War Art/Art War:
Controlling the Legacy of Nazi Modernism
The existence of a collection of 9,176 Nazi-era works of art formed by the U.S. Army in 1946 had long been suspected by journalists and scholars of fascism and the Third Reich. Mysterious as its origin is, elements of the German War Art Collection
have been featured in museum exhibitions, discussed in the mass media, and reproduced in books. But aside from a few familiar, frequently exhibited objects, such as Hubert Lanzinger’s Der Bannerträger
[The Flag Bearer
] (1936) (cover), which was discovered by U.S. personnel in the Führerbau [Führer Building] and moved to Munich’s Central Collecting Point in the Verwaltungsbau [Party Administration Building], where U.S. Army Air Force Captain Gordon Waverly Gilkey seized it in 1946, knowledge of the whereabouts, the full contents, and the provenance of this collection, the largest surviving remnant of Nazi visual arts culture, has eluded researchers for seventy years. Exhibited under its original title Führerbildnis
[Portrait of the Führer
at the 1937 Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung, Der Bannerträger
is one of the most frequently exhibited pieces in the Army Art Collection held at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. However, until the opening of the exhibition Kunst und Propaganda im Streit der Nationen, 1930–1945
[Art and Propaganda in the Conflict of Nations
] at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in January 2007, Lanzinger’s painting had not been reunited with works of art from the other branches of the German War Art Collection or with the NS-Reichsbesitz objects1
since its seizure by Gilkey. Of additional interest is the fact that Der Bannerträger
was one of only a handful of contemporary paintings selected for the Linzer Sammlung [Linz Collection], artworks associated with Adolf Hitler’s personal collecting activity.2
The importance of the German War Art Collection lies in its identity as a counter-archive, a counter-canon of works of art associated with alternate modes of representing “official” German visual arts culture in the twilight years of the Hitler regime. Through its representation of war by tropes and styles associated with modernism the Wehrmacht’s map of extreme violence and terror is transformed by Nazi aesthetics into a utopian landscape elevated above atrocity—a landscape cleansed of racial inferiors that was ultimately to be colonized by the German Volk. The creative space governed by military authority exerted a disinhibiting influence over the creative process and functioned as a geography of radical openness and catharsis and even a potential site of resistance to the more restrictive aesthetic norms governing the civilian arts scene in Nazi Germany. As the historian Norman Davies has put it, “Oddly enough, the front-line zone of maximum physical danger, under fire from the enemy, became a zone of psychological liberation,”3
which embraced armed combatants as well as combat artists.
Legal, commercial, and scholarly interest in the restitution of Holocaust-related cultural assets has mushroomed in the past few decades or more. Scholarship on the American treatment of German cultural property has focused on salvage and restitution efforts rather than the U.S. Army’s official art looting initiatives that functioned for two years in the American zone of occupation and targeted contemporary German art.4
Because the idea of American-sanctioned cultural theft contradicts the valiant and thoroughly Hollywoodized narrative (thanks to the 2014 film The Monuments Men
) of the U.S. Army’s rescue of art treasures looted by the Nazis in occupied Europe, scholars have previously not observed that the same Army unit that led the salvage and repatriation effort—the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Branch—was also responsible for the confiscation of contemporary German art. They did so both as perpetrators—in forming the collection known as the NS-Reichsbesitz—and as facilitators in the formation of the German War Art Collection by other Army staff. Until now no systematic investigation has been done on the confiscation orders that were issued in the early period of U.S. occupation—the same orders that played a significant role in constructing a sanitized history of twentieth-century art from which Nazi modernist works of art were excluded. Impounded and concealed from all but the most determined, the contents of the U.S. Army’s collection of Nazi art remained unexamined for more than 60 years. Such concealment, in turn, facilitated assessments of German art of the period in which works associated with the Führer’s collecting activity at the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellungen
predominated over all other kinds of art produced with Party or state patronage in Nazi Germany. The resulting master narrative could not help but be narrow, oversimplified, and incomplete.
Inspection of the two collections formed by the U.S. Army—the German War Art Collection and the NS-Reichsbesitz—was discouraged by their complex custodial history and obstructed by rivers of bureaucratic red tape. Indeed, before 2005 the German War Art Collection was divided into three depots administered by three separate institutions—the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History, which continues to retain 450 objects; the Bayerisches Armeemuseum in Ingolstadt, which maintained custody of the 7,100 paintings and works on paper which were repatriated to West Germany in 1986 until 2005; and the 1,626 objects returned to West Germany in 1951, which were in the trusteeship of the Bundesvermögensamt and stored in a facility in Karlshorst-Berlin also until 2005. As for the NS-Reichsbesitz, the collection of 775 paintings associated with Adolf Hitler, it was transferred in 1998 to the ownership of the Free State of Bavaria and to the custody of the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. Then, in 2005, matters were simplified enormously when the 1,626 objects in Karlshorst and the 7,100 objects in Ingolstadt were transferred to the Deutsches Historisches Museum “on permanent loan” from the Federal Republic of Germany.
Nonetheless, even armed with knowledge of the location of the objects, the reconstruction of their provenance has been complicated by the access policies of the Nazi art repositories, which, even for well-credentialed researchers, range from the remarkably hospitable to the capriciously Kafkaesque. Attempts at studying and then divulging the contents of both the German War Art Collection and the NS-Reichsbesitz collections have also been impeded by the disposition of related documents, few of which are housed in the expected and accessible confines of the U.S. National Archives or the German Bundesarchiv. Moreover, some archived sources were sealed until fairly recently (e.g., the Historisches Archiv of the Haus der Kunst), while others were cached in obscure locations lacking even the most basic facilities for conducting research. Still others, after their contents were studied and photographed by the author, were moved to unspecified locations where they might be lost to researchers forever. Thus, the task of deciphering the tangled provenance and stylistic heterogeneity of the German War Art Collection and the NS-Reichsbesitz required the invention of a forensic methodology that could be applied to the nearly 10,000 works of art excluded from any previous reckoning of cultural production during the Third Reich.
Documentation supplying the provenance of the 775 works forming the NS-Reichsbesitz is kept separate from the works themselves. Indeed, until the author was invited to inspect the Historisches Archiv of the Haus der Kunst (fig. 2), there was no evidence for the existence of any such documentation. The embarrassment of riches that was subsequently discovered will need some time to process, but a few glimpses of the trove of documents are offered here. For example, each artist who submitted works to the jury of any of the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellungen has a corresponding Künstlerkarte [artist card] on which is recorded his or her participation, such as the number and kind of works submitted for each year of the exhibition. In addition, with the onset of the American occupation and the opening of the Abwicklungsstelle [settlement office] of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst, which was tasked with seeing to the return of the thousands of art properties crowding the basement corridors of the Troost-designed building (fig. 3), the actions taken with respect to the aforementioned works are noted on each card. A representative example is the Künstlerkarte of Carl (Karl) Busch (fig. 4), who participated in all but two of the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellungen (1937 and 1943), the latter being the year of his assignment to the Wehrmacht’s Staffel der Bildenden Künstler. His distinctive fusion of post-impressionism and surrealism can be seen in the works seized for the German War Art Collection (fig. 5 and fig. 6). As we can see in a pre-war picture (fig. 7), Busch’s “degenerate” style was mobilized in his service as a member of the Staffel and was on display in Baldur von Schirach’s show of modernist art, Junge Kunst im Deutschen Reich.
Despite the challenges presented by the dispersal of provenance records in often unmapped, inaccessible locations, it was ultimately possible to compile a complete photographic record of the contents of the German War Art Collection and thousands of related documents, which provided the basis for this book. The importance of these previously unexamined materials lies in their ability to shatter two of the most enduring myths associated with Nazi Germany and its postwar occupation. The first myth to crumble upon contact with the evidence is that American occupation policy with respect to German cultural properties—unlike that of the Soviet Union—did not include officially sanctioned art looting, which the evidence clearly shows it did. The second and most enduring Nazi-era myth dispelled by the discovery of the German War Art Collection is that of the production of modernist art ceased with the wholesale purge of such works from German state collections in 1937. Anti-modernism was, of course, an axiomatic component of National Socialist ideology, and yet the Wehrmacht combat art confiscated by the American occupation army offers undeniable proof that modernist art was produced with the patronage of organs of the German state.
According to the master narrative of twentieth-century German art history, the opening of the Entartete Kunstausstellung on July 19, 1937 in Munich’s Hofgarten rang the death knell of the avantgarde and the creation of “authentic art” in Nazi Germany, which only resumed after the fall of the National Socialist regime. The following chapters will provide evidence not only for the survival of the creation of modernist art in Germany after 1937, but also that such modernist art was produced under the official patronage of Adolf Hitler, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, and other institutions and individuals with close ties to the Nazi Party and state. That the production of modernist art could have been sponsored by the very institution responsible for the bloody conquest and brutal occupation of Europe is not inconsistent with the crucial role played by violent imagery and militaristic rhetoric in other strands of modernism, such as Italian futurism and British vorticism. But until the contents of the German War Art Collection were thoroughly examined, the evidence was lacking to support such an apparently outlandish or counterintuitive concept as Nazi modernist art. Similarly, references to the transgressive nature of the Junge Kunst im Deutschen Reich exhibition have until now focused on the resulting contretemps. In Chapter 4 detailed analysis of the artists and objects is offered in order to suggest how an exhibition of modernist art could open in the Reich’s second largest city as late as 1943.
The German Wartime Art Project
After defeating Hitler’s armies on the battlefield, the victorious Allies were, of course, concerned to prevent any possible revival of National Socialism. Acknowledging this concern, the Potsdam Agreement signed by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union on August 1, 1945 signaled the intention of the occupying powers “to prevent all Nazi and militaristic activity or propaganda.”5
While this objective included the suppression of National Socialist media and politically compromised events, American authorities were alone, however, in officially designating contemporary German artworks as potentially dangerous instruments of a possible Nazi revival. Among the various attempts by the United States to control the cultural legacy of National Socialist Germany, none has influenced the history of German art in the twentieth century more but is as little known as the U.S. Army’s German Wartime Art Project. The brainchild of Colonel H.E. Potter, Chief of the U.S. Army’s Historical Division, United States Forces European Theater (USFET), based in Höchst, a suburb of Frankfurt am Main, the German Wartime Art Project came into being as the operations arm of the Historical Division that would implement Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall’s directive that German art throughout the American zone should be confiscated and shipped to Washington, D.C.: “[T]o provide for the collection, processing, preservation, and control of war paintings, photographs, maps, trophies, relics, and objects of actual or potential historical interest or value produced during the present war which are or may become the property of the War Department, an Historical Properties Section is established in the office of the Army Headquarters Commandant.”6
In quick succession, additional regulations were issued that gave German Wartime Art Project personnel a free hand to enter German homes and businesses in order to inspect private property, to interrogate occupants, and to impound works of art whose provenance or subject matter connected them to the Third Reich.
For example, an order issued on November 7, 1945 directed that a collection should be made “of all available paintings, watercolors, engravings, and drawings showing troop activities, views of battlefields, military installations, industrial or home front activities produced by German artists during the war.”7
In accordance with this edict, U.S. Military Government Regulations were revised to stipulate that “all collections of works of art relating or directed to the perpetuation of German militarism or Nazism [were to] be closed permanently and taken into custody.”8
To insure that all cultural property subject to seizure was, in fact, secured, the Military Government of Germany, United States zone, published Article I, Law No. 52, which decreed that “all property within the occupied territory owned or controlled directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, by [the German Reich] shall be subject to seizure of possession or title.”9
The U.S. Occupation Army’s definition of “property” included any and all assets in possession of the former Nazi German state, the NSDAP, and prominent office holders in and supporters of the regime. Thus endowed with sweeping powers, the U.S. Army laid claim both to looted art (so-called “aryanized” art properties) as well as propaganda materials and war art. The decision to repatriate artifacts with clear German, pre-Nazi era titles actually came much later, and only after a firestorm of criticism greeted the initial decision to ship 200 Old Masters paintings to the United States which had previously been housed in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Berlin after being salvaged in the Merkers salt mines by the Monuments Branch.10
It was in this politically charged atmosphere—and amid claims that the United States Army was behaving in a confiscatory manner that differed little from the Soviet Union’s trophy-hunting brigades—that U.S. Army Air Force Captain Gordon Waverly Gilkey, after failing in his ambition to be assigned as a Monuments Branch officer or an Army combat artist, arrived in Europe at the beginning of 1946 (fig. 8). Printmaker, educator, and collector, Gilkey is today best known as the founder of the Gordon W. and Vivian ...