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Europe's Unsavory Past

September 20, 2005

Simon Wiesenthal, a concentration camp survivor who resolutely tracked down Nazi war criminals for decades after the war, has died. His life's mission, he made emphatically clear, was to expose Nazi crimes "so the new generation knows about them, so it should not happen again."

Over the years, a number of Atlantic Monthly contributors have explored the labyrinthine legacy of Europe's Nazi past in articles ranging from exhaustive accounts of Nazi looting to examinations of the chilling inability of some Germans to shed their nostalgia for an unrecoverable past.

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In "Loot for the Master Race" (September, 1946) and "Hitler's Capital" (October, 1946), James S. Plaut told the story of Nazi art theft in occupied Europe. As director of the Art Looting Unit of the O.S.S., Plaut investigated what he called "the most extensive and highly organized series of thefts devised by a nation in modern times." In France alone a special Nazi task force seized 203 privately owned French art collections that together contained nearly 21,000 works of art.

Plaut described the aspirations of Hermann Göring, whose appetite for stolen art ran second only to that of the Fürher himself.

Hermann Göring's lawyer at Nuremberg called him a Renaissance man, failing to note 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.
Göring's looting was both an important source of revenue and a useful tool for intimidation and oppression. Plaut quotes a letter Göring wrote to "a prominent Belgian whose collection he coveted":

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to me on the discussions he had with you concerning your collection of paintings, and informed me that you had again withdrawn from your earlier position and not yet arrived at a settlement.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 again withdraw my offer, and things would go their normal way, without my being able to do anything to impede their course....

With German greetings, H. Göring
The ubiquity of Nazi oppression and the extent of the silence and collaboration of Germans, neutrals, and citizens of occupied nations have continually frustrated efforts to compensate the victims of genocide. In "Reparations" (October, 1993), Michael Z. Wise reported on the work of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, an organization that presses the leaders of unified Germany to provide monetary compensation to the victims of their predecessors.

Not only the victims are seeking compensation. In "Germania Irredenta" (July, 1996), Hans Koning examined the desire of some Germans to lay claim to land that is now a legally recognized part of the Czech Republic. Koning describes the depth of nostalgia these Germans feel for a past many never experienced. "I ... travelled by train from Berlin to Warsaw," he writes, "with a compartment full of what are called here Heimwehtouristen -- 'Homesickness tourists.' At each stop they stood at the window and discussed what this town or that town was 'really' called."

In their certainty and stridency the Heimwehtouristen demonstrate the barriers of memory and history blocking the path to European unification (as if further demonstration were needed; see our Flashbacks on Albania and the Balkans). Koning, a novelist and British Army veteran of the Second World War, expresses the surprise and outrage that many of the Reich's victims feel at the German claims.

It's a matter of the past's not being the source of any kind of German rights. If Germany had been a victor, even for a limited time, whole nations and many famous cities would have been wiped off the earth. The best that reunited Germany can ask for, it seems to me, is a clean slate.

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