Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Third Reich's Pillage of European Art and Treasures

Legalized Looting

According to Nicholas, the confiscation of property was regulated and justified by an extraordinary array of laws and directives based on Nazi radical and political theory. The laws enacted by the Nazis were tools used to suppress and intimidate the Jewish culture and any others whose views and beliefs conflicted with their own. Moreover, the laws served as a precursor to the final solution, that of exterminating Jews from the European continent.

Hitlers degenerate art campaign of 1937 was one of his first organized attempts to regulate cultural property on a large scale. At the time, the Nazi powerhouse disallowed any and all art criticism and forbade the exhibition of disapproved art, which was expropriated. Initially, most confiscated objects were primarily taken from German museums and other state collections, although that would soon change.

Interestingly, most of the artworks were confiscated approximately one year before the actual law regarding degenerate art was even drafted. In effect, the Nazis first committed crimes, then justified them later by legalizing it.

Empty art frames, Louvre
Empty art frames, Louvre

Not long after they marched into Austria, the Nazis looted the state collections and also Jewish homes and shops on a massive scale. The soldiers stole artworks, jewelry, money and other personal belongings. The Nazis were clearly pushing the envelope to see how far they could go with their radical practices. Prior to Austria, such large scale looting of Jewish personal property had not yet occurred on the home front. Things were about to change.

By April 1938, all Jews were required to register their private property. The registered items were then catalogued and greedily scrutinized by the Nazis. This Ordinance for the Registration of Jewish Property literally provided the Nazis with a detailed shopping list of objects that could be confiscated at their will. Even though Hitler would pass another law that gave him supreme authority over confiscated objects, many disregarded it and pocketed the valuables.

Spoils of War
Spoils of War
According to Jonathan Petropoulos paper, German Laws and Directives Bearing on the Appropriation of Cultural Property in the Third Reich, presented at The Spoils of War symposium in 1995, two laws approved by Hitler in the winter of 1938 enabled government authorities to Aryanize Jewish businesses (including art dealerships) and seize Jews property. These laws, were known as the Ordinance for the Attachment of the Property of the Peoples and States Enemies, and the Ordinance for the Employment of Jewish Property. They were the first legal measures taken to regulate Jewish personal property and it was enforced throughout many of the occupied countries. The laws were just a handful of several hundred other measures taken to loot property from the Jews.

Petropoulos further suggested that in 1940, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels launched a project that was aimed at recovering all artworks of German origin or provenance taken by foreigners during the past four-hundred years. A majority of the German works would be transferred to Germany and Austria to be stored and exhibited in state museums. However, they would not all remain there.

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