The human pain and suffering at the hands of Nazis - while well documented - is truly incalculable. Even 72 years after Hitler put a bullet in his own head, the depth and breadth of Nazi hatred and cruelty remain largely unimaginable.
Think about it…one crazed man convinced millions of Germans that virtually everything wrong in their lives was the fault of German Jews…and Jews living throughout Europe. Ultimately, ever-present Nazi propaganda led to the systematic killing of more than six million Jews, and the deaths of another 60 million human beings - 3% of the world’s population - during World War II.
The emotional wounds for tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors and their descendants remain as raw today as back then…and justice is - at best - only partially served. Shocking enough that so many families were split and lives were lost more than three generations ago…but for many the added insult of stolen possessions without restitution stings beyond any financial loss.
You see, Nazis stole more than 650,000 works of fine art worth tens - maybe hundreds - of billions of dollars from 1933 to 1945. The Nazi roofkunst - “looted art” - represents the largest art theft the world has ever known. Experts claim that when gold, silver, jewels, currency, furniture and historical artifacts are included…the looted items numbered into the millions. Beyond financial worth, for most heirs these pieces represent the last vestiges of murdered loved ones.
Of course, war has long been both a backstory and an excuse for plundering and looting…no doubt a grim reality since one tribe first attacked another ages ago. But the Nazis looted art before, during and even immediately after the war in a well organized, systematic effort planned by Hitler and carried out with precision by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering.
At the Nuremberg Trials in 1945 and 1946, Goering acknowledged to prosecutors in absurd understatement that, “During a war everybody loots a little bit.” Just to be clear, the fine art stolen from France alone filled more than 26,000 rail cars…a shade more than a little bit.
But if in your mind’s eye you are picturing Jack-Booted Nazis storming into homes and museums firing machine guns, you’re mostly wrong. The thefts were generally orderly, with typists and catalogue clerks, packers and movers. There was very little violence…at least not on the days of the thefts.
There has been progress...even early on. More than one million looted items were recovered by the so-called “Monuments Men” - a 345-member team formed from the military ranks of 14 Allied nations - just after the war. Actor/Director George Clooney even made a movie about their successes in 2014.
Unfortunately, the real “Monuments Men” were charged with returning art and looted items to the countries of origin…not the individuals or families who actually suffered the losses. All considered, more than 100,000 famous works of art remain missing…even though the whereabouts of many are known. More on that later.
Of course, no sane person says the Nazis’ theft of art - often extorted from Jews allowed to leave Germany and from the less fortunate shipped to death camps - was proper. The Nazis also looted many paintings and sculptures directly from museums in countries they occupied.
In the year following D-Day, the Allies discovered art in nearly 1,000 hideaways across Germany as they marched toward Berlin. But by the end of the war, even the looters were looted…with famous works of art passing from Nazis to unscrupulous profiteers…individuals, art dealers and gallery owners. Some art was simply hidden elsewhere - even in apartments -for decades. I remember touring a salt mine southeast of Salzburg, Austria in 1972 that hid a treasure trove of thousands of pieces of Nazi-looted art worth $3.5 Billion.
Nearly 700,000 fine art pieces have been returned to rightful owners or heirs through the efforts of thousands of people at dozens of organizations using databases and good detective work. These efforts changed international law and laws within individual nations. But, tens of thousands of paintings and sculptures remain in private collections and museums worldwide…with the owners claiming legal rights to them even though evidence proves them stolen.
The legalities of stolen art bought later in good-faith sales over the decades across many borders represent a spaghetti-like mess that often seems incomprehensible. While some individuals and museums have willingly returned pieces…often despite being unwitting dupes…such decisions of conscience are rare. The value of the art has risen astronomically…and no doubt so has the greed. Consider the artists of this looted artwork…Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall and Michelangelo, to name just a few.
But those searching for Nazi-looted art aren’t merely a few voices howling in the wilderness.
Some 44 nations signed the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and are using 11 international guidelines in order to find just and fair solutions.
Maria Altmann - an elderly Jewish woman who fled Vienna just before World War II - was eventually successful in recovering a Gustavo Klimt portrait of her aunt. “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” was among five paintings stolen by Nazis from her family. An Austrian arbitration panel ruled in Altmann’s favour and the paintings were returned, and eventually sold at auction for $325 Million, with the heirs using most of the proceeds to fund charitable causes. Once again, a movie, “Woman in Gold” in 2015 chronicled her fight for justice.
Tomorrow, in offices and in homes throughout the world, art lovers, lawyers, humanitarians and descendants of victims will scan auction websites and museum exhibits...cross indexing the offerings with lists of Nazi-stolen art. It is tedious work and a reminder of just how far-reaching evil can be…even decades after the events.
– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.