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.
Showplace of the Reich, Carinhall was Göring, his sanctuary and his shrine, the perfect meeting ground of Rubens and the stuffed bull moose. Wearing the new crown of empire and with the spoils of Europe as its necklace, Carinhall would emerge after the German victory as a national shrine without parallel. Göring had even planned, with the Führer's consent, to build a special railway connecting the estate with Berlin, so that it might become the foremost mecca for tourists in the Reich.
Göring was the heart of German looting and its inspiration. Without his strength, his zeal, and his formidable backing, not a single one of the German organizations formed to carry out the prodigious task could have accomplished its mission.
The Allied investigations of German looting, proceeding from diverse points of view and in many directions, always happened, sooner or later, upon a common denominator: the intimate relationship of Göring to the problem. It became increasingly apparent that his tentacles stretched across Europe—east to Poland in the person of his agent, Mühlmann; south to Switzerland and Italy, where Hofer, “Curator of Carinhall,” and Angerer, dealer in tapestries and member of the German Intelligence, were tirelessly active in his behalf; west to France and Holland, where these men were joined by a host of others working directly or indirectly to swell the amazing body of the Reichsmarschall's loot.
Göring himself was a passionate and active collector. The evidence of his preoccupation throughout the war years with the formation of the Göring Collection, even at times when the very destiny of Germany was being shaped by his thinking, is astounding.
Whenever he visited Paris during the occupation, the notorious Baron Kurt von Behr, director of the Einsatzstab Rosenberg Paris office, would receive word forty-eight hours in advance that the Reichsmarschall intended to make a visit. By the time Göring arrived, a special exhibition of selected works of art, recently confiscated by the Einsatzstab from French collections, would have been arranged at the Musée du Jeu de Paume by von Behr's minions. Between November, 1940, and January, 1943, Göring visited the Jeu de Paume, for the express purpose of choosing new loot for Carinhall, no fewer than twenty-one times; he was there a week before the bombing of Coventry, three days before Pearl Harbor, and two weeks after the landings in Africa!
Following conferences of state at the Quai d'Orsay, he would summon Hofer or Lohse, his younger purchasing agent who doubled as deputy director of the Einsatzstab. Then the procession of “eligible” works for purchase would begin, and would often consume most of the day, for, after looking at the pictures brought in, he would frequently go out to visit the shops of dealers whom he favored.
His luxurious special train (later discovered by French and American troops at Berchtesgaden and used by Eisenhower) figured prominently in the formation of the Göring Collection. On the return trip to Germany following each of Göring's excursions to the occupied countries, it would carry back his most recent acquisitions—Einsatzstab loot from French collections, presents from collaborationist officials, and the Reichsmarschall's own “legitimate” purchases from the Paris dealers or the collectors of Brussels and Amsterdam, who were paid off handsomely in the unsupported paper occupation currency (Reichskassenscheine) printed in Germany.
His vicious penny-pinching tactics cast a strange light on Göring's longing to attain the stature of a grand seigneur. Lavish in his tastes to a degree unparalleled in our times, and with unlimited resources at his disposal, he was nonetheless disposed to bargain over every transaction and was slow in paying his bills. The practice distressed Göring's agents, who thought such bickering unworthy of his exalted position.
To be sure, the Reichsmarschall was scrupulously careful to maintain front, to be korrekt in his dealings. He would not permit a confiscated painting to be hung at Carinhall; he would not put personal pressure on an owner reluctant to part with an object; he would not accept thanks—in the form of valuable gifts—from Jews whom he had helped. By his own admission at Nuremberg, he made determined efforts to “pay” for the more than 700 looted masterpieces which he had received from the Rosenberg organization; and he was confident that his prodigious amassing of European treasures would be applauded by the peoples of the Axis. Had he not declared that Carinhall, with all its contents, was to become a national monument on his sixtieth birthday?
The dirty work was carried on by his agents. French Impressionist pictures, — splendid Renoirs and Cézannes and Van Goghs, — “ineligible” for hanging because they were “degenerate art,” were very useful for other purposes. Having cost Göring nothing, several hundred of them were exchanged in France and Switzerland for second-rate Cranachs and Holbeins which, as works of unblemished origin, could then grace the proud walls of Carinhall.
For Göring's account, Curator Hofer “accepted” cherished heirlooms from certain proud Jewish families in the Netherlands. In return, he provided funds far below the value of the offering, supplementing payment with an official German laissez passer or a Swiss passport, to be used by these benighted people in their flight from the Nazis!
Agent Lohse, writing to Göring's secretary, requested that he be “permitted to arrange for placing at my disposal by the Gestapo the two Jews, the Brothers L., for further work in the Reichsmarschall's interests.” Göring's secretary replied: “You are to make sure that this matter is handled so as to avoid having the Reichsmarschall's name mentioned in connection with Jews. If possible, handle it all under cover.”
Occasionally, when hard pressed, Göring showed his true colors, as in the case of a prominent Belgian whose collection he coveted. Göring wrote him personally in 1941 as follows: —
Mr. M. reported to me on the discussions he had with you concerning your collection of paintings, and informed me that you had again withdrawn from your earlier position and not yet arrived at a settlement. I have instructed M. to communicate with you again concerning the final terms. . . . Should you this time again not be able to decide, then I would be compelled to withdraw my offer, and things would go their normal way, without my being able to do anything to impede their course. [Italics mine.]
With German greetings, H. GÖRING
His proposals to “pay” the Einsatzstab Rosenberg were arrant subterfuge, as he was informed both by Alfred Rosenberg and by the Party Treasurer, Schwarz, that there was no machinery, no channel, no payee, in existence for such a transaction.
In sum, Göring resorted to every conceivable device to fill the walls and the coffers of Carinhall, bargaining, cheating, even invoking where necessary the prestige of German arms or the terrible threat of intervention by the Gestapo.
Whereas the basic directive of November 18, 1940, the potent Führerbefehl, reserved for the Chief of the Nazi State the formal right of disposition over all cultural goods confiscated from the occupied countries, Göring, capitalizing on Hitler's relative apathy in these matters, kept the bulk of the loot for himself.