Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Third Reich's Pillage of European Art and Treasures

Confiscation of "Degenerate" Art

From the moment Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he organized the confiscation of state-owned cultural property. His goal was to create a pure Germanic culture by completely doing away with what he called degenerate art and replacing it with Germanic works. Those who were ordered to carry out the confiscations were initially unclear as to what was considered morally and culturally unacceptable.  

At first, any modern or unfinished works or art in the form of music, books, architecture, sculptures, or paintings were considered to be degenerate.   Later the criteria extended to personal property that included any object produced by Jews or Communists. However, the definition of degenerate art eventually expanded and encompassed any works that failed to fit the Nazi ideal. Any and all art that Hitler deemed inappropriate and morally wrong was confiscated.

Moreover, to prevent the further production of degenerate art, artists, composers, writers, architects and art dealers, among others, were carefully scrutinized and regulated by Nazi organizations. Those who failed to conform to the Nazi ideals were stripped of their jobs, denied access to art supplies, humiliated in public and often arrested. As a result, many artists left Germany in search of artistic freedom of expression.

The Rape of Europa
The Rape of Europa
The first Nazi campaign that attempted to control cultural property began in 1937. That year the Nazis held an exhibition that displayed what was considered to be unacceptable art. In the exhibition degenerate works were purposely displayed in a sloppy and disorganized way. According to Lynn H. Nicholas book, The Rape of Europa, the pictures were badly hung, often without frames and labeled with the prices paid at the most inflationary period of the Depression. Furthermore, rude political and moral comments and slogans were painted on the gallery walls around the paintings or sculptures.

The degenerate art exhibit drew a crowd of approximately three million people. They viewed works of artists like Picasso, Matisse and Chagall. Although many came to view the works to gain an understanding of what was considered inappropriate, it is likely that many more came to view their favorite masterpieces, probably for the last time.

Degenerate art exhibit
"Degenerate" art exhibit

Not far from the degenerate exhibit was the House of German Art museum, which displayed more appropriate and pure art. Spectators got a chance to see the works of such German greats as Dürer, Cranach and Holbein, personal favorites of Hitler. The exhibit opened with great pomp and circumstance, where parades marched through the streets in celebration of German art and culture. However, despite the festive air surrounding the museum, the exhibit drew considerably fewer people than the degenerate exhibit.

The following year, the Nazis concentrated their efforts on totally purifying the rest of the country. Confiscation committees were organized whose job was to purge museums of unacceptable works, gather them together and transfer them to various warehouses throughout the country. In total, approximately 16,000 collections were confiscated. Following the purge, German museums were declared purified.  

Those works that were sent to the warehouses were, either exchanged for German pieces, stolen or sold. The remaining unexploitable art was destroyed in massive bonfires by the fire department. Germany was not the only country that was purified of degenerate works.

In March 1938, Hitler led the German army across the border and into his native homeland of Austria. Almost immediately following the annexation of Austria, known as the Anschluss, the hunt for degenerate works commenced. This time, Jewish-owned works were of particular interest to the Nazis. Works were confiscated not only from the museums, but also from Jewish homes and shops.

As a direct result, many Austrian Jews fled the country, while others committed suicide out of desperation. Those who remained were publicly humiliated, stripped of their jobs, physically abused, robbed of their belongings and often murdered. The works seized from Jews were stockpiled in warehouses, to be later sold, reserved for use or destroyed. Many works of value to the Reich were warehoused in Linz, Austria, Hitlers hometown; or Berlin.

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