by Marc Masurovsky
This is the first in a series of articles detailing the selective impact of Nazi cultural policy at the Jeu de Paume museum between September 1940 and July 1944. During that time period, the Jeu de Paume served as a central clearinghouse for artistic, cultural and religious objects confiscated from Jewish collectors in Paris and other parts of France.
One nagging question which has not received an adequate answer is the extent to which Nazi cultural policies, strictly enforced inside the Greater German Reich, were equally applied in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
If Adolf Hitler’s views about art were to be followed to the letter, any artistic object produced after the 1850s (emergence of Impressionism) would be subjected to intense scrutiny by Nazi agents operating in occupied lands, leading inevitably to seizure and confiscation (which happened in any event), censorship (recurrent but not systematic), and/or destruction.
Let’s focus on German-occupied France. There, the machinery of cultural plunder operated as follows.
Jewish collections of objects of cultural, religious and artistic value and significance became the target of confiscations orchestrated by a number of Nazi agencies, most notably the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the Kunstchutz (cultural arm of the German military administration) and assorted security agencies and police forces (Devisenschutzkommando, Gestapo, SD, etc).
Tens of thousands of objects seized in and around Paris, sometimes from as far as cities and towns in the French Southwest, were stored in a number of facilities and depots scattered about the French capital but mostly centered in its wealthier Western neighborhoods, the most important of which was the cluster comprised of the Jeu de Paume museum and three rooms provided by the Louvre Museum as a storage annex to the Jeu de Paume.
At least 20000 confiscated objects were transferred to the Jeu de Paume/Louvre complex beween 1940-1944. There, roughly 25 per cent of them were photographed, eh vast majority were inventoried, carded and assigned an ID number. ERR staff members decided which objects to transfer to the Reich, which ones should remain in occupied France and which ones should be sold and/or exchanged for “acceptable” works, namely Old Masters.
In order for the staff members of the ERR at the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume to implement Nazi cultural policies, they had to set aside those objects which did not conform to official esthetic and ideological dicta which distinguished between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” or “degenerate” art. Hitler even insisted that no French Impressionist works could enter the German Reich, irrespective of quality and value.
What happened to the objects that were set aside? Two scenarios were contemplated: either offer them for sale to local art dealers and perhaps even dealers in neighboring countries (Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain), or destroy them.
In July 1942, almost two years after the Germans invaded France, works of art not meeting Hitler’s strict esthetic and ideological considerations were inventoried separately, some of them having wallowed at the Jeu de Paume/Louvre complex since late 1940. They were subjected to a separate inventory, reassigned to new categories (Gruppe I, Gruppe II, Gruppe III, Gruppe IV), and crated separately while their fate was being decided. That process lasted until March 1943. At some point during or after this process, a decision was made to get rid of these objects after having gone through the tedium of inventorying and crating.
At least 625 paintings, 48 works on paper, two sculptures (one by Ernst Barlach and the other by Hans Arp) and one of uncertain medium (Friedrich Unger) were set aside and inventoried. Rose Valland, a French curator ordered by Louvre officials to remain at the Jeu de Paume to be the eyes and ears of the French museum administration inside the very museum where she had spent her days prior to June 1940, testified after the war that ERR staff members destroyed these objects by repeated laceration and cremated them with the help of German soldiers in a day-long bonfire on July 21, 1943. Although she witnessed some of the lacerations, she did not witness the bonfire.
The jury is still out about the bonfire having consumed hundreds of “unacceptable” works of art.
After having carefully examined the archival documentation that retraces in minute details the processing of these objects at the Jeu de Paume, we know the following:
-None of the works classified as Impressionist, Pointillist, or Fauvist, were condemned and “destroyed”.
-No work explicitly tagged as “Jude” [Jewish] by artists like Camille Pissarro and Marc Chagall was condemned and “destroyed”.
In other words, Nazi cultural policy somewhat fell apart at this moment and shifted gears, judging “unacceptable” works by their esthetic value and not by the origins of their creators.
Of the 257 collections which were carded and/or inventoried at the Jeu de Paume, 21 collections contained one or more objects which were deliberately set aside for “destruction” (vernichtet).
ERR ID Description of collection Numbers “destroyed”
Aux Auxente/Avxente/Alexandra Pregel 181
DW David David-Weill 1
ESM Edouard Esmond 30
HS Hugo Simon 12
KA Alphonse Kann 25
KAP Mrs. Kapferer 6
L.H Levi-Hermannos 1
Loewell Pierre Loewell 8
Loewenstein Fedor Loewenstein 20
MA-B Möbel-Aktion Bilder 13
MGM Michel Georges-Michel 298
PE Hugo Perls 5
Reichenbach François Reichenbach 1
Rosenberg Bernstein Paul Rosenberg [Bordeaux area] 1
Rosenberg Paris Paul Rosenberg [Floirac/Paris] 14
R Members of the French branch of the Rothschild family 8
Spira Mr. Spira 1
Spiro Eugen Spiro 18
U Friedrich Unger 4
UNB Unbekannt 18
Watson Peter Watson 9