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.
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.”
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.
In the final summer of the last millennium, I was in Berlin and decided to go visit the Reichstag building. One did not need an appointment or security clearance for this at that time. I walked around Norman Foster’s dome and peered down into the debating chamber of the Bundestag. This time around, I’d left it till too late to make the appointment, so The Family and I did not get to go up to the dome. On the cold and rainy afternoon of our last day in Berlin we walked up to this famous building.
As we walked around it we reminded ourselves of the history of this building. The original parliament building dated from the 1890s, and was abandoned after a fire in 1933. The fire was blamed on a Dutch communist, Van der Lubbe, who was found in the neighbourhood. We recalled bits and pieces of the controversy around it. Although the Nazi court sentenced Van der Lubbe to death by beheading (while finding four co-defendants not guilty), there were claims even then that the fire had actually been set by the Nazis. It has been claimed many times that a single person working alone would not have had time to set such a large fire. Goering’s name was associated with the fire multiple times but this was never proved. Historians remain divided over the incident.
What is well-documented is that Hitler used this incident as an excuse to get the then-president, Paul von Hindenberg, to pass a decree which allowed opponents of the Nazi party to be imprisoned (by suspending the right called Habeas Corpus), and to censor and suppress publications which criticized the Nazis (and also allowing the government to examine personal mails). The fire happened 6 days before the German parliamentary election of 1933. So before the election already Hitler arrested many members of the Communist Party, Social Democrats and the right-wing Catholic Center Party. Nazi organizations including the SS and Brownshirts were sworn in as auxiliary police to monitor the elections. We did not remember at that time that the Nazi party still got less than a majority of votes.
A little memorial outside the Reichstag building is devoted to the 92 parliamentarians who were arrested and murdered by the Nazi party. The rain was like a fog which had condensed into drops just large enough to fall. This dreary weather seemed like the right time to remember when large scale political murders enabled the Nazis to seize absolute power and shut down German democracy. The memorial consists of uneven iron plates, about knee-high, on which the names of the murdered parliamentarians are etched along with their party, the prison or concentration camp where each was interred, and the date of their death.
We knew that the parliament never reconvened in this building, but still forget it when we see photos of Soviet soldiers posing in front of it. The restoration work in the 1990s was seen in Germany as the final end to the war. In a sense then, the war which started in 1914 ended in 1989. At least two empires were destroyed during this period, two more arose during it and vanished again in this 75 years long war. Several countries were devastated. Some thought briefly that the end of the war was the end of history.
We walked out on the muddy path that leads to the modern building which houses the offices of the parliament. Signs pointing in that direction said Paul Loebe House. This has the offices of the Bundestag. The inevitable question has a simple answer. The German parliament was called the Reichstag in the 1890s. It is now called the Bundestag. The parliament still debates in the old Reichstag building, but all the offices are in the modern buildings here and across the Spree which seem deliberately low-key.