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.

>Review: Der Neunte Tag

>German director Volker Schlöndorff is probably best known to American audiences for his dreary 1990 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s clichéd, anti-conservative hack-job-cum-novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”, starring Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall, which is not the best of cinematic calling cards. However in his recent film “Der Neunte Tag” (“The Ninth Day”), Schlöndorff presents an unexpectedly thoughtful look at the moral dilemmas facing a priest from Luxembourg during World War II. Based on the prison writings of Father Jean Bernard, the film follows a young priest who has been interned in the Dachau concentration camp. While the end result would probably have been more effective as a stage play, it does provide the viewer with some touching examples of faith in the midst of impossible circumstances.

Father Henri Kremer has been sent to Dachau for helping the resistance against the Nazis, and the film establishes very early on how much the Catholic clergy had to suffer for refusing to collaborate with their overlords. The goal of the guards is to give ever so slightly better treatment – comparatively – to the clerics, which the priests realize is meant to have the other prisoners turn on them. This does not mean that the men get off lightly, however. There is a harrowing scene in which one of them is taken out, beaten senseless, a barbed wire crown of thorns is shoved onto his head, and he is left hanging on a cross to die.

However there is faith and beauty even among the unimaginable ugliness. In a well-staged, surreptitiously celebrated mass Schlöndorff imagined for the film, a number of the prisoners sing bawdy sailor shanties to cover up the voices of the priests saying the Eucharistic Prayer and using a ration of bread for the Consecration. We learn that the interned priests come from all over the countries occupied by the Nazis, yet despite their linguistic barriers they manage to build a type of temporary religious community among themselves.

It is from this environment that Father Kremer is surprised to find himself given a nine-day leave back to his native Luxembourg, where he learns that his mother has died, his sister and her husband are expecting their first child, and his elder brother is trying to bribe the local SS to obtain protection for his family. His bishop has been holed up in the chancery, feigning illness, and refusing to speak with the new regime; he has the great bell of the cathedral rung every day as a protest of the occupation. While on leave he meets with Lieutenant Gebhardt, a former seminarian and now a member of the Gestapo, and learns why he has been placed on leave. Gebhardt tries to convince Father Kremer to use his influence with the bishop to have the diocese endorse the new Nazi regime, and threatens to have all of the priests of the diocese killed if Father Kremer does not comply.

The most interesting moments of the film are the conversations between Gebhardt and Father Kremer about the concepts of salvation and damnation, particularly as personified in the relationship between Jesus and Judas. Gebhardt, being a trained seminarian, has used his knowledge to create a twisted version of Catholic theology with which he tries to convince Father Kremer to collaborate with the Nazis. In Gebhardt’s view, Judas should actually be viewed as a heroic figure for what he brought about for mankind. Father Kremer himself is carrying around guilt for what he perceives as an act of betrayal of one of his prison comrades, and the argument that there is no salvation without betrayal begins to gnaw at his conscience.

The ladies with whom I watched this film thought that Ulrich Matthes, who plays Father Kremer, was not charismatic enough to feel any real sympathy for, but I have to disagree. The casting of this role, of a priest with dead eyes, emaciated and haunted by what he has seen and experienced in the dehumanizing atmosphere of Dachau, would have been ruined by the choice of another actor. Matthes is at times inscrutable, so deadened by his experiences that the viewer has to project onto him what he would do under similar circumstances – and this in my opinion is the mark of a good director and actor in this type of morality tale.

“The Ninth Day” is not really for the kiddies, though it is not nearly as harrowing a view of the Holocaust as some more recent films. I did come away from it thinking that older children, perhaps around Confirmation age, who are already versed in Church history to a reasonable extent, would be well-served by seeing and discussing it. The choices Father Kremer must make are those that most Catholics in this country will never have to make on such an heroic scale, and yet the seductive voice whispering to us to become complicit with immorality and evil, is just as present in contemporary society.