Working for Hitler

Who were the Gurlitts? For several generations they were a prestigious artistic family in love with German Expressionism and the avant-garde.

The nameplate on the house of art collector Cornelius Gurlitt is pictured in Salzburg in 2013 (photo credit: DOMINIC EBENBICHLER/REUTERS)
The nameplate on the house of art collector Cornelius Gurlitt is pictured in Salzburg in 2013
Susan Ronald’s outstanding book Hitler’s Art Thief brilliantly examines the motivating forces, both internal and external, that led Hildebrand Gurlitt to go work for the Führer. Gurlitt looted thousands of valuable modern-art paintings from desperate Jews fleeing Hitler, paying them a pittance, and sold them overseas for huge profits, which were used to fund the Nazi war machine. In addition, he sought out artwork the Führer would approve of for a museum the Nazi leader planned to build in Linz after the war that would celebrate his victory. Hitler despised modern art from the Impressionists forward into the 20th century and labeled it “degenerate art” or “Jewish,” or “Bolshevik.” He idealized artwork that promoted the völkisch (populist) movement that celebrated the German peasant. Gurlitt helped him out on all fronts, while hiding a stockpile of precious works for himself.
Who were the Gurlitts? For several generations they were a prestigious artistic family in love with German Expressionism and the avant-garde. The grandfather, Louis Gurlitt, was a renowned landscape painter.
His son Cornelius was a distinguished architectural historian. Cornelius’s son Hildebrand, who would go to work for the Nazis, was a museum director and modernart enthusiast who lost his position as museum director in Zwickau for promoting modern art. He was forced to resign later on from a second job as a museum director at Hamburg Kunstverein due to his seconddegree Mischling status; his paternal grandmother was Jewish. Hildebrand Gurlitt served in World War I, where he was emotionally traumatized by the horror of war, after which he suffered several emotional collapses.
But he soon would gather his strength and a plan to survive at any cost during which all shreds of his humanity were demolished. Author Ronald explains that Gurlitt came to the conclusion that “those who could not adapt to the changing times would be devoured by them.”
Perhaps she cuts him too much slack.
Her own investigation reveals him to have been a relentlessly cold-hearted and self-serving man who showed no signs of remorse even after the war when Allied soldiers questioned him about how he had served Hitler. He lied to the Allied investigators about his role in the Third Reich and swore to them that all of his holdings had been burned in the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945. He managed to evade prosecution. He resumed his life after the war as so many Nazis did; without looking back. Ronald reminds us that no one was ever put on trial in Germany for art theft since the trials were focused on the architects of mass murder.
Ronald herself seems to forget the Jews. She rarely mentions the role anti-Semitism played in Germany, or the death camps, or the heinous death of millions of Jews. Her focus remains on Gurlitt’s life and the forces that shaped his moral corruption.
Ronald exquisitely dissects the historical events that led to a pervasive sense of gloom and humiliation in Germany after its defeat in World War I. She remains neither sympathetic nor antagonistic towards Gurlitt, and her nuanced neutrality fuels the narrative. Readers find themselves wondering how they might have behaved in his predicament. Did he need to behave so ruthlessly to survive? Was he in any danger due to his Jewish lineage? Could he have helped some Jews while still protecting himself and his family? Morality is not a finite force; it is fluid and made up of countless decisions made when others aren’t looking. Did he try in any way to do something to stop the madness or was he himself destroyed by the madness that was surrounding him? Gurlitt seems to have plotted his own survival early on. After WWI, he reinvented himself as an important player in the art world by establishing a close relationship with Kurt Kirchbach in 1926. Kirchbach was a wealthy manufacturer of original automotive clutch linings and brakes. Gurlitt served as his art adviser and helped him acquire 600 photographs by artists like Man Ray and Edward Weston. He eventually helped him acquire 234 masterpieces, which included the work of modern artists Max Beckmann and Max Liebermann. This was the first of several important relationships that allowed him to rise in the hierarchy of the Reich where his skills as an art connoisseur and dealer were valued by the Nazi elite.
We almost didn’t find out about Hildebrand Gurlitt. The way we did is almost surreal. Just two years ago, his son, Cornelius, who was now in his eighties, was nervously pacing back and forth on a train to Switzerland. The police questioned him and found him carrying an enormous amount of cash. They later searched his apartment in Munich and found more than 1,400 paintings his father had left him when he died in a car accident in 1956 when Cornelius was only 24.
The son had spent his entire life alone sequestered with his father’s oil paintings. He never spoke to anyone or married or had children or worked, and he avoided the neighbors, who commented that he always dressed immaculately, but said nothing to them. He paid for everything in cash, selling a painting discreetly only when he needed money. He told the police he thought his father was a hero and had done nothing wrong. He claimed it never occurred to him that the art he possessed might not really be his. He believed his father had been trying to protect this artwork and swore that his father had never done anything illegal. Cornelius Gurlitt defended his father’s intentions until his own recent death, when he left instructions for the artwork to be given to a museum in Switzerland, which promised to track down any rightful heirs if it was able to do so. This has proved after so much time to be an almost impossible task and has caused an international furor calling for restitution from aggrieved parties.
Cornelius stayed hidden throughout his life with only his father’s masterpieces for company. He told police he would often talk to them; they were everything to him. The stash included works by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Otto Dix and Chagall. Cornelius begged to be left alone and felt bereft when the police removed the paintings from his home so they could investigate whether any of them were legitimately his. The story was held back from the public for more than a year before it came to light.
While doing research on the Internet for this review, I came across a striking piece of writing by Hildebrand Gurlitt, which he wrote in 1955. He discusses his initial fascination with the new art. He talks about a special moment in 1912 when he was a teenager and his mother took him to see the first exhibition of the Brücke in a baroque lamp shop that was situated on a desolate street in Dresden.
He wrote, “This art – these barbaric, passionately powerful colors, this rawness, enclosed in the poorest of wooden frames – aimed to hit the middle class like a slap in the face. And that is indeed what it did. I, the young schoolboy, was also startled, but ‘Madame privy councillor’ said that we should buy a sample of these interesting works, and she took home one of the most astonishing woodcuts.
My father, though, who at the time was already the 60-year-old dean of a college, said to me that these young painters were excellent people: ‘It may very well be that this art will become as important to your life as the struggle over Hans Thoma, Arnold Böcklin and Max Liebermann was to mine.’” It is almost impossible to square this young boy’s tender infatuation with art and his respect for his elderly father with the man we know he later became. There is such an aching disparity between his early privileged life and his later transgressions that it leaves the reader baffled. How can anyone make sense of such madness? Susan Ronald’s intelligent work tries to do just that.