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Alexander, Beatrix. 'In Our Own Interest: Investigation into the history of the Cologne City Museum in the years 1938-1945', 2002


In Our Own Interest: Investigation into the history of the Cologne City Museum in the years 1938-1945

Beatrix Alexander


In Our Own Interest [1]
Investigation into the history of the Cologne City Museum in the years 1938 - 1945

1. Preliminary remark

The issue of Art looted by Germany during the reign of National Socialism experiences a revival in recent years [2] . A development that following the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets (Dec. 3, 1998) [3] was encouraged by the declaration of the government of the Federal Republic of Germany (9.12.1999) [4] in correlation with the restitution of cultural assets.

Whereas technical literature by preference deals with the detailed account of the functioning and mode of operation for example of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the activities of Hermann Göring as art collector and Adolf Hitler's intended Linz Museum, the mandate from the German Government to its cultural institutions - e. g. museums, archives, libraries - means to publicise possessions unlawfully acquired during the reign of the National Socialists and to attempt restitution to its former owners or their heirs.

That this endeavour - just as in the immediate post war years - is initiated rather reluctantly, has long been noticed by the foreign press. [5] Eva Kurz, formerly consultant with the pro bono "WWII Looted Art Project" of the Art Loss Register and now Research Officer at the Institute of Art and Law, comes to a depressing conclusion [6] also regarding the Cologne Museums' community. Not only are few interested in announcing their present research into the NS-Era or extolling dubious accessions free of charge in the world wide web, hesitating to entertain any research with own personnel, they rather profess an attitude of retrospective lament - "... it is obvious that museums prefer to dwell on an injustice they suffered rather than uncovering any misdeeds or failings committed by their senior staff during the Nazi era." [7]

One might object that investigation into circumstances and provenances dating back half a century as well as practical and legal establishment of heirs and successors takes time. On the contrary one has to accede that more than fifty years should have been ample to close the chapter of restitution of looted art. Potential for delay - discounting disputes on international treaties regarding cultural possessions and state succession - might originate in the simple truth that museums' collections were enriched rather than encumbered by the confiscated contributions of private and public collectors and a detraction of those paintings, sculptures, furniture, Gobelins, ceramics, books, documents et al. would mean - not just financially  - an irreparable privation. Further motive for the long-winded machinations of restitution - as I see it  - is the mental frame of the personnel in charge, to consider effects in the museums' collections -any which way acquired - as at one point purchased in good faith, which they would be unwilling to return. Thus resulting a strategy to wait for claimants, which in the case of emigrated Jews or their heirs means the increased complication to know the whereabouts of their former collections. A problem that is aggravated in Eastern Europe, where subsequent to the expropriation by the Nazis the communists continued the dispossession of art and cultural assets.

An opportunist demeanour of temporary forgetfulness in the museums' community was favoured in the post war years especially since many officials were allowed to return - after a more or less perfunctory investigation - into their previous positions. In accordance with the national spirit of reconstruction, personnel were first and foremost interested in rebuilding the often destroyed buildings of collections and in returning the museums' property from numerous depositories. A self critical analysis of their role in NS-Culture and -Propaganda has not ensued  up to this day.

Inasmuch as the mental continuum between then and now is harmonically uninterrupted, it tends to create neuralgic reactions when historic enlightenment is attempted, even considering the present generation of collaborators being post war born. The question, to what extent further institutions - courts for instance, cities and firms in connection with employment of forced labour or banks in connection with Jewish fortunes - have inquired into their past earlier or more thoroughly can only be of minor importance and not be nominated as exoneration. Especially taking into account the commission of the Deutsche Städtetag to their participating municipalities: '(...) Honesty and respect for the victims demand that the German Cities have to face the responsibility to conduct the search for looted art promptly. For that they have to meet the costs.' [8]

2. The case
The summons to review their history during the period of 1933 - 1945 raises various difficulties for the museums. What at first appears a clearly defined assignment - a revision of accession files, correspondence and inventories - proves time consuming, complex and rather elusive in actual pursuit. The concept to identify objects of art confiscated from Jews or other NS-persecuted owners or purchased below market price is doomed by the removal of documents incriminating former officials.

Additionally numerous deletions as 'war losses' as well as the unmentioned fact that museums did customarily sell to either dealers as well as private persons, all such dubious procedures remain hard to prove due to lack of documentation.

To clarify the problem I would like to present the following matter - which I came upon accidentally when researching the architectural chronology of the fountain 'The elves of Cologne' in the Historical Archive of Cologne (HAStK). Surprisingly the file included a matter concerning cultural property purchased in occupied France [9].

In January 1949 an officer of the MFA&A, Major Lionel Perry [10], supplied Dr. Hans Vogts, then city curator, with photos of art objects supposedly acquired from abroad for the City Hall of Cologne. Investigations into the affair were impeded for the following handicaps: events dated back a few years and some of the original participants were no longer in their former position.

After 1939 the entire cultural possessions of Cologne had been evacuated to some 32 depots [11], and even worse been relocated various times for fear of unsuitable conditions or war development to continuously varying storage. Beyond that, it remains uncertain if those aforementioned acquisitions are property of the city of Cologne or an art dealer - here the Cologne antique dealer Georg Fahrbach. The objects in question- mainly rococo furniture, gobelins and carpets - were according to the statement of Hugo Müller [12], then superintendent of buildings and construction, 'rightfully' acquired with consent of the French Commercial Bank and the French Chamber of Commerce. Due to the menace of impeding air raids those artefacts were immediately shipped to the depots in Heldburg in Thuringia and Gaibach in Franconia. An inventory for Heldburg was prepared by Vogts and for Gaibach by Robert Brandes, then mayor of Cologne. The Gaibach file was supposedly consumed by fire during an air raid in 1943.

In June 1945, Konrad Adenauer, then Lord Mayor of Cologne, entrusted Vogts to save the municipal art property stored at Heldburg in the face of impending Russian occupation. Vogts took a car accompanied by a lorry to Thuringia. At the border the truck was stopped and only Vogts allowed to pass through. On arrival in Heldburg he composed an inventory of the deposits and returned to Cologne. According to Vogts' deposition the Russians confiscated the whole depot at Heldburg and only 'a small remainder' was left of the French acquisitions. According to his cursory inventory it is hardly possible to identify any objects positively, which would be necessary if restitution was attempted. Finally, the whereabouts of the Heldburg deposits can no longer be established. Vogts' statement closes with an allusion to another involved - 'Mr. Müller from the municipality can contribute detailed information on the acquisitions in France, since - as far as I know - he accompanied Mr. Brandes on this journey.' [13] This Müller contradicts -'since I have been off duty (from May 1945 till April 1948), I have no information of the whereabouts of these objects…' [14] Quite contrary to this deposition of January 24, 1949 is his 'account on inspection of the inventory in Castle Dyck on September 3rd, 1948’, where he recounts '12 arm-chairs and settee were purchased by me in Paris and are property of the city <of Cologne>'[15]. This seems surprising, since none of the schedules quote any inventory numbers to qualify the objects as either municipal or museums' possession.  Both these depositions of former officials are to be considered attempts of masking proceedings considered illegal after the end of the NS-Era; on the other hand they reflect the problem of the mainly evacuated museums, whose staff were generally trying (with moderate success) to tame the chaos.

Exemplary for this situation is the depot at Castle Gaibach near Würzburg, where the sub-custodian Dr. Edith Meyer-Wurmbach with some locally hired help is responsible for the main part of the inventory of the Haus der Rheinischen Heimat (HdRhH), the predecessor of today's Kölnisches Stadtmuseum, the Cologne City Museum. On top of that, a surprising number of private possessions are also put into storage in the castle's numerous rooms. Though Meyer-Wurmbach constantly tries to establish the exact location and number especially of those entrusted goods, it is for a variety of reasons hard to keep track, which she occasionally laments in her letters home - ‘Can't the shipments be stopped at last?' [16]

The shipments continue and private deposits even increase as the number of air-raids intensify. When no suitable space was available in one depot, another one was found. Among the total cost for the evacuation of the Cologne museums in 1943/44 about 40% were used for transport, and a mere 3% for surveillance of the depots. Arrangements regarding the private deposits were based on the assumption that they constituted cultural goods worthwhile preserving, and were either on loan to  the city of Cologne or the property of major sponsors. The owners’ share in the cost consisted merely in transport. Moreover, also private households (furniture, suitcases, chests) were stored. Keeping track of the movables was almost impossible since they seemingly were constantly on the move to and fro Cologne and varying depots. To pronounce an exact location was rendered even more difficult, since the museums’ staff often did not have any idea, what the deposits consisted of. A viable assumption would seem, that the depots were also employed to save the so called “Entartete Kunst” from expropriation, as in the case of Dr. Abegg, who put 3 Liebermann paintings in store in Gaibach, but  this assumption cannot be proven. Vice versa the hand-written entries in the inventory of the Cologne lawyer Dr. Esch indicate that a number of the paintings were claimed for restitution, which possibly suggests that the depots alternately functioned as hiding places for illegally acquired art.

Under these circumstances it is surprising that museum officials continued with their foreign buying sprees until 1944. Dr. Fritz Fremersdorf, director of the Roman-Germanic division of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum (WRM), meanwhile residing faraway from destroyed Cologne in Oberaudorf with Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bissing, an emeritus of oriental archaeology and egyptology, in January took a 10 day trip to Paris in order to ‘introduce Professor Heydrich to the main art dealers’. In April he left again for Paris, this time for another 12 days to prepare his acquisitions  - as usual not explicitly named - for transport [17] . Even with the increasing endangering of the depots, the lust for acquisitions seems unbridled. Thanks to contacts of the aforementioned Cologne art dealer Georg Fahrbach, various transports with furniture and carpets reached the depots of Gaibach and Kochendorf; their value totalling more than 100.000 Reichsmark. Their contents declared as "Räumungsgut” (clearance goods) by the shipping agency Schenker.

The documented zenith of these spendthrift excursions is the acquisition of two lots of carpets from the renowned art dealer Goudstikker in Amsterdam, worth more than 220.000 Reichsmark. The deal is promoted both by the treasurer of Cologne, Prof. Dr. Oskar Türk and the Lord Mayor Dr. Peter Winkelnkemper. Since no official budget is available, the purchase is declared as an advance for expected reimbursement by the War Damage Office. No matter, what purpose the expensive purchase is in reality destined for, the comparison to the activities of Rosenberg and the ERR, confiscating art for Hitler, Göring and others literally by the wagon throughout Europe is obvious. Yet the fate of the carpets is not the intended one.

A profusion of inconsistent assumptions and attributions allow only limited knowledge of their remains. The main part was either restored directly from the depots or via the Munich Central Collecting Point to France or the Netherlands. Trails of the considerable rest lose themselves via the mysterious person of Erik Berger and the antique dealer Georg Fahrbach. The present proprietor claims no knowledge of this case [18] . Equally speculative are presuppositions regarding the relation of Professor Dr. Wilhelm Ewald, director of the HdRhH, and Berger. The last being named in connection with non-authorized confiscation as well as borrower of private deposits in Gaibach [19] . Since this occurred with knowledge of and in agreement with Ewald, albeit extraordinary commissary for all of Cologne's evacuated cultural possessions it would at least indicate a negligent attitude on his part.

Since his Neuss period, Ewald was well connected with the leading industrialist families of Werhahn and Thywissen, the Hilden based paint factory owners Wiederhold, the lower Rhine aristocracy at Castle Moyland near Cleves and others he acted obliging to.

In the case of Ilsemarie Baronin Steengracht, Ewald provided her with restored furniture from the museum. Regretfully the precious renaissance and rococo effects were forgotten in later attempts of evacuation. During the end of the war Castle Moyland was in the combat zone of Canadian, English and German troops and mostly destroyed, in which course the interior - furnishings included - was mainly consumed by fire [20].

Compared to present day discussion on abuse of authority and corruption Ewald’s side line as art dealer or -mediator seem rather brazen. Particularly when he orders the museum’s restorers to furbish up the objects obtained for his protégés thus creating potential confidants and plaintiffs. Ewald appears to have been untroubled by such deliberations. His comment to SS Hauptsturmführer Rudi Schmidt regarding the restorers being ‘quite overtaxed by <the preparations for> an exhibition’ and that accordingly Schmidt’s furniture restoration would have to wait [21] , has something burlesque in its displacement of values. The impression, Ewald considered museum possessions as a resource at his disposal also applies to the next case selected from the abundant material of dubious proceedings.

In 1828 the WRM receives a donation of 11 portraits by the Cologne artist Caspar David Beckenkamp. 1935 the Rheinische Museum remits 5 of those to the WRM. On Feb. 27th, 1942 again 4 of the paintings are assigned to the HdRhH with the request to take inventory of them. (They are supplied with inventory numbers of 1941.) In April 1942 Ewald receives an offer from Rudolf Josten, Neuss - 'As I wrote to you, I'd like to possibly buy the little painting by Beckenkamp, if not a few.' After WWII two of the paintings are accounted for as 'disposed in 1943' and another one as 'missing since 1945'. [22] Ewald himself seems to have associated the successful evacuation of Cologne's artefacts with certain hopes for an elevated position in the post war museums' hierarchy. Here he was deluded. In a letter to Werner Bornheim, later Landeskonservator of the Palatinate, then member of the academic staff at the WRM, the bitterness emerges that Ewald felt after the end of the NS-Era. Whatever he expected due for his merits did not occur. Since Nov. 1st, 1945 Professor Leopold Reidemeister was nominated chairman of all of Cologne’s museums and the future fate of the HdRhH - awarded 1st prize at the Paris World Exhibition in 1937 - remained uncertain for the time being. [23]

3. Conclusion
Unfortunately this reconstruction has no conclusion comparable to a well written mystery. Just for the record: The depositions of the various participants are at variance if not contradictory. The depot ‘Veste Heldburg’, nominated by Vogts, is not to be found in any of the schedules; to what extent the expedition thither and his list are rather fiction than fact remains open to speculation. Hans Vogts held office until 1948 and was subsequently active as chairman of various architects’ associations. Fritz Fremersdorf, who after 1945 dissociated himself from every responsibility for purchases from occupied France, respectively, declared them as legal, returned - as many other suspended employees - to public position. Helmut May was promoted director of the WRM in 1953. Wilhelm Ewald was awarded with life time salary till his decease in 1955 and in exchange for his collection of wax seal imprints, which he donated to the city of Cologne, he received a medieval reliquary bust from the collections of the Schnütgen-Museum. (Concluding may be annotated that Wilhelm Ewald still enjoys posthumous laudatory appraisal even from reviewers that quote contemporaries among their sources.) [24]

The initially noted lack of self criticism within the museum scene concerning their leading personnel during the NS-Era may distress, but also reflects the long-windedness of thought process and conduct in a city, whose council  unanimously decided not till April 27th, 1989 to officially cancel - among others - Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels from the list of her honorary citizens. [25]

[1]              This is the slightly altered and abridged translation of my essay ‘Im eigenen Interesse, Nachforschungen über den Erwerb und Verbleib von Kunstgut in den Jahren 1938 - 1945, Köln: Kölnisches Stadtmuseum, 2000 (Kleine Schriften zur Stadtgeschichte. H. 10)’; not included are the lengthy appendices of biographies, transcripts of documents from the files of the Historische Archiv der Stadt Köln (HAStK) and abbreviations.

[2]              To name but a few of a number of monographs dedicated to that issue - Hector Feliciano - Das verlorene Museum, Berlin 1998; Charles de Jaeger - Das Führer-Museum, Sonderauftrag Linz, München 1988; Ernst Kubin - Sonderauftrag Linz, Die Kunstsammlung Adolf Hitler, Wien, 1989; Jakob Kurz - Kunstraub in Europa 1938-1945, Hamburg 1989; Lynn H. Nicholas - The rape of Europa, the fate of Europe‘s treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, New York, 1995; Jonathan Petropoulos - Art as politics in the Third Reich, Chapel Hill, London, 1996 et al.

[3]                 Washington  Conference Principles with respect to Nazi-Confiscated Art (released at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, Washington DC, Dec. 3, 1998)

[4]                 „Erklärung der Bundesregierung, der Länder und der kommunalen Spitzenverbände zur Auffindung und zur Rückgabe NS-verfolgungsbedingt entzogenen Kulturgutes insbesondere aus jüdischem Besitz (Stand: 9.12.1999)"

[5]               Andrew Decker - A legacy of shame, in: ArtNews, 12/1984, as well as John Dornberg - The mounting embarrassment of Germany‘s Nazi Treasures, in: ArtNews, 7/1988

[6]              Eva Kurz - Research Findings with respect to Holocaust Era Art in German and Czech Public Collections, (paper presented at:) Remembering for the Future 2000, The Holocaust in an age of genocides, an International Scholars‘ Conference, Oxford and London 16-23 July 2000; quote from the manuscript of the author, whose generosity and editorial assistance with this translation  I gratefully appreciate.

[7]              Eva Kurz, ibid.,  p. 4

[8]              „Wenn die Bundesrepublik Deutschland im Ausland Zusagen im Hinblick auf eine erneute Wiedergutmachung von NS-Unrecht macht, so sind die Kommunen gebunden, diesem Vorhaben zu folgen. Zwar ist die Bundesrepublik Deutschland Rechtsnachfolger des NS-Staates, doch sind kommunale Einrichtungen auch Nutznießer der Barbarei gegenüber den NS-Verfolgten gewesen und haben z. T. aktiv an diesem Unrecht mitgewirkt. Ehrlichkeit und Achtung gegenüber den Opfern gebieten, dass sich die deutschen Städte dieser Aufgabe stellen und die Suche nach entzogenem Kulturgütern im Rahmen ihrer Möglichkeiten rasch abwickeln. Sie haben dafür die Kosten zu tragen." Vorbericht für die 230. Sitzung des Vorstandes des Städtetags Nordrhein-Westfalen am 21.3.2000 in Bonn, TOP 5: Rückgabe von NS-verfolgungsbedingt entzogenen Kulturgutes, Köln, 28.2.2000, p. 3

[9]              HAStK, Acc. 228, No. 510

[10]             HAStK, Best. 611/102, unnumbered page

[11]                 Hansgerd Hellenkemper - Die Museen, Odysse des kölnischen Kunstbesitzes, in: Jost Dülffer (Hrsg.) - „Wir haben schwere Zeiten hinter uns", Vierow, 1996, pp. 355-364 (VKGV. 40.), as well as: Beatrix Alexander - „Nicht das wichtigste Museum in Köln, aber das wichtigste für Köln“, in: Wie Zeit vergeht, Köln 1999, pp. 207-213, here p. 210

[12]             HAStK, Best. 611/102,unnumberd page

[13]             Letter from Hans Vogts to Major Perry, Jan. 24, 1949, p. 3, in: HAStK, Acc. 228, no. 510, p. 17; translations if not noted otherwise by the author.

[14]             Ibid., p. 12

[15]             HAStK, Best. 611/102, unnumbered page

[16]             Letter from Edith Meyer-Wurmbach to Franz Brill, Gaibach, Oct. 24, 1941, in: HAStK, Best. 611/75/1, unnumbered page

[17]             HAStK, Best. 611/77, unnumbered page

[18]                 According to various telephone conversations and a personal meeting on November 9, 1999 between the author and Mr. Kaiser, proprietor of G. Fahrbach, Cologne.

[19]             HAStK, Best. 611/44, unnumbered pages

[20]             Hartmut Kahmen - Herdringen, Arenfels, Moyland - 3 Schlossbauten Ernst Friedrich Zwirners, phil. Diss., Frankfurt/M., 1973, p. 93

[21]             HAStK, Best. 611/84, unnumbered page

[22]             For information pertaining to this matter  I am indebted most profoundly to Rita Wagner, Kölnisches Stadtmuseum

[23]             Not without the hint of post war repression the HdRhH was never continued under its former name or function; the collections of the Historische and Rheinische Museum as well as those of the HdRhH eventually were united and constitute today’s Kölnisches Stadtmuseum, situated in the former armoury.

[24]             Max Tauch - Ein Kölner Museumsmann: Prof. Wilhelm Ewald (1878-1955), in: Kölner Museumsbulletin 4/88, as well as Johannes Puhl - Prof. Wilhelm Ewald, manuscript of a lecture at the Cologne Rotary Inner Wheel Club, Oct. 11th, 1999

[25]                Verhandlungen des Rates der Stadt Köln vom Jahre 1989; 57. Öffentl. Sitzung vom 27. 4. 1989, p. 237f.




Beatrix Alexander
Kölnisches Stadtmuseum
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