Decades ago I stood in front of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer on show in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna (the featured image is a detail taken from Wikimedia Commons). So, when The Family decided to stream Helen Mirren’s movie The Woman in Gold, I jumped to the conclusion that I knew the sad ending of the story. I had not known that this was piece of art that the Nazis had stolen. George Clooney’s movie Monuments Men had told the story of a platoon of soldiers tasked by the US president Franklin Roosevelt to recover the stolen artworks before Hitler’s orders to destroy them could be carried out. Herman Goering had set up a clearing house for stolen art in the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris. An older movie with Burt Lancaster, The Train, had told the story of how the French resistance had delayed a train full of stolen art from leaving Paris just before it was liberated by the Allies. After watching Mirren’s film, we talked of corrupt governments and stolen art, still residing in museums in Berlin, London, Paris, New York, as well as the 21st century theft of Iraqi heritage.

Anthony Hopkins and others in the Merchant-Ivory film Remains of the Day

Other movies led to other thoughts. Watching Anthony Hopkins as the butler imagined by Kazuo Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day, I asked myself about the economics of the Nazi era. There is a whole Wikipedia page on the businesses that collaborated in the Holocaust. Goering, Hitler, von Ribbentrop, are recorded as having looted art, and in a government that allows looting of one kind, surely other kinds of theft must have happened. The Nazi era is still under academic investigation, and the wealth of material available today is stunning.

In 1946 the Journal of Business of the University of Chicago carried an article by Arthur Schweitzer which concluded, “In terms of status and privileges, public property of state and party occupied the first place; German big business and hereditary farms as well as quisling owners composed the group of preferred private owners. German small business and non-quisling owners suffered under extensive and deliberate discrimination.” This basic view has held up remarkably well over the last seventy five years.

Further nuance has been added. Germa Bel of the University of Barcelona argued in a paper published in 2009 that the “Nazi regime transferred public ownership and public services to the private sector. In doing so, they went against the mainstream trends in the Western capitalist countries, none of which systematically reprivatized firms during the 1930s. Privatization in Nazi Germany was also unique in transferring to private hands the delivery of public services previously provided by government.” The paper comes to the following conclusion “Ideological motivations do not explain Nazi privatization. However, political motivations were important. The Nazi government may have used privatization as a tool to improve its relationship with big industrialists and to increase support among this group for its policies. Privatization was also likely used to foster more widespread political support for the party. Finally, financial motivations played a central role in Nazi privatization.”

In Anne Frank House it is hard to tear yourself away from her hiding place

This adds a whole new layer of our understanding of the corruption in that government. It wasn’t just stealing art, or gold teeth from cadavers; the Nazis were stealing from the German people, taking from the general populace, and feeding part of the stream of money into the hands of “preferred private owners” in order to cement their hold on political power. The world war and the Holocaust were so reprehensible that it is hard to look away to see this other aspect which was equally part of the Nazi corruption of government.

Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

14 thoughts on “Theft”

    1. In the early 19th century Wellesley stopped plunder by his troops, and it slowly became kind of an convention within Europe. There was also a fairly comprehensive corruption in the Nazi government, as the rest of my post points out.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. There are some differences, though.
      First, the Nazis started looting German Jews before World War II and in a purely domestic context.
      And while some of the proceeds, especially art, went to the big shots and to German museums, the expropriation of German Jews also served to ‘buy’ the consent of the majority of the German people. Furniture from Jewish homes was auctioned off, and even neighbors jumped at the opportunity to get a piano or a couch at bargain prices. German businessmen were eager to buy up the department stores, shoe shops and factories of their erstwhile Jewish competitors. German doctors and lawyers were happy about receiving the clients that could no longer see a Jewish doctor or lawyer.
      This policy served to keep Germans acquiescent, by making them profit financially from the Holocaust. When Jewish neighbors were deported and you moved into their now empty flat, you kind of didn’t want the Jews to survive (and return home). It’s much easier to live in someone else’s house if you can think “they’re dead anyway”.

      The standard book about this whole complex, pre-war and inter-war, is probably “Hitler’s Beneficiaries” by Götz Aly:

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Excellent post!

    With so much to study about the racist ideology and the violent policies of the Nazis, their economic policy has long been overlooked, although it was absolutely intertwined.

    Recently, there was an interesting documentary on ARTE about the Nazis’ monetary and economic policy, unfortunately only available in French (and German):

    And economic thinking not only governed external policies. Even German families were asked to consider how much the government would need to spend on sustaining handicapped people and if, maybe, it wouldn’t be better to “euthanize” them. Sadly, many families were ready to oblige and sent their children to a clinic, where they were killed.

    Also, in the occupied territories, immediately after Wehrmacht and SS, the Labour Agency was usually the first government agency to appear on the scene. Their job was to recruit or round up workers, often by force, and ship them to Germany. Profit was absolutely a guiding principle of the whole war, as well as of the Holocaust.

    Liked by 1 person

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