ON SEPTEMBER 17, 1940, General Keitel, Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht, directed the Chief of the German High Command in France to render all assistance to Reichsleiter Alfred Rosenberg in the confiscation of "ownerless Jewish possessions." "Reichsleiter Rosenberg," he stated, " has received clear instructions from the Fuhrer personally governing the right of seizure; he is entitled to transport to Germany cultural goods which appear valuable to him and to safeguard them there. The Führer has reserved for himself the right of decision as to their use."
This decree by Keitel, published less than one hundred days after the Germans had overrun France, set in motion the most extensive and highly organized series of thefts devised by a nation in modern times: the wholesale seizure, by Rosenberg's special task force (Einsatzstab), of 203 French private collections captaining some 21,000 works of art. This was a carefully conceived operation, aimed at the cultural debilitation of the strongest of the fallen nations, since France's purest heritage lay in the hands of her enlightened collectors.
Supplementing Rosenberg's task force were the separate Hitler and Göring commissions, activated solely to enrich the holdings of these top Nazis with plunder from the occupied countries.
It was preordained by the official Nazi conscience that these depredations, in common with many of the more heinous crimes committed by the Party, should be cloaked by an elaborate, fictitious pretext of legality. A notable series of documents took shape through the war years, which afford us a broad vista of Nazi rationalization hard at work.
Perhaps the most illuminating of these apologias is the manifesto issued in August, 1942, by Dr. Bunjes, director of the "Franco-German Art Historical Institute" in Paris and Hermann Göring's first important art purchasing agent in France. The Bunjes paper followed upon Göring's personal request for an authoritative reply to the numerous official Vichy protests lodged with the German authorities on the subject of the ruthless and illegal plundering by the Einsatzstab Rosenberg.
Entitled "French Protests against the Safeguarding of Ownerless Jewish Art Properties in Occupied France," the Bunjes report explained the measures taken, presented a detailed analysis of the French protests, and offered concrete proposals for refutation of the French argument. Bunjes averred that the real motive for the French protests was the desire of the government to deceive Germany and to further the prosecution of subversive activity against the Reich; that they were intended as systematic anti-German cultural propaganda and as a means of clouding the issue of the legitimate German claims for the return of cultural materials destroyed by French soldiers in Germany after 1918!
"These treasures," wrote Bunjes, "if transferred into money values, could be made effective tomorrow against Germany in the form of tanks or planes . . . yet their return has not even been demanded by the Reich. The further French request for access by its government officials to those localities in France where German personnel are taking inventory of confiscated material would, if granted, simply invite French espionage." [Italics mine.]
"Moreover," he continued, "the affirmation of the Louvre that the French people would lose valuable national works of art through the aforementioned safeguardings is refuted by the fact that many of the safeguarded works stem from great masters of German origin or are under the influence of the German spirit."
Finally, Bunjes reverted to the classic line, without which no National Socialist tract was valid: --
"All French arguments. . . are voided by the Führerbefehl [Hitler decree] of September 17, 1940, according to which all lawsuits regarding bequests, gifts, etc., are not recognized. . . . Only when these measures are completed and when the Führer has made the final decision as to the disposition of the safeguarded art treasures can the French government receive a final answer."
It is of parenthetical interest that the Vichy government, whatever its more significant political conciliations, demonstrated courage and aptitude in bombarding the German High Command with communications designed to preserve the cultural heritage of France. The ultimate success of this policy is shown in the insignificant number of officially owned works of art which left the country in German hands.
2 HERMANN Göring's lawyer at Nuremberg called him a Renaissance man, failing to mention that he wished to be one but never quite measured up. Because the Reichsmarschall was obsessed with the desire to become a latter-day Medici, the artistic domain of Europe became, of necessity, his playground. Photographs of Carinhall, his fabled estate laid waste in the Russian advance northeast of Berlin, point up dramatically the aspirations of the Number Two Nazi.
A gigantic, rambling structure compounded of ponderous stone and concrete, Carinhall was a strange fusion of the most flamboyant elements of the storied past with the inflated sterility of official Nazi architecture. Set down with a fine sense of isolation in the midst of a rich hunting preserve, it was destined, for a brief moment in history, to project with forceful grandeur the pose its master so studiously cultivated, of Reichsmarschall Göring, feudal seigneur, peerless huntsman, and enlightened patron of the arts.
A seemingly endless series of great rooms -- salons, dining halls, studies, and libraries -- held, until the Allied bombings threatened them, the spectacular booty of a continent, installed always with more theater than taste, yet breath-taking in its innate richness and its scope.
Here were the Cranachs and Titians, the massive plate, and the Gobelin tapestries brought in from France and Italy on a scale worthy of the great despot. Here, too, were the abominations of taste, the nineteenth century's overpowering, fleshy nudes, the "strength through joy" figures of Nazi sculptors, the empty furnishings of the Third Reich. And here were the rich birthday offerings, the coveted sixteenth-century German paintings purchased by Göring's agents with funds contributed by Nazi industrialists in return for favors rendered.