Condemning the Nazis for art theft is like indicting Al Capone for tax evasion. Against the enormity of their other crimes, expatriation of paintings and sculpture can look like taking office supplies. When so many executives at Deutsche Bank, Krupp, BMW, and I.G. Farben were slapped on the wrist for heiling Hitler, employing slave labor, or manufacturing death, should we really be outraged that a band of art dealers, critics, historians, and museum directors conspired to strip Europe of its art treasures—and went largely unpunished?
Jonathan Petropolous argues convincingly that we should. None of the main characters in his anatomy of the Nazi art world ended up in the dock at Nuremberg. And yet it’s hard to read their case histories in The Faustian Bargain without a rising sense of fury. I couldn’t decide which was worse: the corruption of every aspect of the art world during the Third Reich, or how quickly these loyal Nazi aesthetes were respectably back in business after the war. All the figures here had personal ties to Hitler, buying, stealing, extolling, condemning, destroying, or making art under his orders; and yet virtually all continued to work or flourish in the German art world after 1945, often via social ties to other former partners in crime.
The Faustian Bargain is the perfect companion to Lynn Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa and Hector Feliciano’s The Lost Museum. Those earlier books were histories of the victims, examining the fate of art stolen from Jews and shipped in convoys back to Germany or, in the case of “degenerate” modernist work, sold off at auction or to unscrupulous dealers for a song. What happened to many pieces is still uncertain, as the endless stream of lawsuits against museums and auction houses attests.
This book concentrates on the perpetrators. Some characters are the same: high- powered dealer Karl Haberstock, who enriched Göring and himself with art “bought” from captives at gunpoint; museum director Ernst Buchner, an eminent scholar who made off with the Van Eycks’ Ghent altarpiece; and historian Kajetan Mühlmann, labeled here the “most prodigious art plunderer in the history of human civilization.” But Petropolous trains his social X ray on a wider spectrum of the Nazi art world, probing the motives of any art personage who struck a corrupt bargain with the regime: fealty in return for power.
The critic Robert Scholz, for example, was the leading proponent of Aryan classical ideals in art, as well as an attack dog against modernism. After an early career writing for liberal as well as conservative papers, he hitched his star to Hitler in 1933 and never looked back. By 1938 the native Austrian held two of the most powerful posts in Nazi art publishing: chief critic for the Party paper, Der Völkische Beobachter; and editor of the glossy magazine Kunst im Deutschen Reich.
He was nothing if not a skilled and vicious bureaucratic infighter. When rivals in Goebbels’s office tried to undercut his influence in 1937 by installing some of his early writings at the Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich—as a liberal youth Scholz had praised the expressionists Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel, artists condemned in the show as “degenerate”—Scholz trumped his accusers with the rumor that they might have Jewish blood.
Government domination at every level of the art world was breathtaking. (Anyone who ever glibly compared Reagan’s NEA strictures to Hitler’s mastery in this realm must read this book and do penance.) All art critics in the Third Reich had to be certified by the Propaganda Ministry. For a while only those over 30 could publish their views; eventually, of course, one had to be a Party member as well. Criticism was too serious to be left to critics and editors.
As an ally of Party philosopher Alfred Rosenberg (put to death at Nuremberg), Scholz not only helped to formulate Nazi aesthetic ideals but also to consult in the looting of Europe’s art collections. For instance, he lent enthusiastic support to the creation of the Institute for French-German Culture and Art, made up of booty from the Wildenstein gallery in Paris. Even so, he had his principles. He considered art to be sacred, preferring to trade away undesirable modernist work rather than destroy it; and he didn’t profit himself. Although never granted the title of professor for which Goebbels nominated him—Hitler didn’t think critics could be scholars, only propagandists—Scholz never fell from grace. When captured on May 6, 1945, by the U.S. Seventh Army in the Austrian Alps, where he had gone fleeing the Allied bombing of Berlin, he was in charge of 21,903 artworks taken from French Jews and shipped to the Reich.
And yet Scholz escaped punishment. The OSS recommended he be tried as a war criminal, but Nuremberg had no mandate to prosecute art thieves. Turned over to a German denazification panel, he enlisted testimony from old friends and colleagues. His early support of Schmidt-Rottluff and Heckel was now cited in his favor; and, unlike some, Scholz hadn’t burned paintings but “safeguarded” them from Allied bombs in German mines. Judges ruled he belonged in the “least responsible” group of malefactors, although a French court was not so forgiving. Trying him in absentia, they handed down a 10-year sentence. He never served a day. An unrepentant Nazi ideologue, whose art criticism ran every week in a right-wing paper during the ’60s and ’70s, he was celebrated at his death in 1981 in an obituary written by a former SS officer.
Petropolous wants to set the record straight, and he patiently builds a mountain of damning evidence against each of his subjects. There is enough opportunism, greed, and twisted idealism in these pages for a dozen novels. (It’s too bad, therefore, he isn’t a better storyteller.) Unlike most politicians, Hitler cared deeply about art. The men in this book deeply believed in serving him, even though all were cultured enough to recognize the devil, which makes The Faustian Bargain a serial portrait of depraved souls.