Why steal? The Nazis, Looted Art and The Monuments Men

The film The Monuments Men in which the likes of George Clooney go in search of Nazi looted art has recently been released. Here, Georgie Broad looks at the history and motives behind this massive Nazi-sponsored art theft.


George Bernard Shaw once said “without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” Europe, lost in the fog of Nazi occupation in the latter part of World War II, already seemed a relatively crude and unbearable place, so the gradual disappearance of some of the world’s most beloved pieces of artwork did nothing to help the situation.

Mr George Clooney et al have endeavored to transfer R.M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (2009) to the big screen to recount the history of the Allied Power’s MFAA, or the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives programmed. This had the aim of reclaiming the art stolen by the Kunstschutz (literally translating to art protection or conservation) units of the German Army. However, the reasons behind the heroic mission of the MFAA programmed can often be overlooked or misunderstood: What actually led to the infamous art-knappings of World War II?

Why steal? The Nazis, Looted Art and The Monuments Men

The Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich – Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler, artist and collector… Of sorts

It is easy to forget that both the Allies and the Axis Powers had a deep respect for the art of Europe, and of art in general. Skipping back a way, to when Hitler was just a boy named Adolf, he was a painter and art enthusiast – a love that stayed with him throughout the rest of his life. Critically and technically speaking, Hitler was a rather mediocre artist, and as a result his application to the Fine Art Academy of Vienna was turned down not once but twice when he was a young, struggling artist. And although he never got over this rejection, it did nothing to dull his love of art itself.

It was in fact a subject on which Hitler had some very strong opinions. In Mein Kampf, Hitler’s autobiographical-meets-political literary legacy, he attacks modern art and movements like Cubism as “aberrations” and “morbid monstrosities.” These modern artworks were a target for the Nazis and the Kunstschutz, as they were ordered to remove them from museums and to destroy them – though many pieces were sold, or broken up, making their eventual reclamation much more difficult.

Hitler’s real love lay with the Old Masters, and especially ones of German origin. He and the Kunstschutzalso went after these classical pieces, but for very different reasons. As R.M. Edsel details in his book, Hitler wanted to remake both the art world of Europe, primarily by creating a Führerrmuseum in Linz, Austria. Hitler wanted to make the biggest and most glorious art museum that he possibly could. Was it just because he loved art so much? Or was it to assert his self-proclaimed artistic prowess and show the Fine Arts Academy of Vienna what they missed out on… artistically speaking? It has been an issue of debate for a long time and it is almost impossible for us to know for sure, but to presume that it was a combination of both factors is a safe assumption.

Not all of the art that was looted was earmarked for Hitler’s museum collection. Hitler, considering himself quite the art collector, kept some of the art for his and his associates’ own personal collections, which explains why so much of it was, and still remains, lost. Greg Bradsher’s from the US Archives (Nov. 1997, “Documenting Nazi Plunder of European Art”) estimates that about 20% of Europe’s art was looted and that 100,000 pieces, at the very least, remain separated from their original owners, despite the valiant efforts of the MFAA program.

Why steal? The Nazis, Looted Art and The Monuments Men

Transporting pieces of art in a war-torn town

After the MFAA

The MFAA was eventually disbanded in 1946, though the finding of the plundered art and its proper return is still very much an issue. In late 2013, the BBC reported the discovery of around 1,000 pieces of art at the home of Cornelius Gurlitt. The pieces turned out to be ones thought to be lost after the Nazi plunder and among them were works by artists such as Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. As well as belonging to the “degenerate” type of art Hitler hated, these pieces were hugely valuable – especially the works of the Russian Jew Marc Chagall, who is often believed to be the most successful artist of the 20th century.

So, even today the effects of the Nazi art plunder can be felt throughout Europe. Whether all of the pieces will ever be found and returned is unknown, but it is important for us to remember the intentions with which some of the masterpieces of the continent were stolen while we are regaled with the epic tale of their reclamation. It wasn’t entirely through hate or destruction, but also a genuine love of a man obsessed that took a cultural wrong turn.


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