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Art Dealer to the Führer: Hildebrand Gurlitt's Deep Nazi Ties

The Americans moved in from the west around noon. There were two tanks, followed by infantry soldiers, their weapons at the ready.

There are people in Aschbach, a village in the Upper Franconia region of Bavaria, who remember April 14, 1945 very clearly. They were children then, helping out in the fields as the soldiers marched past. They remember that some of the men had dark skin and gave them chewing gum.

At the time, Aschbach was a town of a few hundred residents, complete with a castle on a hill that belonged to the aristocratic Pölnitz family. The castle, its façade covered in brownish plaster overgrown with wild grape vines, was part of an estate that included a lake and several hundred hectares of forest. It still stands on the outskirts of Aschbach today, a fairytale castle in Franconia.

During those last days of World War II, Aschbach residents hung white sheets from their windows and were later registered by the American soldiers. The Americans arrested local Nazi Party leader Baron Gerhard von Pölnitz. The residents who were registered included a man named Karl Haberstock, who appeared on a wanted list of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. Haberstock, an art dealer, had been living in the castle with his wife for several months.

The American army had a special unit to handle such cases, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section. Their job was to search for art stolen by the Nazis.

Monuments Men

When Captain Robert K. Posey and his assistant, Private Lincoln Kirstein, known as "Monuments Men," inspected the castle in early May they found an enormous art warehouse. It contained paintings and sculptures from the museum in nearby Bamberg and a picture gallery in the central German city of Kassel, whose directors had sought to protect the works from Allied bombs. They also discovered suspicious private property, some 13 crates of artworks marked as belonging to Heribert Fütterer, the commander of the German Air Force division for Bohemia and Moravia. The estate chapel contained suitcases and bags full of art, which Ewald von Kleist, the former commander of Army Group A of the Wehrmacht, had left there. Captain Posey declared the estate a restricted area and had signs reading "Off Limits" posted at the property.

A few days later, a Monuments Man noted: "In addition, rooms containing paintings, tapestries, statues, valuable furniture and documents from the belongings of two notorious German art dealers were found in the castle." They were the collections of Karl Haberstock and a certain Hildebrand Gurlitt, who had also lived in the castle with his family since their house in Dresden was burned down.

A note dated May 16 reads: "A large room on the upper floor with 34 boxes, two packages containing carpets, eight packages of books one room on the ground floor containing an additional 13 boxes owned by Mr. Gurlitt." Most of these boxes contained pictures and drawings.

'Connections Within High-Level Nazi Circles'

In the following months and years, the American art investigators wrote letters, memos, inventory lists, reports and dossiers to clear up the origins of the art. With regard to Haberstock, they wrote: "Mr. Karl Haberstock, from Berlin, is the most notorious art collector in Europe. He was Hitler's private art collector and, for years, seized art treasures in France, Holland, Belgium and even Switzerland and Italy, using illegal, unscrupulous and even brutal methods. His name is infamous among all honest collectors in Europe."

Gurlitt, they wrote, was "an art collector from Hamburg with connections within high-level Nazi circles. He acted on behalf of other Nazi officials and made many trips to France, from where he brought home art collections. There is reason to believe that these private art collections consist of looted art from other countries." For the Monuments Men, Gurlitt was also an "art dealer to the Führer."

Now, almost 70 years later, what the Monuments Men discovered at Aschbach Castle in May 1945 has shown a spotlight on Germany's past once again. Customs officials found an enormous treasure trove of artworks from the Third Reich in an apartment in Munich's Schwabing district. It includes 380 pictures that the Nazis had dubbed "degenerate art" in 1937 and removed from museums. The Schwabing find also included 590 other artworks that the Nazi regime and its henchmen may have stolen from Jewish owners. The owner of the apartment is Gurlitt's son Cornelius, the current heir of the collection, who was 12 and living in Aschbach at the end of the war.

Consequences of Munich Discovery

With the origins of the individual pictures still unclear, a task force appointed by the German government is investigating the history of each artwork. It will be a lengthy effort. But a search performed by SPIEGEL staff, in such places as the French Foreign Ministry archives and the National Museum in Wroclaw, Poland, has revealed the substantial extent to which Gurlitt dealt in looted art and how ruthless his practices were.

A Hollywood film about the Monuments Men will be screened for the first time at next year's Berlin Film Festival. George Clooney produced and directed the film, in addition to playing the main role: a US soldier who is part of a special unit made up of art historians, museum experts and other assistants, whose mission is to recover art stolen by the Nazis and rescue it from destruction in the final days of the war. Apparently the film depicts the historical events with some degree of accuracy.

But perhaps what happened in Aschbach in those last few days of the war and the first few months of peace would make for a more interesting film: an enchanted castle in Upper Franconia owned by a baron who had joined the Nazis, and who served during the war in Paris, where he worked with art dealers with dubious reputations, some of whom he eventually harbored in his castle near the end of the ill-fated Third Reich.

It would be a film about the country's elites, who benefited from the crimes of the Nazis, a story about culprits who quickly transformed themselves into supposedly upstanding citizens and, in a new Germany, became the pillars of society once again.

In a bizarre twist, for several months after the war Schloss Aschbach housed a group of young Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Ironically they, and not the Nazi baron, lived in the castle's elegant rooms before leaving the land of the Shoah for good. But more on that later.

'Extremely Nervous'

The Monuments Men questioned Hildebrand Gurlitt in Aschbach in June 1945. They noticed that he seemed "extremely nervous" and noted it seemed as if he were not telling the whole truth. It was during those days that Gurlitt, the "art dealer to the Führer," reinvented himself: as a victim of the Nazis, a man who had saved precious artworks from destruction and someone who had never done anything malicious.

Of course, not everything Gurlitt told the Americans was false. He pointed out that the Nazis classified him as a "mongrel," because of his Jewish grandmother, and that he had feared for his future and even his life after 1933, which led him to cooperate. As Gurlitt stated during the three-day interrogation, there was a risk that he, as a so-called quarter-Jew, would be drafted into forced labor for the Todt Organization, a Third Reich civil and military engineering group. Gurlitt also said: "I had to decide between the war and the work for museums. I never bought a picture that wasn't offered to me voluntarily. As I heard, laws were also enacted in France so that Jewish art collections could be confiscated. But I never saw it with my own eyes."

The Monuments Men in Aschbach felt that Haberstock was the more egregious criminal. He was taken into investigative custody in May 1945, and in August he was brought to Altaussee in Austria, where all those who were viewed as truly serious art criminals were required to testify near a salt mine filled with artworks. Gurlitt was allowed to stay in Aschbach.

Haberstock later told German officials that the Americans had underestimated Gurlitt's role during the Nazi period. In a 1949 letter to a government official, he wrote: "I was able to prove everything, including, for example, that I was not the main supplier for Linz, whereas Mr. Voss, during his short term in office, bought about 3,000 artworks and took over confiscated collections together with his main buyer, Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt."

Linz was to be the site of Hitler's massive Führer museum. It was never built, and yet the Nazis bought enough art to fill three museums. Hermann Voss, a museum director from Wiesbaden who had also run a museum in Dresden, ran the art-buying program from 1943 onward. From then on, Gurlitt worked for Hitler through Voss, who served as a middleman. He also bought art for German museums that had been brought into line by the regime, as well as for private citizens like Hamburg cigarette manufacturer Hermann F. Reemtsma, Hanover chocolate magnate Bernhard Sprengel and Cologne lawyer Josef Haubrich.

Gurlitt's Early Career

In 1930, art historian Gurlitt was removed from his post as director of the museum in the eastern city of Zwickau, because he was viewed as a champion of modern art. He went to Hamburg, where he ran the city's Kunstverein art museum, until he was fired once again over his preference for the avant-garde, as well as his Jewish grandmother.

Gurlitt remained in Hamburg, where he became an art dealer and opened a gallery. At the time, the kind of modern art he had consistently supported had become a risky business. Gurlitt increasingly bought and sold older, more traditional art. He had a knack for the business, developing relationships with collectors and finding ways to gain access to pictures. Before long, he was buying art from people who were being persecuted, mainly Jews, who sold their art because they were being forced to flee Germany, had lost their jobs and needed money to feed their families, or were being required to pay the so-called "Jewish wealth levy." Through middlemen, Gurlitt also bought art that had been seized by the Gestapo.

One of the paintings the Monuments Men found in Aschbach Castle, in a crate Gurlitt had marked with the number 36, was by the Bulgarian painter Jules Pascin, born in 1885. It depicts two women, one nude and another wearing a shirt, and a man. They seem to be strangers, and they are not looking at each other -- a metaphor for the bleakness of life. Pascin painted it in Paris in 1909 and called it "The Studio of the Painter Grossmann." He committed suicide in 1930.

Gurlitt told the Americans that the painting had belonged to his father, who had bought it before the Nazis came into power. In fact, Gurlitt bought the Pascin in 1935 for 600 Reichsmark, significantly less than it was worth, from Julius Ferdinand Wollf, the longstanding editor-in-chief of a Dresden newspaper, the Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten. Wollf was a passionately ethical and respected journalist, until the Nazis forced him out of office in 1933. Because of his Jewish background, he soon lost his assets and the SS laid waste to his apartment. In 1942, shortly before his scheduled deportation to a concentration camp, he took his own life, together with his wife and his brother.

After initially confiscating the painting, the Americans returned it to Gurlitt in 1950. It must have been sold later. In 1969, at any rate, it was included in several exhibitions, on loan from a French family of collectors. In 1972, it was sold at auction at Christie's in London for almost $40,000 (29,000). The work later turned up in Chicago.

Part 2: 'Degenerate Art' a Lucrative Export

Gurlitt became the official dealer in "degenerate art," the modern works that were no longer deemed acceptable in the Third Reich. He was expected to sell the works abroad to bring in hard currency. He also continued his dealings in older art. On Dec. 4, 1938, he acquired drawings by the 19th-century painter Adolf Menzel. They had belonged to a Jewish doctor in Hamburg, Ernst Julius Wolffson, who had a practice on Rothenbaumchaussee, a street in an upscale neighborhood, and was the chairman of the medical association.

Wolffson was deprived of his reputation and stripped of his positions after 1933, and his medical license was revoked in 1938. He was imprisoned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, but he was subsequently released when influential Hamburg residents spoke out on his behalf. A family man, he had no income and no insurance when he was ordered to pay the "Jewish wealth levy" in 1938. Gurlitt paid him 2,550 Reichmark, far below the market price, for nine Menzel drawings. Art historian Maike Bruhns discovered that Hamburg industrialist Hermann F. Reemtsma, one of Gurlitt's regular customers, had bought two of the drawings.

After the war, the Wolffson family's attorney demanded the return of the drawings, but Gurlitt refused to provide any information about the buyers. In 1993, two of the works in the Wolffson collection were included in a memorial exhibition titled "Works of Art that Affect Me. The Collector Hermann F. Reemtsma."

Dealing in Wartime

Gurlitt remained in Hamburg until 1942. In the first years of the war, at the height of Germany's military successes, Gurlitt expanded his territory to include Holland, Belgium and France. When bombs destroyed his gallery on the Alster Lake in Hamburg, Gurlitt took his wife and their two children to Dresden to live in his parents' house. From there, he established a relationship with Cornelius Müller Hofstede, who headed the Silesian Museum in Breslau (now called Wroclaw), where he appraised the collections of persecuted Jews and sold the confiscated paintings on the market. Müller Hofstede ordered paintings picked up from Jewish homes and, using an obsequious tone, wrote to Gurlitt to offer him the works. He also mentioned that he was even willing to come to Dresden to "present" the pictures to Gurlitt. His letter ended with the words "Heil Hitler!"

It was also Müller Hofstede who obtained the Max Liebermann painting "Two Riders on the Beach" for Gurlitt. A few weeks ago, the work was one of the first pictures from the confiscated Gurlitt collection in Munich to be shown at a press conference. The Nazis had confiscated it from sugar refiner David Friedmann, who died in 1942. Friedmann's daughter was killed in a concentration camp in 1943.

Like Müller Hofstede in Breslau, Voss, the coordinator for the Linz special project, had assisted the Gestapo and, as a "police expert," had appraised Jewish collections. He would go into the homes of the persecuted and pick out pieces for his museum. He was traveling a great deal in 1943, to Berlin, Basel and Breslau. According to this travel notes, he met with "A.H. in the Führer's building" on a February night in Munich. He also attended questionable auctions and went to Vienna and Linz. But he did not go to Paris, because Gurlitt was there on his behalf.

Shady Circles, Piles of Cash

Gurlitt had made his first purchases by 1941, one year after the German invasion of France. The fact that the paintings came from France increased their value. Many German museum directors longed to go to France, and the country was also a place Gurlitt loved. Important French collections were confiscated, or their owners were forced into selling at ridiculously low prices. Gurlitt apparently surrounded himself with a group of shady members of the art world, including agents, informers and other dealers. He was in great demand, because he had millions of Reichsmark to spend.

Gurlitt was now making regular trips to Paris. And contrary to his later assertions, he did not stay in modest guesthouses but in grand hotels or the apartment of a mistress. The three men who would later come together at Aschbach Castle also met in Paris. Under Voss's predecessor, art dealer Haberstock had been one of the preferred buyers for the future Hitler museum. He stayed at the Ritz, and he would announce his upcoming visits to Paris in an art magazine. He also handed out cards indicating that he was looking for "first class pictures" by old masters.

Baron Gerhard von Pölnitz, the lord of the manor in Aschbach, was stationed in Paris during those years, as an officer in the German Air Force. In his free time, he worked for Haberstock and Gurlitt, setting up deals and serving as their representative. Jane Weyll, one of Haberstock's employees, became the baron's mistress.

There is a report by French art historian Michel Martin about Hildebrand Gurlitt in the French Foreign Ministry archive. During the occupation period, Martin worked in the paintings department at the Louvre, where he issued export permits for artworks. Gurlitt, Martin wrote, had access to "constantly expanding credit" and had acquired works worth a total of "400 to 500 million francs."

Whenever Gurlitt returned to Germany, he brought along photographs of selected paintings to show museum staff. According to Martin's account, he also acquired works for his private collection in Paris. "As soon as Gurlitt encountered our resistance to his art exports, he would pick up artworks without our permission, or he would get help from the German Embassy. Gurlitt took important artworks out of the country against our will."

'Merely an Official'

Martin also wrote that he had believed Gurlitt when he said that he did "not wish to deal in artworks that came from Jewish collections." Apparently Gurlitt also insisted that he was "merely an official" acting on orders from above.

Pölnitz, Haberstock and Gurlitt met again at Aschbach Castle at the end of the war. Haberstock, who the Americans eventually turned over to the German courts, was later exonerated. He worked as an art dealer in Munich after the war and died in 1956, the same year as his competitor Gurlitt.

After the war ended, Baron von Pölnitz was taken to an internment camp in Moosburg in Upper Bavaria from which he was released in 1947. His denazification file has disappeared. He died in 1962 at the age of 64.

The Americans placed Gurlitt under house arrest in Aschbach. To occupy his time, he gave talks on Dürer and Barlach, and kitsch in religious art, to the small local church congregation. Otherwise, he wrote letters attempting to justify his purchases in France.

In a 1947 letter to Madame Rose Valland, a French art historian who was in charge of restitutions, he insisted that he had been a "genuine friend of France and a true opponent of the Nazi regime," one who, "in speech and writing," had "always championed French art." It was only "strange coincidences" that had made it possible "for me to save myself by going to France as an art dealer." He made no mention of his work for the Führer museum in Linz.

Putting the Past Behind Him

Gurlitt's house arrest was lifted, and in January 1948 he moved to Düsseldorf, where he became the director of that city's Kunstverein museum. He promptly declared his years in Aschbach as "part of the past," but he also noted that life there was "quite pleasant and peaceful."

In 1950, Gurlitt's art was restored to him from the archive of seized property known as the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point. He had already been acquitted of all charges. The Americans had confiscated a total of 140 works. But Gurlitt had also hidden a portion of his collection from the Americans in an old water mill, which he then recovered.

Gurlitt was a respected member of society once again, gaining the support of Düsseldorf industrialists by featuring their art collections in exhibitions. At the same time, he began showing his own collection again, cleansing it of its past associations in the process. In 1953, he was appointed to an honorary committee overseeing an exhibition of German art in Lucerne, Switzerland, sponsored by Germany's then-President Theodor Heuss. A few of the pictures were from Gurlitt's collection, including a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner ("Two Female Nudes") and a watercolor by Franz Marc ("Large Horse").

Part of Gurlitt's purpose in showing the paintings was probably to assess whether there would be any objections or claims from the true owners. A year later, he presented an exhibition titled "Works of French Painting and the Graphic Arts" at Villa Hügel in the western city of Essen: paintings by French Impressionists like Paul Signac, Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas, which would be worth several million euros today, including a view of the Waterloo Bridge by Claude Monet and Gustave Courbet's "Landscape with Rocks." Their whereabouts are as unclear today as their origins.

Part 3: Final Years and Tall Tales

Finally, in 1956, the year of his death, Gurlitt sent pictures from his collection to New York, including works by Max Beckmann and Vassily Kandinsky. He wrote a biographical sketch for the catalog, but it was never published. In the piece, Gurlitt described himself as courageous and bold, a hero whose dealings during the war were a "dangerous balancing act," and who had nothing left to his name but a pushcart filled with necessities after the bombing of Dresden. His account sounded almost like the story of the Kaims, a Jewish couple from Breslau who sold Gurlitt one of their paintings, lost everything and were sent to the ghetto pushing a handcart.

Gurlitt died after a car accident in 1956. In his obituaries, he was celebrated as an important figure in the postwar West German art world. His widow Helene moved to Munich in the early 1960s, where she bought two expensive apartments in a new building in Schwabing. In May 1960, she had four works from her husband's collection sold by the Ketterer Kunst auction house, including Beckmann's "Bar, Brown," which belongs to a US museum today, and a painting of playwright Bertolt Brecht by Rudolf Schlichter, which ended up in Munich's Lenbachhaus. The painting, an important work from the New Objectivity movement, is now one the museum's best-known works.

The Schlichter work was also among the paintings the Monuments Men had found in Aschbach. One of their German colleagues there, who later became the director of the Lenbachhaus, bought the work in the 1960 Ketterer auction.

There are many examples of works that Gurlitt acquired under questionable circumstances. There are also a number of pictures hanging in German museums today, from Hanover to Wiesbaden, that were bought from Gurlitt. There are even pictures that Gurlitt bought for Hitler's museum in Linz, which, because of their unclear origins, became the property of the state. One such painting, a landscape by the classicist painter Jakob Philipp Hackert, hangs in the German Foreign Ministry today.

Several paintings turned up in art galleries. One was August Macke's "Woman with Parrot," an early work of German Cubism. It was shown in exhibitions in 1962 and later in 2001, in each case as part of a private collection. In 2007, the work was sold at auction in Berlin's Villa Grisebach auction house for more than 2 million. Gurlitt's daughter Benita had apparently delivered the painting. She died in May 2012.

'Jewish Occupation of the Castle'

In November 1945, the Americans established a Camp for Displaced Persons in Aschbach Castle. They were traumatized survivors of the Holocaust, many less than 20 years old, who had spent their youth in Jewish ghettos and concentration camps. They had lost their families, and when the war ended they left the camps in groups. They were young Jews with names like Tovia, Menachim, Minia and Zynia, and many were Zionists who had come together to establish a kibbutz.

More than 140 individuals were housed in Aschbach between November 1945 and March 1948, although, at first, the Americans did not think the young Jews capable of farming the fields on the estate. There was hardly any contact between village residents and the Jews, even though a Jewish community had been established in Aschbach in the early 18th century. The last Aschbach Jews were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942.

Gurlitt did not mention the Jews in the castle. He kept his own children, who were only a few years younger than many of the survivors, away from Aschbach, sending his son and daughter to the elite Odenwaldschule boarding school.

The Pölnitz family, whom the Americans ordered to vacate their estate, moved into a teacher's apartment in the village. They were concerned that the residents of the camp would not treat their furniture with care. In a letter to the authorities, Baron von Pölnitz complained that "the Jews" were appropriating his property in a "wild frenzy" -- and that his wife had fainted because of the "Jewish occupation of the castle."

Yehiel Hershkowitz was one of the Jews who lived in Aschbach at the time. He was 27 when he arrived at the castle on Nov. 20, 1945. His family was from Bedzin, a town in the Silesian Highlands of southern Poland that was known as Bendsburg during its Nazi occupation from 1939-1945. Hershkowitz was arrested in September 1939 and spent the next six years in 15 Nazi camps. He was freed when American soldiers liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945.

He and his second wife, Esther Urman, met in Aschbach and then traveled to Israel together. Hershkowitz died in 1979, and his wife died 11 years later.

Their son Benny is now 65 and lives near Tel Aviv. He says that his father had trouble sleeping, because he was kept awake at night by the memories of Nazi Germany.

[Source: REPORTED by Felix Bohr, Lothar Gorris, Ulrike Knöfel, Sven Röbel and Michael Sontheimer. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan, Spiegel online international, Berlin, 23Dec13]

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