Avert Your Eyes, Children: America’s Nazi Collections

Last evening PBS re-broadcast the superb documentary “The Rape of Europa”, a two-hour film on the Nazi pillaging of public and private art collections across the continent, and their destruction of the world’s architectural and artistic patrimony. Based on the fascinating book by Lynn Nicholas, I wrote about this series when it aired previously. Among the many remarkable stories was that of a little French librarian whose work as a sort of art spy eventually led to the restitution of numerous works to the families and institutions whose pieces had been stolen. (N.B. I am still dumbfounded by the fact that no one has yet, to my knowledge, made a film about the life and exploits of Mme. Valland: what a story there is to tell about her heroism.)

During the course of re-watching the film, another detail caught my attention which I had not focused on previously. In all sincerity, both the book and the documentary are so chock-full of remarkable stories – sometimes horrific, sometimes inspiring – that the mind does not know where to focus, so overwhelming is the subject matter and the stories that are being told. In this particular instance however, the filmmakers made reference to the fact that, surely unbeknownst to many, the U.S. Army collected and archived an enormous amount of paintings by Nazi-approved artists, often portraits of Hitler and his henchmen.

Readers may or may not be aware that Adolf Hitler started out life as an artist, but was denied entry to Vienna’s Academy of Fine Art since he was not a painter of any great talent. In the documentary, we are taken to a U.S. Army storage vault, where a number of watercolors by Hitler are kept in a drawer. As the camera pans around the room, we see that there are hundreds of paintings being stored there. Glimpses of just a few of them show Nazi propaganda themes and the types of happy-peasant genre paintings that all dictators, not just Hitler, usually tend to enjoy.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the size of Hitler’s propaganda machine, after the war the efforts of American forces to get these things out of the public eye resulted in the carrying away of many thousands of pieces. These were kept in military hands for decades, until the early 1980s when the U.S. and then-West Germany came to an agreement about the return of these pieces. A committee was formed to work on the repatriation of most of the works, which in the end numbered about 6,000 pieces.

The remaining 400 pieces were kept by the United States and are archived at the U.S. Army Center of Military History and the U.S. Air Force Art and Museum Branch. As the narrator explained in the documentary, these pieces are often so polemic that the military, in its wisdom, believes they are too controversial to put on display. However, some of the works are put into appropriate exhibitions when the occasion warrants, such as for an exhibition at the Holocaust Museum or in a retrospective in one of the military museums on different aspects of World War II.

For my part, I am very happy that the U.S. military has the common sense not to put images of evil mass murderers on display, unlike those who enjoy wearing t-shirts with images of Che Guevara or displaying Warhol posters of Chairman Mao. The concealment of these images for the sake of public decency also brings home to us the great power of art to influence the human mind. Manipulation of the image can lead to remarkably inaccurate understandings of individuals.

For example, by all accounts Hitler was, in person, an undistinguished, pudgy midget; not surprising as both he and most of his Nazgul started out as a bunch of nobody-social climbers. Yet through the use of image manipulation, their propaganda art portrays them as giant, heroic figures. Similarly, consider the figure of Josef Stalin which we have been conditioned to accept as one of a giant bear of a man, as a result of the statues, portraits, and posters created of him during his reign of terror. In truth, “Uncle Joe” was only about 5 foot 6 inches tall – shorter in fact than the rather petite Harry Truman, who stood 5 foot 9 inches. This is nothing against those of shorter stature, of course, but it is often the case that smaller-scaled men of evil intent – be they Hitler, Napoleon, or other monsters of history – like to imagine themselves as being tall, and because of the power they yield no one has the courage to make fun of them to their faces.

The fact that the Nazi paintings are safely housed in military hands, away from public eyes, is a very good thing; no one wants that ridiculously tacky image of wee little Hitler dressed as a knight but looking more like St. Joan of Arc with a mustache hanging at the National Gallery. The long-term question of what to do with these Nazi works however, is an open-ended one, and one which I suspect neither I nor the contemporary readers of this blog will ever answer. Burning would be too good for them, frankly, particularly after the many wonderful things which the Nazis themselves unfortunately burned. Will future generations, perhaps a century from now, find these images too remote in time to do any harm, and take them out of storage, or will they eventually simply rot away in their drawers and cabinets?

U.S. Military Policeman guarding crates of Nazi art.