Filling in the Gaps

Historian Jonathan Petropoulos sheds light on art stolen by the Nazis -- and encourages American museums to do the same

"Because the art theft precedes the deportations and the murders, it is part of the process. So when you see what people in the art world ultimately do, it's really horrifying. It's not just 'I made a mistake.' It's being part of the worst crime in human history."

The figures Petropoulos describes in The Faustian Bargainhad several characteristics in common. For the most part, they were of modest abilities (the intellectual stars escaped, resisted or were killed). None of them was a true believer when the Nazis came to power, but as these people began to serve the Third Reich -- and began to profit enormously from that service -- their personal ideologies came into strict conformance with the regime.

"Corruption is one of the most fascinating subjects," says Petropoulos. "It's so complex, and we'll never understand it completely. Why are people corrupted? They're corrupted because of misplaced ideals. They're corrupted by proximity to power.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art provides a site specifically for its Provenance Research Project, where paintings such as Lucas Cranach the Elder's "Christ Blessing the Children" can be found, along with each work's history of ownership and question marks where there are gaps.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art provides a site specifically for its Provenance Research Project, where paintings such as Lucas Cranach the Elder's "Christ Blessing the Children" can be found, along with each work's history of ownership and question marks where there are gaps.

"My figures in The Faustian Bargain, I identified with them very, very much. They were people, much like myself, who were educated, who had careers that were going quite well, who basically seemed like myself. And to see the decisions they made -- it's a very disturbing realization. When you write about Hitler or Goebbels or Himmler and try to understand their understanding of culture, you have to identify with them and try to understand their thinking and their worldview. But they're so different than I am or than we are. You don't identify with them very much.

"But when you have an [art dealer such as] Karl Haberstock or Ernst Buchner or Kajetan Mhlmann and you look at their career paths, and, until the age of 25 or 30, it looks so much like me or people I know, and then you see what they end up doing."

When culture is so lauded as an ameliorative to society, Petropoulos notes the paradox the Nazis leave behind: "They cared about culture and they devoted so much time to it, were great patrons and spent more on culture than most other regimes. It's something we have to reconcile."

In many ways, we've yet to reconcile the relationship between the art museum and the death camp.

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