Strange Trip for a Piece of Nazi Past

New York Times 18 May 2010
By Michael Kimmelman

BERLIN — Robert Edsel, author of “The Monuments Men,” came to town the other day with a heavy album bound in green Moroccan leather. “Gemäldegalerie Linz XIII” was embossed on the spine. Inside were black-and-white photographs of mostly obscure 19th-century German paintings.

The album was one of the long-missing volumes cataloging the never-built Führermuseum in Linz, Austria, which Hitler envisioned someday rivaling Dresden and Munich. Starting in 1939, Nazi henchmen and art dealers bought and stole thousands of paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other objects from private collections across Europe, then stockpiled them. Hitler helped draw up architectural plans, which megalomaniacally grew to include a theater and an opera house, a hotel, a library and parade grounds. Photographs show him, pencil in hand, pondering plans and gazing raptly on the model for the site.

“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,” the German novelist W. G. Sebald wrote in “The Emigrants.” “At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.” He was recalling a long-forgotten Alpine climber, whose remains a glacier in Switzerland suddenly released, 72 years after the man had gone missing.

But really Sebald was describing the past, which everywhere turns up unexpectedly, jolting us from our historical amnesia. A German publisher, Berliner Verlag, just released a book of photographs of postwar Berlin that had somehow languished in its archives. I know a man in Spain who has been accumulating long-forgotten photographs and other private relics from the war: a mesmerizing and mysterious stash of soldiers’ snapshots and letters, and documents scrawled with Hitler’s notes. The missing Linz album surfaced not long ago outside Cleveland, of all places. An 88-year-old veteran, John Pistone, who fought with Patton’s army, picked it up in 1945 while rummaging through the Berghof, Hitler’s retreat in the Bavarian Alps. Like other soldiers, he wanted a souvenir to prove he’d been there. He didn’t know, or particularly care, what the album was, and only learned its significance when a contractor installing a washer-dryer in his house noticed the volume on a shelf, hunted for information via the Internet, then called Mr. Edsel.

Mr. Edsel heads the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, an organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of the 350 or so Allied soldiers tasked with looking after cultural treasures in Europe. A 53-year-old, white-haired former oilman, Mr. Edsel isn’t the sort of person who takes no for an answer, and he persuaded Mr. Pistone to relinquish the volume to the German Historical Museum in Berlin , which has the other extant Linz albums. (This makes 20; 11 are still missing.)

Hitler was presented with the albums every Christmas and on his birthday. They featured reproductions of the latest art to go into the museum. The books were a virtual museum-in-waiting, a museum without walls. You imagine him cradling the bulky volumes, ogling bucolic scenes of a bygone German countryside now in ruins, imagining himself the next Medici.

It’s hard to overstate how seriously he took the whole project. Art collecting obsessed him for years; his staff endured nightly soliloquies, Hitler droning on about art while Germany collapsed around him. He fussed even about how the rooms in the museum should be decorated.

“I never bought the paintings that are in the collections that I built up over the years for my own benefit,” he took pains to write in his brief will, just before putting a pistol to his head, “but only for the establishment of a gallery in my hometown of Linz.”

A model of Linz had already been moved to the bunker in Berlin so it would be among the last things he saw.

Volume XIII, Mr. Pistone’s album, contains reproductions of 19th-century German and Austrian pictures, the art Hitler admired most. He may have bought some of these works with royalties from “Mein Kampf.” They’re mawkish idylls by painters largely obscure even to Germans and Austrians today. The best pictures are by Adolph von Menzel and Hans Makart, with whose early underappreciation Hitler perversely identified.

Time whitewashes evil, or not. Mr. Edsel expressed his opinion this week that more and more curios like Mr. Pistone’s album would surface now that the last surviving veterans are dying.

“Emotional value doesn’t transfer across generations,” is how he put it. “People don’t inherit passions.” One man’s private memento becomes another’s opportunity to sell something on eBay, notwithstanding that German and American authorities insist that artifacts like the Linz album are cultural property that shouldn’t be sold. Regardless, he meant that in the process of passing between generations, the object gains new life.

In a ceremony on Tuesday, Volume XIII was delivered to the German Historical Museum here, joining other Linz albums on display behind glass, like contaminated evidence. The jury is out over whether the “disproportionate amount of time and energy,” as the head of the Allied art-looting investigation unit put it after the war, that Hitler demanded go to amassing art, diverted German resources from the war effort, hastening its end, or the reverse — whether Hitler’s obsession with Linz, and with collecting generally, in some measure motivated him to press on.

Historians can thrash that out. Meanwhile, there are the 11 unaccounted-for albums. Presumably they’re still out there, like Sebald’s polished bones.
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