Aurelie Filippetti, French Culture Minister
Hildebrand Gurlitt paid regular visits to German-occupied France within months of the arrival of German troops on parade along the Champs-Elysées. He consorted with dozens of art dealers who were only too willing to sell their paintings, works on paper, furniture and other cultural objects to covetous agents of German museums, institutes, galleries, agencies, dealers and collectors. Many of those sellers in happy Paris were also recycling art looted from countless Jews who had fled the capital so as to avoid capture, internment, and deportation. Most did, some could not, and the fates were sealed. Is that important to the Gurlitt Task Force? Or does it consider that there is no blood soaking the art that the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt possesses?
We do know that an invitation was issued to France for it to send at least one representative to the Gurlitt Task Force. But, as of now, France has not replied. Will it ever? Or is it too concerned about President Hollande’s growing harem? Or maybe the French government does not really care about what its own citizens did between June 1940 and August 1944 to a quarter million Jews and as many, if not more, men, women, and in some cases children who expressed their discontent with Vichy and the German occupation force? In the current atmosphere that plagues French citizens, the antisemitic, racist, and immigrant-hating National Front is expanding its reach amidst a disenchanted electorate, a not insignificant segment of France’s revered intellectual class shows its increasingly corrupt ways and cannot even think straight about what its recent history means for today and tomorrow, preferring to muddy the waters of antisemitism. We are not too surprised, therefore, if the current mood among French museum officials and government bureaucrats and cabinet members is simply to forget Vichy and to pretend that it is now just another “incident de parcours.” By the way, those very same French museum officials are not too happy with anyone asking questions about the provenance of many items in their collections that they hold sacred, as indelible pieces of the French cultural geist, organic components of the “patrimoine culturel de la nation.” An irrevocably untouchable part of France’s hallowed treasures.
Poor France! How easy it is to flush the truth down the proverbial toilet of selective amnesia!
Hildebrand Gurlitt was a major presence on the Paris art market, regardless of what one reads in historical monographs about Nazi art looting. That is the objective truth and the objective reality, however one wishes to measure it. One art dealer in Paris had a special room set aside where paintings were stored for Mr. Gurlitt to pick up, pay for, and have shipped to Germany. Mr. Gurlitt had regular customers throughout the Left Bank and the Right Bank—in those days, it did not matter where you shopped as long as there was someone willing to sell to you. Mr. Gurlitt is mentioned fairly regularly in postwar testimonials provided by Goering’s people like Walther Andreas Hofer, Gustav Rochlitz and others. Mr. Gurlitt was a significant player in the Nazi art trade. Period. Since the historical evidence is overwhelmingly compelling in this regard, why is no one doing anything to explain to the general public the true extent of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s reach into the fruits of Nazi plunder, starting from the purging of German State Collections, the hundreds of forced sales that brought to Mr. Gurlitt and his ilk truly fascinating and collectible works by German Expressionists, those “degenerates” so lovingly purged by Goebbels, himself a secret admirer of Expressionists, and his henchmen.
If one had to summarize Hildebrand Gurlitt, he was one of many dealers and eminent members of the German museum and gallery world who profited from the Nazi hypocrisy regarding modern art and the Nazi hierarchy’s lust for cultural assets that did not belong to it. More importantly, Hildebrand Gurlitt is the quintessential member of the cultural establishment in Axis-occupied Europe and the poster child for a postwar successful career in the arts and culture, both in Germany, but also in other parts of Europe and even in the United States and Latin America. How quickly everyone forgets especially when “Europe’s cultural treasures” are involved!
Hildebrand Gurlitt’s pedigree as a former museum director, gallery owner, and internationally known dealer, collector, and art specialist, made him nearly untouchable by the time Allied troops entered into Germany in spring of 1945 and liberated it from those Nazi scoundrels. Indeed, in the eyes of American conservative officials at the Departments of State and War, in the upper reaches of the American military, especially in the central office of the Occupied Military Government United States (OMGUS), he represented the future of a redeemed Germany, despite the fact that his best friends were all Nazi collaborators. He had Jewish blood, did he? So he said. God, that sounds vaguely “Aryan” in its resonance. A bit like other Nazis who had “Jewish friends” whom they protected and shielded from an inevitable fate. A cynical calculation to look like saints in an ocean of sinners…
Gurlitt, center, at the Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, Germany, 1949, completely rehabilitated by the Americans
Why does having a Jewish relative make you a saint or someone unlikely to do “bad things”? As Theodore Heinrich, the former director of the Wiesbaden Collecting Point and “Monuments Man extraordinaire”, argued when asked about how he vetted “bad” Germans from “good” Germans, if a German art official was not a member of the Nazi Party and had a Jewish relative in the family, he had to be acceptable. No questions asked, please. Otherwise, you’ll insult the poor man, he’s suffered enough, hasn’t he? In the name of Kultur!!!
That’s how easy it was to get a clearance with the American cultural advisory group known as “Monuments Men.”
Let’s not get lost here.
As the French so lovingly say it, Hildebrand Gurlitt refashioned himself a whole new virginity—il s’est refait une virginité. Like a savvy marketing guy who knows his brand better than anyone else, he knew how to sell himself and to whom he should address himself, whose protection he should seek and… voila. Guess who fell for it? American and British art connoisseurs, those heroes who waltzed into cities and towns ravaged by twelve years of racially-motivated dictatorial follies, many of them almost razed to ground level. From the cultural side, many museums barely kept their walls standing, those very museums that the American and British art connoisseurs were tasked to put back together, reopen and restock with “Europe’s cultural treasures.” Most of those treasures were safe and sound deep inside mine shafts and in the cellars of countless castles that were not bombed. Of course, there always are exceptions like that poor castle at Nikolsburg, in today’s Czech Republic. But again, it was an exception. German museums recovered most of their goodies, except for those that were stored in eastern portions of the Reich which Soviet troops overran.
Basically, unless you had blood on your hands and you gave the Nazi salute every five minutes, you were likely to get a job with the American cultural advisory group in the US zone of occupation in Germany … as an expert! Obviously you were an expert since you were directly involved in partaking in the recycling of loot all parts of the Reich for close to a decade! Priceless experience!! If I had been a Monuments Man, why, I would have hired folks like Hildebrand right there, on the spot!! Made my job a lot easier, believe me, and, best of all, he could point me to all of his other expert buddies so that we could ask them for their expert opinions. How much fun was that! Why waste time looking for a pedigreed anti-Nazi art specialist.
Stay tuned for Part Two…
or go see “The Monuments Men” for some serious entertainment. "Inglorious Bastards" revisited, as Clooney promises a rapt potential audience?