The theft of art, or cultural looting, has almost always been one of the staple by-products of genocide and genocidal regimes. From ancient times to modern conflicts (e.g., the war in the former Yugoslavia), the plunder of artworks and the willful destruction of a cultural heritage have been used by the victor as a supplementary means to conquer, annihilate, and humiliate the enemy. Not only do conquerors try to obliterate their enemies physically, but they also try to take possession of their victims' precious art objects, including those that express their identity thereby simultaneously stealing the soul, meaning, and cultural values of a people.
Such stealing and destruction have occurred in many modern instances of genocide, including the Armenian genocide, the Khmer Rouges in Cambodia, Native Americans in the United States and Latin America, the wars in former Yugoslavia, but Adolf Hitler and the Nazis carried out what can be considered the most important systematic, methodical, and ideologically organized art theft in history.
Hitler's genocidal policies led to the extermination of millions of people and the eradication of long-established cultures in large areas of Europe. In addition, the Nazi policy of destruction of the enemy included the theft of the private and religious art collections and libraries of Jews, Freemasons, political opponents, and Gypsies in the German-occupied countries of Europe during World War II. To reach their goals, the Nazis used modern methods taken from industrial society: preliminary spying and research, renowned art historians and experts, and highly trained assistants, photographers, and administrative personnel. To safeguard their acquisitions, they employed double-entry accounting and coded inventories, and used land and air transport to carry off their stolen goods.
The well-planned Nazi theft, executed mostly under the guise of "legal confiscations," was also an integral part of the entire genocidal process known as the Final Solution and the Holocaust. From 1939 to 1945, Hitler and the Nazis, using a well-knit network of informers and collaborationist art dealers in Germany and the occupied countries, collected hundreds of thousands of works of art and millions of books confiscated or forcibly purchased from museums, private collections, libraries, and religious institutions. At a conservative estimate, the thefts in Western Europe reached an astounding total of about 300,000 artworks and antiques, and more than two million books and manuscripts confiscated by Hitler's looting staff. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the Nazi program of art theft was not as well-organized, but it was more destructive.
Art theft acquired its surprisingly central importance under Nazism, mainly due to Hitler's personal interest in art. A mediocre painter as a youth, Hitler had, as a student, twice tried and failed the entrance examination to the School of Fine Arts in Vienna. In time he became an avid, though unskilled, art collector. His personal artistic taste was rigid, and he favored the Old Masters of Northern Europe—Dürer, Cranach, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Rubens, among others—that strongly enhanced and fit into his own political views on the superiority of Germanic culture. He also coveted the words of the Italian Renaissance Masters, such as Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci.
On the other hand, Hitler despised Picasso, Matisse, and the whole modern art school. In Mein Kampf, his autobiography, he ferociously attacked the degeneracy of modern art, considering Cubism, Futurism, and Dadaism to be the product of decadent twentieth-century society. After taking power in 1933, Hitler sold or destroyed the modern paintings found in Germany's state museums. He did not allow looted modern or degenerate artworks into Germany; instead, these were returned to the European art market in exchange for pieces that met the approval of Nazi ideology.
Hitler intended his thousands of newly, ill-gotten Old Masters and realistic paintings to form the central collection of a European Art Museum to be built in the Austrian city of Linz, where he had spent his childhood years. Other Nazi dignitaries, including Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and Foreign Affairs Minister von Ribbentrop, also took advantage of German conquests to increase their private art collections.
Among the wealthy occupied countries of Western Europe, France suffered the most from Nazi looting, not only because it was probably the richest in art, but also because French Jews were among the best and most important art dealers and collectors at the time. From 1940 to 1944, an astronomical 100,000 artworks—or one-third of all art in French private hands—were confiscated there.
Nazis understood art theft as a way to redress what they considered to be the wrongs of history against the German people. They perceived Jewish collectors as usurpers. The legal, moral, and political justifications for Nazi theft and looting are clearly explained in a statement of principles issued by the Berlin head of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiters Rosenberg (ERR), the organization in charge of the plunder of the cultural and artistic treasures of the Jews. This memorandum, published November 3, 1941, and written by Gerhard Utikal, the head of the ERR in Berlin, provides the reasons behind cultural looting in France:
The war against the Greater German Reich was incited by world Jewry and Freemasonry, which have provoked various states and European peoples into waging war against Germany. . . . The armistice with the French state and people does not extend to Jews in France . . . who are to be considered "a state within the state" and permanent enemies of the German Reich. . . . German reprisals against Jews are based on people's rights. . . . Jews have since ancient times, and following the dictates of Jewish law set forth in the Talmud, applied the principle that all non-Jews be considered cattle and therefore without rights, and that non-Jewish property be considered abandoned and ownerless.
The looting of cultural property was one of the main indictments introduced against Nazi dignitaries at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. It is also one of the war crimes under investigation at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, particularly with regard to Bosnia and the planned destruction of cultural and religious monuments of Muslim and Croats by Bosnian Serbs.
One of the primary ideological goals of genocidal regimes is to change the course of history; and the Nazis, in this sense, were no exception. By stealing—illegitimately transferring ownership—or destroying the art of their enemies, they tried to impose a homogeneous and restrictive cultural view of the world. Recent investigative work had brought to the fore of international public opinion the presence of thousands of Nazi-looted artworks in museums, auction houses, art galleries, and private collections in Europe, the United States, and Canada. Even though an important segment of the art world and art market has set numerous legal and administrative obstacles, in a few years' time, thousands of looted artworks have been returned to their rightful owners and heirs, stirring a world-wide ethical and juridical debate on the subject of the selling, acquisition, and possession of art stolen by the Nazis.
Feliciano, Hector. (1997). The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art. New York: Basic Books.
Hilberg, R. (1961). The Destruction of the European Jews. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.