“Before embarking on a political career in September 1919 at the age of thirty, Adolf Hitler had been a non-entity. With no formal qualifications, he had become an aimless drifter and failed artist before joining the army on the outbreak of war in August 1914,” writes the BBC. (1)
He might have been one of the most destructive politicians of all time, but one lesser known portrayal of Adolf Hitler is that he was a failed artist.
Throughout his 26 years of exercising supreme power in Germany, the Nazis looted a substantial amount of art, scavenged it from museums across Europe and private collectors from around the world and stashed it into salt mines in Germany.
According to the National Archives, “20% of the art in Europe was looted by the Nazis.” (2)
On April 12, 1945, one month before the end of WWII, three American soldiers, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Omar Bradley, and General George Patton, ventured down into Merkers Salt Mine in Germany and discovered gold and paintings there that had been looted and abandoned by the Nazis.
The stash at Merkers Salt Mine included Edouard Manet’s famous “Wintergarden”. (3)
Recovering Nazi Stolen Art
When the war was over, the three American soldiers who found the ‘treasure’ were commemorated for their tremendous find and were given the nickname the “Monuments Men”.
The Monuments Men developed into a group of approximately 350 art historians, museum directors, and curators, who had volunteered to help the U.S. army to locate and protect the stolen art.
Thousands of highly prominent works by legendary artists including De Vinci, Cezanne, Raphael and Vermeer was recovered from mines, trains and storage sites where they had been waiting to be transported to Germany.
According to the History Engine, “the Monuments Men restored the cultural heritage of Europe back to the hands of its own people.” (4)
However despite the American and other government’s efforts to recover and return the art, much of the looted art still remained missing. As late as the mid-1990s, 16 of the 40 top paintings were still at large. In 1997, Philip Saunders, editor of Trace, the stolen art register, said that “There are at least 100,000 works of art still missing from the Nazi occupation.” (5)
In fact as late as 2007, art that was looted by the Nazis was recovered and returned to its rightful homes.
In a report titled, “Documenting Nazi Plunder of European Art”, the National Archives writes about how in 1997, the National Jewish Museum established a Holocaust Art Restoration Project (HARP), serving to research the assets looted during the Holocaust and World War II.
Alongside HARP, in 1998 some 50 nations became involved in a non-binding agreement known as the Washington Principles to “assist in resolving issues relating to Nazi-confiscated art”. (6)
Other Heroes of Nazi Stolen Art Recovery
In spite of efforts made by the Monuments Men, HARP and the Washington Principles, and the fact that thousands of Nazi stolen art had been recovered, governments came under criticism for failing to live up to commitments to return the stolen art to Nazi victims and their heirs.
According to a Bloomberg report, Georg Heuberger, the Jewish Claims Conference’s representative in Germany, had said that Nazi loot recovery had been slow.
“Much too little has been achieved. Each country has done its own thing, and only one-third of the countries has made any effort. We find that very unsatisfactory.” (7)
Whilst Heuberger may be critical of the countries that have failed to make commitments regarding the looted art, which include Russia, Hungary, France, Italy, Spain and some Scandinavian countries (8), certain individuals have emerged as heroes in the fight to recover the Nazi stolen art.
One such individual was the late Maria Altmann, who died in February 2011, aged 94. Maria Altmann was a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, who successfully battled to recover Gustav Klimt paintings that had been stolen from her family.
According to Boston.com, in 1998, Ms Altmann and attorney E. Randol Schoenburg embarked on a legal battle with the Austrian government over the looted paintings, which included the highly prominent gold-encrusted painting of Altmann’s aunt, the “Portrait of Adel Bloch-Bauer.” (9)
Altmann’s Fight For Stolen Family Art
This famous painting had been hung in a gallery in Vienna, which claimed that Maria Altmann’s aunt, who had died in 1925, had given the painting to the Austrian national gallery.
Ms Altmann however contested this story, claiming that the painting had been stolen by the Nazis.
The lawsuit was deemed as having little chance of success, with Schoenberg stating on Bostom.com that “When you sue a foreign country, it’s generally not possible to do it.”
In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Maria Altmann could proceed with the suit, and in 2006, an Austrian mediation panel awarded Ms Altmann with the paintings, ending an almost 80-year fight. (10)
According to Boston.com, the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” was bought in 2004 by a private collector for $192.7 million, a record price for a painting at the time, and Maria Altmann became known in the Vienna Jewish Community as a “fearless fighter for justice”. (11)
Tracing the original owners of the thousands of art objects that were robbed and confiscated, and that ended up in Germany during World War II, has taken up the best part of 70 years. But as historian Jonathon Petropoulos once said, “Not only were the Nazis the most systematic mass murderers in history, but they were also the greatest thieves.” (12)