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'Nazi Looting: The Plunder of Dutch Jewry During the Second World War'

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Nazi Looting: The Plunder of Dutch Jewry During the Second World War


Gerard Aalders




The Nazi looting machine was notoriously efficient during the Second World War.  In the Netherlands, 8.5 million citizens suffered losses estimated at 3.6 billion guilders.  Approximately one-third of these losses were borne by Jews, who comprised only 1.6% of the total population.  In today's terms, the German occupiers stripped the Jewish population of assets worth $7 billion.

Nazi Looting offers a comprehensive history of the Dutch experience and demonstrates how reputable indigenous institutions acted as willing collaborators.  Beginning with a survey of international law and various definitions of 'looting', Professor Aalders show show the Germans systematically robbed Dutch Jewry through a variety of means that gave the outward appearance of 'honest trading'.  Forced to sell under duress and at unreasonably low prices, few dared refuse the Germans on the doorstep when threatened with prison or incarceration in a camp.

The book covers the cultural looting of Dutch Jewry in detail.  Professor Aalders explores the role of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg and other Nazi looting agencies such as the Dienststelle Mühlmann and describes the methods of seizure of the Chabot, Lugt, Gutmann, Koenigs, Lanz, von Pannwitz and Goudstikker collections, inter alia. 

Looted works of art were forcibly deposited in the Lipmann Rosenthal Bank (LIRO) from where they were sold on the art market both in the Netherlands and Germany.  Auction houses and dealers selling such works of art included Mak van Waay, Amsterdam, Van Marle & Bignell in The Hague, Lempertz, Cologne, Curt Reinheldt of Berlin and the Munich Galerie für alte Kunst.  Dutch museums purchased looted works of art from LIRO, among them the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, the Museum for Asian Art and The Hague Municipal Museum.

Nazi Looting is published in English by Berg, ISBN 1 85973 727 7.  It was originally published as Roof in Dutch in 1999 by SDU Uitgeverij, Den Haag.

Review by Lynn Nicholas April 2007
By kind permission of the author

             Nazi looting during World War II, though not unprecedented, broke all records when it came to quantity. Personally supervised by the Nazi leadership, a plethora of agencies stripped the citizens of the occupied nations of works of art, documents, books, real estate, and financial assets. Their operations were extremely complex and specially tailored to fit the racial status of each region. Thus the depredations in the Slavic nations were far more drastic than those in Western Europe. But the national collections of Axis and occupied “Nordic” nations were also liable to re-arrangements in favor of the Nazi homeland and any Jewish assets held in them were fair game. To legalize their looting to their own satisfaction, the Nazis, who were fully aware that they were violating the traditional rules of warfare, passed a vast array of laws, decrees and regulations, most ex-post facto, and all of surpassing cynicism.

            Most analyses of these efforts have tended to concentrate on only one affected area. Art, real estate and equities are seldom considered together. But for most families these various assets were inescapably intertwined. Gerald Aalders has, in this well researched and concise book, done us the great favor of describing these interlocking looting systems as they were instituted in the Netherlands, thereby illustrating more chillingly than ever before the thoroughness of the Nazi operations. 

            The picture he paints is not a pretty one, showing as it does, some of the least edifying tendencies of human greed. Aalders notes that when asked what he found worst “about this whole looting business” he “always had difficulty answering” and that although years of research led to a “sort of professional numbness” he was “far from immune to dismay and revulsion.” And indeed, though the tone of the book is always scholarly, this revulsion is frequently evident.

            Before delving into events in the Netherlands Aalders gives us a well organized background history of Nazi looting. His analysis of the methodology of “indirect” looting, which he estimates amounted to 18,000 billion guilders in the Netherlands alone, is especially good, revealing to the layman the many forms of Nazi theft which included the subversion of charitable gifts, the secret promotion of the illegal black market, manipulation of international banking and currency exchanges and constant requisitioning of everything from labor to table china to blankets to rail cars. 

            But the heart of this book is Aalder’s discussion of the operations of the “Liro” Bank or Robber Bank, which was the central clearinghouse in the Netherlands for the looting of Jewish property.  Here the technique of utilizing the Jews’ own institutions against them, employed throughout the Third Reich by the Nazis, reached its peak. The Liro Bank was set up in the former premises of the highly respected, Jewish-owned Lippmann Rosenthal Bank which had existed for years in Amsterdam. The new entity was not really a bank but a Nazi government agency specialized in theft. Nevertheless, in order to calm Jewish fears until it was too late, the pretenses of banking were maintained: clients received statements and correspondence on the old letterhead. In August 1941 Jews were required to list and deposit an enormous array of assets with Liro. Receipts were duly handed out and withdrawals permitted. Behind the scenes, Liro employees were overwhelmed by the huge bundles of stock certificates and bank notes that poured in. By 1942 virtually anything which still remained of private Jewish property including annuities, life insurance policies and eventually jewelry, furniture and works of art, had to be sent to Liro from which they were exploited by more specialized Nazi agencies. Here, as in such books as Victor Klemperer’s diaries, one is struck, even while reading the sometimes technical material on financial transactions, by the extraordinary patience of the looters who, step by step, in order to deceive, carefully penetrated into every possible place where families might have assets in order to take them away before sending the penniless to their deaths.  

            Aalders, wisely, does not spend a great deal of time trying to quantify the value of the total assets taken. There is no way of knowing what that figure was. Both looters and victims seldom used accurate numbers. Reporting of assets naturally tended to be on the low side, while later claims tended to be high. In addition, corruption was rife in the Nazi agencies and among collaborators who, while the Germans were in the ascendancy, had few qualms about trading in the assets of the condemned Jews, but who quickly re-structured their portfolios when the coming Allied victory became obvious. But the amounts were vast: Aalders estimates that the Netherlands lost 3.64 billion guilders by direct looting, of which more than 1 billion came from the Jewish community, which was about 1.6% of the population. 

            Aalders also does not deal with any particular cases of restitution, an issue much in the media of late. But his account makes very clear why it is so difficult to resolve such cases in an equitable manner. The Nazi looting organizations and their hangers-on dispersed their gains across a wide spectrum of cover agencies and into the international trade both of art and financial instruments and the paper trails, if they exist at all, are extremely complex. Little wonder that many claimants accepted partial and often unfair restitution, or gave up the quest entirely, and that many a new owner of a work of art has found his title to it in question.   
            Nazi Looting is a well-annotated book that should be in the collections of all professionals and that will be of interest to devotees of World War II history. The reference notes to the documents held in archives in the Netherlands are especially useful. The overall organization is perhaps not perfect and the translation is sometimes stiff, but Aalders is very expert and despite his disclaimer that he can only “shed some light” on the events of the war, but that explaining the impact on the victims “in full” is beyond his powers, his contribution is major. This eye-opening and scholarly study is also a cautionary tale that shows us what happens when a calculating and ideologically rigid political group manipulates the institutions most trusted by ordinary people in order to control and destroy them--surely a lesson very valid today. 
                                                                                                                                                            LYNN H. NICHOLAS  
Washington, DC                                         
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