The Nazis’ plunder of Europe’s art treasures lacks the horror of their mass murders, but it was a terrible crime whose damage persists. Historian Harclerode (Arnhem: A Tragedy of Errors, not reviewed) and BBC News journalist Pittaway spent seven years researching this dismal affair.
Following Hitler’s armies, specialists poured into each occupied country to find, pack, and ship art to Germany. This was a matter not of a few hundred old masters but streams of packed railroad cars and millions of objects. Straightforward looting produced only part of this haul: the Nazis also acquired art by confiscation (from those arrested for forbidden activities) or extortion (from those who needed favors). Museums and collectors were persuaded to “lend” works to German museums or to trade them for “degenerate” art taken off display in the 1930s. Nazis also bought art. The war was a bonanza for dealers in all countries, including the US, and galleries fell over themselves in their eagerness to sell. Toward the end of the war, when individual Nazis needed cash, dealers gladly bought looted works. Most stolen art was never restored. Victims themselves, the Soviets plundered with a vengeance in their turn. Postwar Allied commissions had spotty success in returning looted art: they quickly found that soldiers who came across caches helped themselves, and prosecutions often failed because senior officers had benefited. Despite noble sentiments, all countries were reluctant to return stolen works, and 50 years later, looted art continues to turn up in museums, galleries, and private collections. That’s the good news. The bad news is that much is gone forever: vandalized or ruined through clumsy handling, poor storage, and neglect.
Tales of people behaving badly make entertaining reading, but one can have too much of a good thing. Many chapters begin with a detailed account of one shady episode, followed by another, then another. Readers can stop when they have had their fill and skip to the next chapter, which features a different series of shady episodes. This is a significant account, but only aficionados of the era should read it in its entirety.