symbols, or any overt expressions of propaganda. Of those pictures, the Army kept around 200 “that told the story of World War II in art to show both sides of the battle,” says curator Renee Klish, herself the daughter of Jews who fled Germany.
Such pictures are rarely seen in Germany, although museums like the German Historical Museum (which owns more than 700 such works) are exempt from the official ban on showing Nazi symbols. In the US, pictures showing the Nazi army fighting the Allies would have clashed with West Germany’s postwar status as the crucial US ally in Europe, says Gregory Maertz, author of the forthcoming study of the German War Art Project, The Invisible Museum, to be published in 2008. Mr Maertz calls the Nazi art in Washington “looted,” and criticises the US for retaining it. He notes that, in the mid-1980s, when 7,000 works were being returned to Germany, the author Elie Wiesel intervened, unsuccessfully, to try to bring that group of pictures under the authority of the US Holocaust Commission, which was then building the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.
Mr Maertz recalls that a US general defended keeping the works in Washington, on the grounds that “it’s not art”, but he notes that the current “Art and Propaganda” exhibition in Berlin explores affinities in works produced in the 1930s and 1940s in the New Deal US, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and other countries. He also believes that art historians have overlooked the “modernism” that can be found in some Nazi art.
Could these Nazi paintings feed into a sinister nostalgia? “I cannot imagine that anybody, would seriously think of revitalising Nazism because of seeing Hitler in shining armour,” says Willi Korte, a lawyer and restitution specialist.
Yet Mr Korte acknowledges that the market for Nazi paintings is strong. Anti-discrimination groups say that the audience for Nazi-inspired websites is growing, in the US, Russia and throughout Europe.
For information on how to visit the collection see: www.army.mil/cmh-pg.