Theft

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.

My world in mid-July

A response to a challenge by a Lens Artist needed some thought. A response needed me to show you my world. I decided to select a picture from each year, as close to mid-July as I can get. Usually the monsoon is at its heaviest in mid-July, which lets me show a season I love. I stayed home some years. In others I traveled. I see that this is a fair picture of what I spend my time on. The series spans the period from 2006, which is represented by the featured photo, to the hard lockdown of 2020.

As always, click on any photo to get to the gallery.

A decade of Diwali

2011 Tokyo: This was a quick visit to a small private university known mainly for its departments of music. I remember this meeting now as a time when I caught up with old friends, and made some new ones.

2012 Hong Kong: We planned this long lay over so that we could make a short trip into the city, look at the main sights, eat in one of the small but brilliant places in TST, and scope it out for a longer visit. We still haven’t made the return trip.

2013 Mumbai: I don’t remember why we didn’t travel that year. Perhaps we put off the planning for too long.

2014 Germany: A last minute trip to celebrate the 65th birthday of a colleague. I remember meeting up with so many friend; it was such a pleasant trip. Diwali should be a time like this.

2015 Germany

The featured photo is from that year’s trip. Another trip for a friend’s birthday. Again a lovely meeting with many people, but it rained all the time.

2016 Bangkok: We’d thought it would be a relaxed weekend, but it turned out to be hectic. We did enjoy this ice cream which looked like a plate of katsu.

2017 Mumbai: I remember this year quite definitely. We stayed home because we had traveled in October and we had a family trip planned for December. It is good to stay home for Diwali now and then.

2018 Guangzhou: One of the most charming cities that I have been to. The Family and I sat by the Pearl river on the evening of Diwali and had a long dinner.

2019 Wuhan: I wasn’t to know it for another three months, but the flu that I caught was to lay the world low the next year. Apart from that, I enjoyed this trip. Wuhan normally is a lively town.

2020 Mumbai: Like everyone else, we spent the year at home. We met family in fits and starts. A few people came home over the month, and the day after we had our first large family gathering, risky, of the year.

There’s a bit of contrast between previous years and now, but we are not doing things we’ve never done before. Its just that we’ve never done so much of the same thing before.

Three views of a chalet

Doing a deep dive into my archives, I came across photos of a trip to the Harz. This is a rugged part of Germany at an elevation of a little more than one kilometer above sea level, which lies inside a trapezoid with corners at Gottingen, Brunswick, Magdeburg, and Halle. It had snowed heavily in February of 2006. When a plan was being formed to go skiing for a weekend, I decided to join in. It was more than fifteen years since I’d done any skiing, but I figured that its like riding a bicycle or swimming. Your muscles don’t forget how to do it.

This is absolutely true. You need to add though, that the level of skill which comes back depends a lot on how you have treated your muscles. In those years I’d let my muscles go slack. Two of my colleagues were Finns, who’d been on cross country skis since they were children. The other was a very fit German, who, although new to the sport, picked up the basic skills very fast. So, early on the first day, I told them to not hang around waiting for me to catch up. Soon I was alone in that wonderful terrain: all snow and sky, covering what looked, in this season, like rolling hills.

The chalet that we stayed in for those three nights was nicely isolated, and stood under a stand of spruce trees. As the light changed during the day, the look of the place changed quite dramatically. The featured photo was taken in the evening, as the light began to turn red. The green of the spruce looked almost black in this light. The next photo was from mid-morning. I liked the extreme purity of the snow in the white band across the bottom of the photo. That final photo of the door to the chalet was taken in the blue hour.

A summer memory

A single photo brought back a memory of a leisurely summer afternoon in Germany almost exactly a decade ago. This was at the house of a friend since my university days. I spent many pleasant days at his place, a home away from home. There were leisurely Christmas days, hectic weddings, and then long, warm, pleasant afternoons in the garden. Cakes, kuchen, are something special in Germany, and my friend’s mother had a special touch. This is one of the many cakes I remember trying not to eat all of. It was perhaps the only one I took a photo of before I bit into a slice.

My first walk with a digital camera

I realize that I’ve been using a digital camera for fifteen years now. I was in Germany, and The Family was supposed to join me at Christmas, which we would spend in Vienna. We had all our bookings done, including tickets for concerts and shows. Her bag, with her passport, was stolen before we left Duesseldorf airport. That’s when we realized that the old borders of EU were not really forgotten. We were not allowed to fly without a passport. So we tried to cancel whatever we could and changed our Christmas plans. On the 23rd of December we decided to make a day trip to Bremen. The featured photo shows a pub sign which incorporates the fairy tale characters of the town musicians of Bremen, one of the stories collected by the Grimm brothers.

The weather was grim when we got off the train, cloudy and a temperature just above freezing. We walked to the old town, past the town hall, the square where the Christmas market surrounded the sculpture of the four musicians which was a local landmark, and on to the picturesque region of Schnoor. Bremen has been an important port since the middle ages, and therefore seen a lot of wars. It was pretty heavily bombed in the second World War, but the old town still had a few medieval timber-frame houses standing. They were fitted with pretty modern doors and windows though (I guess bombs must have blown out all the glass even if the structure was not damaged). The quaint houses stood out against the brick walls of the buildings that were put up at the beginning of the German recovery.

Bremen is considered a little special in Germany: a member of the Hansa trading league, then after the end of the first World War a Socialist republic for less than a month, later a holdout against Nazism until it was brutally taken over, and even now more working class, Green, and left-wing than much of Germany. Still, it is Germany after all, pretty prosperous and orderly, a pleasure to walk through, stop for coffees and beers, and the hearty lunches that make so much sense in that weather. I had still not got the hang of digital photography: the idea that you take an enormous number of photos and preserve them forever.

Around the world in two hundred days

I woke up dreaming of a trip around the world in container ships. How long would it take? It seems that container ships prefer to travel at speeds of 6 to 8 knots. At this speed they’ll cover about 300 kilometers in a day. If you travel around the equator in such a ship it might take you 110 to 150 days. Add in port calls (the featured photo is of Hamburg port), it might take you about 200 days. I’ve spent half that time sitting at home already. To think that I could easily have gone halfway around the world in this time!

Wandering through museums

There is something refreshing about the blank spaces of museums. On an otherwise hectic day, you might enter a museum, walk through galleries full of bright paintings hung on dull coloured walls, and emerge with a new view on the bustle outside. A museum’s galleries are designed not to call attention to themselves. These photos were taken in Duesseldorf’s K20, built in 1986. I took these photos soon after the architects, Dissing+Weitling of Copenhagen, became famous for their design of the Oresund bridge. They capture my experience of walking through any modern museum: long views through doorway after doorway, the enveloping quietness.

The long sight lines are part of the design, making a museum guard’s job easier. It is not an easy job; having to stand for hours, keeping an eye on all visitors. Now and then, when I enter a museum at an off-peak time, I can see one sitting down, perhaps to read a newspaper. Otherwise they are usually on their beat, perhaps occasionally exchanging a few words with a colleague. It wasn’t a dangerous job till now.

The center of Muenster

When we arrived at the vast marketplace in front of Muenster’s catherdral, two things were on my mind: there would probably be a Christmas market here in a few weeks, and there is probably a farmer’s market here on Saturdays. I said as much to The Family, and she said “Too bad then. This is just a Sunday in November.” The cathedral is also huge: more than a hundred meters in length. Every meter seems to be well documented in its Wikipedia page.

We entered through the narthex called Paradise, and found that the morning service was in progress. We waited for a while and looked at the Old Choir, which is in the Romanesque part of the church. I like the name “God’s rotary dial” which is sometimes used to refer to the small windows above the Baroque altar here. After a while we left, wandered across the stream called Aa which runs nearby, and came back much later.

The service had concluded, but we found that sections of the church were closed. A famous astronomical clock that we wanted to see could not be accessed. We walked around the huge church admiring the wooden statuary which is so common in these parts of Germany. The elaborate Epitaphs were not a patch on them. But I think what both of us liked was the doorbell in the shape of a dove; not terribly well made, but interesting.

The odd corner where the modern world was born

Even today, the basic laws of the modern world sound very radical: that states have the right to determine the system they live under, that minorities are protected within each state, and that states are sovereign. The small building called the Ratskammer (town hall) in Muenster looks similar to those around it, perhaps a few more decorative curlicues than the ones around it. Maybe a touch more gold. But in the mid 17th century the building in the featured photo was where diplomats representing 194 different European sovereigns gathered to hammer out a detailed treaty based on these principles.

We entered the building and saw many little groups speaking Dutch scattered about the long vestibule. We bought our tickets and walked into a little chamber at the end of the hall. The richly carved wood paneling was the only indication that this room was so important in history. A muted recording looped over a description of the historical events that happened in this room: the haphazard gathering of diplomats, the negotiations, and the signing of two treaties, one of which gave rise to The Netherlands.

I’d been here once more than thirty years back. Then, as now, I had a sense of alienation. Could the rules which govern the modern world have really been negotiated in such a small place? The Family walked around quite bemused. I busied myself taking photos of the wooden panels. Below them were hard wooden benches. I wondered whether the delegates brought their own cushions. Did they also bring their own food? The countryside around here must have been ravaged by a generation-long war. The room did look like the one in the painting by Gerard ter Borch, but that did not give the correct sense of size.

Two of the walls were covered with portraits of the diplomats at the peace conference. I saw many Dutch names, some Spanish, some French, and others whom I could not map on to a modern country. I’m not a historian, after all. We looked at the portraits and tried to imagine the people behind them. I must report utter failure; these were people from a different world who could see that something new was needed, but never lived in the world that they created. What political compromises did they have to make?

Over the centuries a place like this collects other things. One case contained a golden cockerel which predates the negotiations. Apparently it can hold about one bottle of wine. This was offered to important guests of the city as an honour. Muenster was a Hansa town, and could presumably afford these small indulgences.

The really weird stuff was in a different case: one of a pair of slippers and a severed hand. There are no real explanations about why they are there, just a bunch of stories. Eventually you figure out that they are there because no one can make a decision to move them elsewhere. They just make the room look a little more odd. To think that absolutely revolutionary changes were made in a room where such small decisions cannot be made!