A Small Lesson from the History of Plundered Art

In The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and The Second World War, we read of the Nazis’ treatment of their most hated conquered peoples. Poland was not only occupied but deliberately humiliated. Treasured emblems of its Slavic history were gleefully destroyed in attempts to erase its culture and its history.

In contrast, French art, wine and culture was appropriated. Nazi officials upon occupation of Paris quickly morphed into the bon vivants of the café and erudite collectors of the gallery.

Yet the culture purveyors of France themselves fared hardly better than the Poles.

There is an important lesson here: the arts will not protect you.

Paris and Berlin between the wars had become the ultimate home of the the European intelligentsia, the cultural elites, movers and shakers. Wealthy old family cuture-guards lived in the most desired locations in the most fashionable streets, for the purpose of lives centered on the arts. They were art dealers and hunters, art collectors and worshippers.

Their families enjoyed all the perks and comforts to be had by the top teirs of society anywhere. Their lives were cushioned from harsh reality. These families marinated in the arts; their parlors were showplaces for cutting edge newcomers and favored collections. The finest artists of the day painted their portraits.

But for these elite Europeans who happened to be Jews, reality would harshly intrude. German soldiers would march into their parlors, steal their art, and take them away. Some were killed, some escaped capture and left their countries for good; none were restored to their homes or their fortunes.

Hitler’s personal favored project focused upon restoring all Germanic art to the Fatherland. Whole bureaus and dedicated units were tasked with systematically locating and repossessing each and every work which Hitler judged to be in less than worthy hands.

Art did not protect the European Jews who had reached the pinnacle of all that high culture meant. On the contrary, art made them showy and vulnerable targets.

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