Tag Archives: Joseph Goebbels

Stand By Your Nazi Man

 

James Wyllie, Nazi Wives:

The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany (St Martin’s, Press) 

With the proliferation of literature about seemingly every aspect of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime, women have hardly been overlooked.  One of the leading works is Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, a nuanced study of women who joined the Nazi cause and in surprising numbers abetted willingly and enthusiastically the Holocaust, the Nazi project to exterminate Europe’s Jews (reviewed here in 2016).  But according to freelance British journalist and screenwriter James Wyllie, there has never been an in-depth study of the wives of the most notorious Nazis,  a gap he seeks to fill in Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany.  The absence of a serious study of the top Nazi wives, Wyllie contends, bolsters the claim made after World War II that they were helpless bystanders as the Nazi terror unfolded.  Wyllie seeks to refute this claim.  A close look at the women who married the leading Nazis also yields important insights into the nature of Nazi rule and the psychology of its leaders, he argues.

In Nazi Germany, the ideal woman was above all expected to be a child bearer, adding to the stock of the master Aryan race, while remaining compliant and subservient to her  husband.  Although supporting the goals and aspirations of the Third Reich, the Nazi woman was to be largely apolitical, with the serious questions of politics reserved for the men.  Concentrating on six women, Wyllie aims to demonstrate how the wives of Nazi leaders adhered in varying degrees to these standards, yet used their positions near the top of the party hierarchy to involve themselves, directly or indirectly, in the Nazi project.

Wyllie profiles: Isle Hess, wife of Rudolf Hess, Adolph Hitler’s chief deputy until he flew a solo mission to Scotland in 1941 in an attempt to negotiate peace with Great Britain; Magda Goebbels, married to chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels; Margaret Himmler, wife of Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzsaffell, the SS, the German paramilitary security unit, and a chief architect and implementer of the Holocaust; Gerda Bormann, whose husband Martin served as Hitler’s private secretary; Emmy Goering, second wife of Hermann Goering, commander-in-chief of the German Air Force, the Lutwaffe; and Lina Heydrich, married to Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s chief deputy in the SS who shared responsibility for design and implementation of the Holocaust and served as administrator of annexed Czechoslovakia until assassinated in Prague in 1942.  Also featured are Goering’s Swedish first wife Carin, perhaps the most fanatical Nazi among the women depicted in the book, who died early in her husband’s career; and Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress who became his wife 36 hours before both took their own lives in a Berlin bunker as the Red Army moved in on the shattered capital.

Wyllie has amassed an impressive amount of information about these women, arranged in rough chronological order against the backdrop of familiar events, beginning with the Nazis’ rise from obscurity to power in post-World War I Germany, through their defeat in 1945, and ending in the early post-World War II era.  He goes into strikingly intimate detail: how they met their husbands, in some cases when the couple first had sex together, how their marriages functioned and malfunctioned, how they squabbled among themselves, and the children each couple reared.

The six women came from similar backgrounds.  All were reasonably well educated, raised in conservative middle-class families, Catholic and Protestant.  They were inculcated with what Wyllie describes as a sense of “strident patriotism” (p.10), based on a belief in the superiority of German culture, a hatred of socialism and a “fear that the unruly masses would devour them” (p.10).  They came of age in the “profoundly insecure and volatile circumstances” of post-World War I Germany.  “Old certainties were gone,” writes Wyllie. “The civilized conventions of their parents’ generation appeared increasingly irrelevant.  Cut adrift, they each gravitated towards a self-styled savior who promised the world” (p.11).

That savior was of course Adolph Hitler, the Führer.  In a study of women, Hitler is unavoidably the book’s core character.  Each of the women Wyllie portrays had a different relationship to the Führer, but all were able to “enjoy their many privileges and their gilded lifestyles because Hitler allowed them to(p.264-65).  Consequently, Wyllie   probes each woman’s relationship to Hitler.  “Any power the top Nazi wives had was entirely dependent on his goodwill,” he asserts.  “One false move was enough to ruin them; Hitler could reduce them to nothing with the wave of his hand”  (p.265).

But Wyllie also probes the women’s relationship to the Nazi regime, examining their ideological side, their anti-Semitism, and the degree to which they were aware of the gruesome details of the Nazi project.   After the Nazi defeat, none who survived evinced  willingness to accept responsibility for the havoc and destruction their husbands had wreaked upon Germany and Europe.  But these weighty questions are relegated mostly to the final chapters and seem secondary to the mundane and sometimes prurient details of the women’s personal lives.

** *

Hitler abstained from marriage and a normal family life because he considered himself married to the German people, the reason his relationship with Eva Braun was kept under wraps and largely out of public view (long-standing readers of this blog will recall my 2013 review  of two biographies of Braun).  When off duty, the Führer preferred the company of women and took great interest in the top Nazi wives, an interest “bound up with his need for an extended family” (p.264).  He was “more relaxed and comfortable in the company of women, as long as they openly and unconditionally adored him, didn’t discuss politics and conformed to the stereotypes he found attractive” (p.265).

When necessary, the Führer played the role of matchmaker and marriage counselor for his extended family.  Hitler coaxed Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess into popping the question with an impatient Isle Pröhl.  Isle had been involved with the procrastinating Hess for more than seven years, in a relationship Wyllie describes as sexless, held together primarily by the couple’s “unquestioning enthusiasm for Hitler’s poisonous ideology” (p.18).  The couple married in a small civil ceremony in December 1927, with Hitler serving as a witness.

The Führer took a different route to coax Magda Quant into marriage with his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels.  Magda, “sophisticated, multilingual, well-travelled, elegant, poised, at ease in elevated company and never short of male admirers” (p.43), had been married and was divorced when she first met Joseph while working in his propaganda department.  From the beginning it was a volatile relationship, in no small measure because Joseph rejected monogamy as an “outdated bourgeois convention” and “made no secret of his own insatiable sexual appetite” (p.50), yet could not abide the thought of Magda with another man.

Hitler at least fantasized about having a clandestine affair with Magda and concluded that he might enhance his seductive fantasy if she were married.  Magda, no doubt infatuated with the Führer, appeared willing to enter a triangular relationship that would involve marrying the chief Nazi propagandist.  We don’t learn whether Hitler’s interest in Magda ever progressed beyond fantasy, but Magda and Joseph married in 1931, with Hitler again serving as a witness.

When Joseph’s affair with a Czech actress took the couple to the cusp of divorce, the Führer intervened, bringing the couple together at his mountain retreat, the Berghof, where he made “brutally clear” (p.192) that they would have to mend their marriage and Joseph would have to stop seeing his Czech paramour; otherwise, both would lose their exalted places in the Nazi hierarchy.  The couple got the message and stayed together.  Their marriage produced six children, all of whom they infamously killed before themselves committing suicide in the final days of the Third Reich.

Magda Goebbels appears to have been the only one of the six Nazi wives who did not genuinely love and admire her husband. But she was hardly the only one whose marriage was tested by her husband’s extramarital affairs. Margaret Boden, a Red Cross nurse, married SS chief Heinrich Himmler, eight years younger.  After having a daughter and adopting a son together, her dour husband fell in love with his twenty-six-year-old secretary, Hedwig.  She and the SS chief had two children together.  Although Heinrich spent most of his spare time with Hedwig and his new family, he regularly wrote tender love letters to Margaret and delivered presents to her and their children.  At Christmas 1944, with the Nazi war machine in full retreat, Margaret expressed in her diary how proud she was that “all of Germany” (p.218) looked up to her husband.

Gerda Buch, daughter of Walter Buch, a high-ranking military officer in World War I who fell under Hitler’s spell in the aftermath of the war, met Hitler when she was a teenager and called him “Uncle Adolf.”   From an early age, Gerda “lived and breathed Hitler’s ideology.  It was second nature to her” (p.266).  Through her father, Gerda met Martin Borman, who surely calculated that an “association with the daughter of such a prominent Nazi could only smooth his passage through the ranks of the party” (p.40). When the couple wed, Hitler and Hess served as witnesses.

Gerda, Wyllie’s nomination for the  wife who adhered most closely to ideal Nazi feminine standards, had seven children with Martin, even while her husband pursued liaisons with multiple women during the couple’s married life and probably abused his wife physically.  Gerda didn’t fight back, didn’t seek help, and didn’t confide in anyone else.  She believed it was her duty to obey her husband, and “there’s every indication that she was truly devoted to Bormann” (p.96-97).

Gerda also befriended Himmler’s mistress Hedwig.  That Himmler was married to another woman was in Gerda’s view the natural way men were, the “healthy expression of a man’s biological need to reproduce” (p.202).  She had the same attitude toward her husband and his serial extra-marital affairs. When Martin departed from his usual habit of short stands by falling for an actress—one who had previously rejected Goebbels’ advances—Gerda was oddly unopposed to the affair.  She seems to have conceived of a ménage-à-trois where the two women would produce children for Martin, thereby contributing to Germany’s efforts to increase its sagging national birthrate.

* * *

The Nazi leadership was notorious for its infighting, bureaucratic rivalries, and sharp competition for the Führer’s favor.  It is thus no surprise that sharp competition also marked many of the relationships between the wives of the top leadership.  The Nazi wives competed continually for the informal moniker of “First Lady” of Nazi Germany, a contest to which Wyllie returns repeatedly.  Eva Braun, although recognized as the alter ego of the Führer among the women at the Berghof, was kept under wraps and never part of the competition (Braun was nevertheless often quite assertive among the women at the Berghof).  Once the Nazis seized power in 1933, Magda Goebbels was the obvious candidate to assume this public role.  She gave the first Nazi Mother’s Day address via national radio, and, with her husband and their children, was constantly photographed as the “perfect Nazi family” (p.75).

But the Goebbels’ marital difficulties left Magda open to competition from Emmy Goering, Herman’s second wife and an accomplished actress.  While all the Nazi wives lived well during the 1930s and most of the war years, the Goerings were in a class by themselves for  unabashed opulence.   Their vast estate, known as “Carinhall” after the deceased Carin, dwarfed the accommodations of the other top Nazis.  The couple’s lavish lifestyle attracted much public attention.  For a while during the mid-1930s, Emmy and Herman became the Nazis’ “first couple” (p.80).

But if Emmy’s increasingly high profile was a “direct challenge to Magda’s status as the First Lady of the Reich” (p.75), Magda was able to hold on to her title because Hitler never warmed to Emmy.  Among the top wives, she was the “least interested in Nazism” (p.267).  Hitler didn’t disparage or criticize her, but he was “never relaxed around her either,” Wyllie indicates. “There was none of the intimacy or the meeting of minds that he experienced with Magda” (p.84-85).

The fiercest rivalry was between Lina Heydrich and Margaret Himmler, whose husbands forged a surprisingly close working relationship as top SS brass until Reinhard was assassinated in Prague in 1942, leaving Lina a widow.  Before her husband’s death, Lina yearned to be the most influential SS wife, a position Margaret held by virtue of her husband’s lead role in the SS.  Lina “couldn’t bear playing second fiddle to a woman for whom she had nothing but contempt.  Lina thought Margaret was inferior to her in every way and never missed an opportunity to ruthlessly put her down” (p.113).  She sabotaged Margaret’s efforts to host regular tea parties for SS wives.  Margaret, less outspoken than Lina, sought to have her husband tell Lina’s husband that he should divorce Lina.

But for all the energy the two women expended sniping at one another, Wyllie describes both as “snobs” who “looked down their noses at most of humanity” (p.266).  Moreover, the two women shared a fervent anti-Semitism.  Margaret, visiting the Eastern Front, reacted to the “Jew trash” she saw — “most of them don’t even look like human beings” (p.169).    As a young woman, Lina loathed the Polish Jews who had settled in her Baltic fishing village: “to her, they were like an alien species.” Later, when she lived on an estate outside Prague, according to one of the estate’s Jewish prisoners, she “spat at her workers, calling them ‘Jewish pig[s]’” (p.209).

* * *

All but Magda Goebbels survived the war and each found herself alone in the post war era.  Along with Joseph Goebbels, Himmler and Goering took their own lives, and Bormann likely did the same.  Hess remained imprisoned until his death in 1987.  Although the Allies’ post-war justice system treated the women lightly, all engaged in denial and deception over their roles and those of their husbands in the Nazi project.  Margaret Himmler told an American journalist she had seen press coverage about the death camps and “knew her husband would be blamed.”  She told the journalist she was “just a woman” who “did not understand politics” (p.245).

Lina Heydrich wrote a book, candid and in its own way “disarmingly honest” (p.253).  She was unapologetic about the ideological convictions she shared with her husband, and shameless about their racism, while downplaying her husband’s direct involvement in the Holocaust.  Lina was obsessed by the idea that her husband was being treated “unfairly by posterity.”  He was being judged harshly for acts he considered an “unavoidable political necessity,” as she put it.  It was all too easy to condemn the “decisions of those times from today’s warm bed” (p.252), Lina wrote.

Emmy Goering wrote a spirited a defense of her husband, My Life with Goering, which avoided the issues that had marked her husband’s career.  Hermann’s  only crime had been loyalty to Hitler, she contended.  A woman in love “thinks only of her partner’s success, and it is of little importance to her how he obtains it” (p.261).  But among the top Nazi wives, Emmy came closest to expressing an iota of remorse about what the Nazis had done and the extent to which she and her husband may have been responsible.

“I often wonder now,” Emmy wrote, if we should not have been “a little more vigilant and when we saw injustices being done, if we should not have put up stronger resistance, especially to Hitler over the Jewish question” (p.261).   Wyllie characterizes Emmy’s uneasiness as “willful blindness,” which was “not accidental” but rather “typical of many Germans who benefited from the regime and preferred to ignore its brutal excesses and look the other way, rationalizing their lack of resistance and passive complicity” (p.267).  In an account heavy on the minutiae of the personal lives of the top Nazi wives, “willful blindness” may be the most apt common denominator tying those lives together.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 7, 2021

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under German History

Father and Son and Nazi Art

 

Mary Lane, Hitler’s Last Hostages:

Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich

(PublicAffairs)

In November 2013, Mary Lane, chief European art correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and all of 26 years old, was in New York to attend an art auction at Christie’s when her editor called and asked her to fly to Berlin immediately to cover a breaking story: a German magazine, Focus, had just revealed that nearly a year earlier a trove of approximately 1,200 artworks ostensibly stolen by Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime, including works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, and Henri Matisse, had been discovered by German authorities in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, a reclusive octogenarian, in the course of a tax investigation.  If authentic, the works were clearly worth several million dollars.

Lane got her story out that November, then spent the next several years looking into the story behind the story.  The result is Hitler’s Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich, which lays out how Cornelius’ father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, had amassed these and other paintings (along with some sculptures, woodcuts and etchings) while working on the  Adolph Hitler’s obsessional dream of the Führermuseum, a museum to be built near his birthplace in Linz, Austria, to showcase the art which the Nazis had stolen from museums, galleries, and private collections across Europe.  The Gurlitt case is intriguing, as Lane amply demonstrates, but hardly singular.  The Nazis stole a staggering amount of artwork during their murderous twelve years in power.

What Lane terms the “largest art heist in history” (p.122) includes approximately 600,000 paintings stolen from Jews alone, at least 100,000 of which are still missing, according to Stuart Eizenstat, United States  State Department expert advisor for Holocaust issues.  Eizenstat characterized the looting as “not only designed to enrich the Third Reich, but also an integral part of the Nazi goal of eliminating all vestiges of Jewish identity and culture.”  Eizenstat was the primary negotiator of the “Washington Principles,” a set of terms agreed upon in December 1998 by 44 countries, including Germany, Switzerland and Austria, to facilitate the return of Nazi-confiscated artworks to their lawful owners or compensate them.  The principles were more moral commitments than legal constraints, to be implemented within each country’s legal framework.   Since the principles were adopted, efforts to restore confiscated artworks to their rightful owners or their families have intensified.  Yet one of Lane’s most startling discoveries was that in the Gurlitt case Germany demonstrated a surprisingly tepid commitment to the Washington Principles.

Lane seeks to place the father-and-son Gurlitt case within the broader context of how art figured into the racist ideology of the Nazi regime.  She provides much biographical information on Hitler’s youth and especially his artistic pretensions prior to World War I — her first full chapter for example, is entitled “Portrait of the Dictator as a Young Man.”   Hitler was “genuinely obsessed with art” (p.7), she observes at the outset, considering himself an artist first and a politician second.

In elaborating upon how integral art was to the overall Nazi project, Lane emphasizes the role that Hitler’s sycophantic propagandist Joseph Goebbels played in prioritizing Hitler’s vision of what he termed “Aryan art” and ridding Europe of its opposite, “degenerate art.”  These terms were never satisfactorily defined, but in the Nazis’ binary world, Aryan art tended toward romantic landscapes, classical nudes and depictions of the heroic endeavors of the German people, whereas “degenerate art” usually referred to contemporary works, works that contained unpatriotic or overtly sexual themes, or were produced by Jewish artists – and often a mixture of these factors.   Lane adds specificity to her story by tracing the fate of two confiscated paintings that were discovered in Cornelius’ possession in 2012 and the effort thereafter to return them to their rightful owners: German Jewish impressionist Max Liebermann’s 1921 Two Riders on the Beach, inspired by the equestrian paintings of Edgar Degas; and Henri Matisse’s Woman With a Fan, a 1901 portrait of a “creamy-skinned brunette with a flowered blouse waving a fan to ward off the summer heat “ (p.159).

Lane also takes an unusually long look at George Grosz, a contemporary of Hitler who like the future Führer served in World War I and gained prominence – or notoriety – through his brutal depictions of the war’s realities.  After the war, Grosz was identified with the Dada art movement, which portrayed the follies of war in satirical and often non-nonsensical images.  He further burnished his reputation with his graphic sexual representations.  Grosz  became an outspoken and highly visible opponent of Hitler and his party.  To the Nazis, he represented degenerate art at its most degenerate.  After Grosz fled to the United States in 1933, some of his paintings wound up in the Gurlitt trove.

At times, Grosz seems to be the main protagonist of Lane’s story.  She devotes extensive portions of her book to him presumptively to demonstrate what principled artistic opposition to Hitler entailed.  But the Grosz sections are not an easy fit with the rest of her narrative.  The Gurlitt case, only about one half of this volume, is easily the most compelling half.

* * *

Hildebrand Gurlitt was born in 1895 in Dresden, and grew up in an artistic milieu. His father was a respected art historian whose tastes favored contemporary artists rather than old masters.  Hildebrand’s  maternal grandmother was Jewish, making him vulnerable when the Nazis came to power in 1933.  In the 1920s, Gurlitt became the director of a small-town museum where he promoted contemporary art and numerous Jewish artists, while engaging simultaneously in the ethically dubious practice of brokering sales.  He then moved to head the Hamburg Art Association, but was fired from the position shortly after the Nazis came to power, both because his preference for avant-garde art clashed with the Nazis’ artistic tastes and because he refused to fly the Nazi flag outside the Association’s building.

As the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism increased, Gurlitt realized that as a one quarter Jew who was no fan of the Nazis, he had to “leave the country, join the resistance, retreat into obscurity, or collaborate with the Nazis” (p.127).  Gurlitt chose the last option, becoming in 1938 one of four officially designated art dealers authorized to help liquidate confiscated Nazi artworks to support the Führermuseum project.  Hitler and Goebbels envisioned financing the project by seizing paintings and other artworks from galleries and museums across the country — and, later, in countries they planned to conquer — and destroying most “degenerate” pieces but selectively selling others across the continent to increase their foreign currency reserves to finance their war efforts.

Gurlitt used his extensive international connections to put together deals for the acquisition of works for the Führermuseum, many of which took place in France and the Netherlands after the Nazis occupied those countries.  Gurlitt generally returned to the government much of what he realized from his sales, but was allowed to keep a commission.   He also retained a portion of the works on the side for his personal “collection.”  With few exceptions, Gurlitt destroyed the paperwork.  As the Nazis faltered on the battlefield after their defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943, Hitler remained obsessed with the Führermuseum and Gurlitt forged ahead with acquisitions for the museum – and for himself.

Toward the end of 1943 or in early 1944, Gurlitt personally retained several stunning paintings by respected old masters, including a luminous work from the 1630s by Jan Brueghel the Younger of Dutch villagers welcoming home sailors.  He also consummated a huge art deal in Paris just before it was liberated in August 1944, acquiring works by many of the most significant names in modern French art, among them Degas, Manet, Pissaro, Renoir, and Courbet.  The deal included paintings and sculptures, but also woodcuts, lithographs and etchings.  The latter were easier to transport and “particularly difficult to trace as artists usually produced them in limited editions” (p.167).

If Gurlitt paid something for these and other artworks, it was a fraction of their  true value, and the money probably did not reach the genuine owners.  Overall, Gurlitt acquired approximately 3,800 pieces for the Fühermuseum project, making a small fortune in commissions for himself in the process, all the while acquiring works for his own collection.  It is “inconceivable,” Lane observes, that “on his salary Gurlitt could have acquired the more than 1,000 artworks he obtained during the war were it not for the dirty money he took in exchange for working as a high-ranking member of Hitler’s Führermuseum Project” (p.163).

In 1945, the year of the Nazi capitulation, Gurlitt moved most of his works to a private collection outside Dresden, his home city, and later to a manor 250 miles away in southwest Germany.  From there, he began a five year cat-and-mouse game with the “Monuments Men,” a group of about 400 art experts from Allied nations, formed in 1943 to protect art and other culturally significant artifacts in the event of an Allied victory.  In the post-war period, the Monuments Men were charged with finding and recovering artworks stolen by the Nazis (part of what was officially known as the “Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program,” the Monuments Men were celebrated in an eponymous 2014 film that starred George Clooney and Matt Damon).   Coming from many countries, the Monuments Men often did not speak a common language and never had the resources needed to accomplish their objectives.  Gurlitt bet his future and his art trove on telling them “calculated lies” for which they would have “insufficient resources to fact-check or rebut” (p.183).

Gurlitt won the bet.  The Monuments Men focused more on Gurlitt’s boss on the Führermuseum project, Hermann Voss, but eventually turned to him.  They questioned him seriously enough that he ended up giving up approximately 7% of his stock, falsely claiming that it represented his entire collection.  In late 1950, the Monuments Men returned the 7% to Gurlitt, which included Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach.   At some point in the post-war period, Gurliit also acquired Matisse’s Woman With a Fan, which the Nazis had looted from the renowned Parisian gallery of Paul Rosenberg, a personal friend of Pablo Picasso.   After Rosenberg fled Paris for the United States in 1940, the Nazis turned the gallery into the “Institute for the Study of Jewish Questions.”

* * *

Hildebrand Gurlitt died in an automobile crash on the Autobahn in November 1956, the point at which Lane’s focus turns to son Cornelius, 24 at the time of his father’s death.   Hildebrand’s estate provided Cornelius  with a comfortable inheritance, and from that point onward he determined that he would not work.  But he discretly sold  some of the works his father had retained on the grey market, dealing most frequently with Galerie Kornfeld in Bern, Switzerland.  In 1960, Cornelius moved into a huge house in Salzburg, and took with him 250 of his father’s most precious items, including works by Picasso, Munch, and Kandinsky.  His mother died in 1968 and he and his younger sister Betina had a falling out, after which  the increasingly isolated Cornelius began to manifest symptoms of severe paranoia.

By September 2011, German tax authorities suspected that Cornelius had been selling art without meeting reporting requirements.  In February 2012, the authorities obtained a warrant to enter Cornelius’s Munich apartment and ended up seizing all that he had hoarded there, approximately 1,2000 artworks.  German authorities did not disclose the confiscation to the international community, as the Washington Principles prescribed.  The German Government did commission a task force to evaluate the works, but only for tax purposes, not whether they might constitute confiscated art.  Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to make any public statement on the matter, not even an acknowledgement of the need for Germany to increase its efforts to restitute Nazi-confiscated art.  To Lane, it looked like the German government simply wanted to hide this discovery from world attention.

Cornelius, for his part, remained defiant. He gave an interview to Der Spiegel in which he defended his father, denying that he had been complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime, and further denying that either he or his father had dealt in confiscated  art.  His father had been a hero for saving art from destruction, Cornelius contended.   Protected by a statute of limitations that had run in 1970, he went on to say that even if clear proof of prior ownership were presented, he had no intention of returning the works.  With the war 70 years in the past, it was time for families with claims to such works to “simply move on” (p.226).   And he chastised the government for invading his property and privacy, without charging him of a crime.

When German art experts suggested that he donate the works to a museum, Cornelius, then gravely ill, came up with a more cunning idea.  While hospitalized in January 2014, he signed a secret will that bequeathed his entire collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern in the Swiss capital.  But later that year, as he literally lay dying, he had a change of heart, in Lane’s view the result of contemplating the adverse effect which publicity about his case had had on his family name.  Cornelius signed an agreement in which the government dropped its tax investigation and stipulated to a one-year research period during which the state would have access to all paintings in his collection.  Shortly thereafter, in May 2014, Cornelius died at age 82.

After Cornelius’s death, his lawyers, the Kunstmuseum Bern and the German government formalized a deal his whereby the government would conduct research into the provenance of each work and return any looted pieces to the rightful heirs, if they could be located.  The remainder would belong exclusively to the museum. The families of the original owners of Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach and Matisse’s Woman with a Fan, were easily identified.  Both families were by then Jewish-American, living in New York City, and each presented unimpeachable documentation of lawful ownership.

Marianne Rosenberg, the granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg, had actively pursued the Matisse painting with her father, Paul’s son Alexandre, who died in 1987.  The Rosenbergs elected to keep the painting, one of the most valuable in the Gurlitt trove.  Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach belonged to the family of Holocaust survivor David Toren, then approaching age 90.  Less wealthy than the Rosenberg family, the Torens sold Liebermann’s work on auction.  Their long pursuit of the painting was by then well-publicized, and the family was more than surprised that the final price came to nearly five times its conservative initial estimate.  Recovery of the painting for the Toren family constituted a “further step in the long process of coping with the pain that Hitler had inflicted on millions of people,” Lane writes, and provided the family with a “certain sense of emotional closure regarding their fraught past” (p.256).   Lane does not indicate whether any additional works in the Gurlitt trove were returned to rightful owners.

* * *

In an Epilogue, Lane discusses an October 2018 exhibition in Berlin that featured 200 works from the Gurlitt trove, most by artists whom Hitler had labeled degenerate, including several Grosz street scenes.  German Culture Minister Monika Grütters made the opening remarks at the exhibition, noting how Germany had made progress in establishing institutions to deal with looted Nazi art.  But she never acknowledged that Germany had made any errors in how it had handled the Gurlitt case.  Nor did Minister Grütters address why the German government, by hiding the existence of the trove for more than a year, had “obstructed the very investigation into the art works that she now claimed to advocate” (p. 61).

By that time, moreover, Lane goes on to note, no high level German official had publicly backed the enactment of legislation, such as amending the statute of limitations, that would prevent a “future Gurlitt” from admitting to hiding Nazi-looted artworks while flaunting how the law protected him over the victims from whom the works had been stolen.  Lane’s answer to the question whether Germany had learned enough in the case she so  thoroughly investigated to prevent future Gurlitts  is a “resounding ‘no’” (p.266).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 5, 2020

 

10 Comments

Filed under Art, European History, German History, History

Discovering Humanistic Culture in the Land of Hitler and Himmler

Fest.1

Fest.2

Joachim Fest, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood,
translated by Martin Chalmers

      It is nearly impossible to reflect upon the Nazi period in Germany without asking how this exceptionally cultured country could sink to such unprecedented levels of barbarity.  This reflection upon what might be termed Germany’s “duality” – the land of Beethoven and Bach, Goethe and Schiller becoming the land of Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels — is so commonplace as to be a platitude.  But it is also the main thread tying together Joachim Fest’s engaging memoir, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, recently translated into English.  Fest, born in Germany in 1926, went on after World War II to become a respected historian, one of a handful of Germans who wrote openly about his country’s descent into barbarity during the Nazi period.  His works include a biography of Adolf Hitler and books about Albert Speer and the German resistance to Nazism.  Fest was 7 years old when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and was old enough in 1944, at age 18, to serve in the Nazi military.  Fest died in 2006.

      The duality of the Germany which Fest describes proved fatal to many of his family’s Jewish friends, whose faith in the humanism of German culture blinded them to the true nature of the Nazi regime until it was too late. They had “believed all too unreservedly in reason, in Goethe, Kant, Mozart and the whole tradition which came from that” (p.261), Fest writes. But this duality is also at work throughout Fest’s memoir in his more mundane descriptions of everyday childhood life in Nazi Germany where, within the rigidly controlled and aggresively anti-intellectual Nazi environment, young Joachim discovered humanistic German culture.

* * *

       Fest describes his German childhood world, with the Nazis in firm control by his 7th birthday in 1933, as “utterly political,” where “[m]any conversations and almost all personal decisions were made with an eye to the prevailing situation.” Yet, the “traditional rules of upbringing still applied, in our home perhaps even a little more than elsewhere” (p.76), in large measure because of the structured home environment which Fest’s parents provided.  Fest’s father Johannes dominates the first half of the memoir, the author’s childhood years, then recedes to the background but remains a forceful influence as the author reaches adolescence and early adulthood, which he spent in boarding school and the German military.

     The senior Fest possessed an “authority which was never challenged, still less doubted” within the Fest family, where “fragments of this elevated image increasingly asserted themselves, in the face of all childish and later all adolescent resistance” (p.29). The “Not I” portion of the memoir’s title were words which Johannes dictated to his children, in Latin – etiam si omnes, ego non – “even if everyone else, not I,” from St. Matthew’s gospel, to remind them of the family’s resolute opposition to the Nazi regime.  As young Joachim moved through his childhood years, his father served as the lens with which the son came to view the regime.

      Johannes was from a staunch Prussian Catholic family yet, unusually, also strongly supported the Weimar Republic, Germany’s beleaguered post World War I experiment in parliamentary democracy. “If Prussia and republicanism were not easily reconciled,” Fest writes of his father, “then the contradiction was further sharpened by my father’s strict Catholicism. He was a pious man, who accounted to the ‘Lord God’ (as he usually put it in this context) for each of his private or political decisions” (p.16).  Joannes never wavered in his conviction that a “human being without faith was ‘incomplete.’ Neither reason nor walking upright separated him from the apes; the difference between the two lay in the need for a Beyond” (p.112).

      Professionally, the senior Fest was an erudite primary school headmaster who lost his job during Hitler’s first year in power. Unwilling to join the party and pledge allegiance to the new regime, which he repeatedly termed a “band of criminals,” the author’s father was informed that his “public speeches disparaging the Führer” were the reason for his dismissal (p.35). When handed his dismissal papers, Fest’s father reminded the Nazi bureaucrat in charge that he was a civil servant entitled to certain protections. “You can tell our Führer that. He’ll be very impressed” (p.34), the bureaucrat responded.

       Fest’s mother Elisabeth shared her husband’s opposition to the Nazi regime but was far from supportive of his outspoken hostility to the regime and his refusal to join the Nazi party.  Joannes’ stand in her view endangered the entire family and threatened its stability. On numerous occasions, Fest’s mother entreated her husband to yield to Nazi demands and provide the requisite assurances to the authorities to enable him to continue to hold a  job and maintain the family’s comfortable living standard.  If joining the party would be a lie to those in charge, the author overheard his mother telling his father, “then let it be a lie! A thousand lies even, if necessary!” (p.50).

      The Fest family grew up in Karlshorst, a middle class Berlin suburb.  Joachim was the second son in a family of five children, where the older three siblings were boys and the younger two were girls. Fest’s older brother Wolfgang died serving in Hitler’s military, but the other family members survived the war.  Fest was 13 when World War II began in 1939. By this time, he had developed a precocious interest in poetry, literature, and music, and much of the memoir details the evolution of these interests against a backdrop of ubiquitous pressure to support the Nazi regime.

       Fest’s Aunt Dolley introduced him to opera at age six, when they heard Mozart’s The Magic Flute, an “overwhelming experience” which served as Fest’s “entry to the magical world of music” (p.48-49). Another important influence on young Fest was Father Wittenbrink, the family’s anti-Nazi parish priest.  Father Wittenbrink tried to convince the author that Mozart was the “most convincing proof of the existence of God. . . Every single page of his biography teaches us that he comes from another world” (p.174), Father Wittenbrink argued.  Fest learned poetry through regular visits to the home of the Fest family’s friend, Dr. Meyer, who was incessantly talking about the “books he was reading for the second, third or fourth time” (p.89).

      One of the family’s many Jewish friends, Dr. Meyer disappeared during the war and, although his fate is not difficult to imagine, we never learn exactly what happened to him.  In their last meeting in the spring of 1939, Dr. Meyer ruminated to the young Fest that the great German poets  — and thus Germany’s duality — “bore some of the blame” for the uncertainty he was then facing in his life. He had often considered emigrating and had been “close to making the decision to leave.” But then “trust in the culture of the Germans had always won out” (p.129-30).  Dr. Meyer lamented that he had accepted the idea that a nation that had “produced Goethe and Schiller and Lessing, Bach, Mozart and whoever else, would simply be incapable of barbarism. Griping at the Jews, prejudice, there had always been that,” Dr. Meyer mused.  “But not violent persecution. They wouldn’t do anything to us.” Dr. Meyer’s final words to young Fest were, “You know how mistaken we were” (p.130).

      Joachim and his older brother Wolfgang were sent off to a provincial boarding school near Frankfurt after the war began in 1939. As he left Berlin on the train, Joachim reflected on his German childhood. Although these years had been difficult ones for his parents, his childhood had nonetheless been “happy years” because his parents had “let us feel their fears as little as possible” (p.133).  A volume of Schiller’s work provided Fest with what he described as his “refuge from the irksome features of boarding school” (p.141). But Fest developed a reputation with the school’s administration for impertinence – for being a “wise guy” – as captured in a report from the school sent to Fest’s parents:

Joachim F. shows no intellectual interest and only turns his attention to subjects he finds easy . . . His religious attachment leaves something to be desired. He is hard to deal with. He shows a precocious liking for naked women, which he hides behind a taste for Italian painting . . . He is taciturn. All attempts by the rectorate to draw him into discussion were in vain (p.187).

       In 1944, Joachim reached age 18 and, facing conscription into the German SS, volunteered instead for the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe.  When he told his father by telephone from boarding school that he had volunteered to avoid being drafted into the SS, his father reacted indignantly. “Volunteered!. . . For this war! Have you thought of me? Of us?” Finally, “after long argument and even longer silence we hung up” (p.182). In the letter that arrived few days later, his father wrote, with an “unbelievable lack of caution,” that one “does not volunteer for ‘Hitler’s criminal war’, not even to avoid the SS” (p.182).

       Despite his father’s entreaties, Fest went ahead with his plan to volunteer for the Luftwaffe, where he again found refuge  in literature, music and poetry, abetted by a colleague who shared Fest’s cultured passions. In March 1945, advancing American forces captured Fest and he wound up in an American prison camp as the war ended two months later.  Although Fest initially found his capture a welcome happenstance, a rumor circulated within the camp that its administration was to be turned over to the French.  Fest and his fellow prisoners surmised that the French were likely to be more bent upon revenge than the Americans.  This prompted Fest to organize an ingenious but unsuccessful escape attempt from the camp, one of the memoir’s most memorable sections. Upon his return to prison camp, a book-loving American guard introduced Fest to English language novels, especially Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

       The memoir ends with the family reunited in devastated Berlin in late 1945, absent Fest’s older brother Wolfgang, who died of a lung infection on Germany’s Eastern Front. Upon returning home, Fest learned that his father at age 50 had been conscripted into the military, where he had been captured by the Russians and imprisoned in a Russian camp. Fest found his father “hardly recognizable: a man abruptly grown smaller, slighter, grey-haired. Most of the time he simply sat there, his eyes sunken, where previously he had always set the tone” (p.260).

      In her husband’s absence during the war, Fest’s mother had “proved to be a robust person and had completely shed her [family] gentleness” (p.259). But upon seeing his mother, Fest was “dismayed by the emaciated, scraggy picture that she presented, and how empty her eyes were” (p.248). When, unavoidably, the name of brother Wolfgang was mentioned, his mother’s “mouth began to twitch” (p.260). Wolfgang’s death was an “unnameable misfortune for our family. My mother had always said as long as we were all alive she would not complain. Now that security was gone. In the almost twenty-five years that remained to her, whenever Wolfgang’s name was mentioned or an episode which had something to do with him, she rose from her seat and left the room” (p.196).

     Fest’s father was given to reflection after the war on why even he and his highly literate friends, all ardent opponents of the Nazi regime, had nonetheless underestimated Hitler.  Until Hitler came to power, his father had always trusted that a “primitive gangster like Hitler could never achieve power in Germany” (p.261). But, in his father’s view, Germans in the Hitler era failed to uphold their cultured heritage. They “lost their passion for introspection and discovered their taste for the primitive.” Their model was no longer the “reflective scholar type of the nineteenth century” but rather, the “tribal warrior, dancing around a stake and showing his chief a painted grimace. The nation of Goethe!” (p.280).

      Remembering his Jewish friends who perished during the war, Fest’s father said that “in their self-discipline, their quiet civility and unsentimental brilliance they had really been the last Prussians; in any case, he had more often encountered his idea of Prussiansim among the long-established, often highly educated Berlin Jews than anywhere else” (p.63). Germany’s dualism, however, undermined them. Their “one failing” was that they were “overwhelmingly governed by their heads . . . [and] lost the instinct for danger, which had preserved them through the ages” (p.63).

* * *

      The prose in this poignant coming-of-age memoir is sometimes dense, making for slow reading, which might be a function of its translation into English from the German original.  But the memoir shines as a statement of how Fest and his family, led by his Nazi-resisting father Johannes, maintained their grasp on Germany’s cultivated heritage during the Hitler years. As this grim chapter in German and European history recedes, it remains useful to be reminded that there were Germans like Johannes Fest who said “Not I” to Hitler’s call.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

January 16, 2016

6 Comments

Filed under European History, German History, History