They were the souls of sincerity

The Times 9 June 2000
Ian Buruma

THE FAUSTIAN BARGAIN. The art world in Nazi Germany. Jonathan Petropoulos.
395pp. Allen Lane The Penguin Press. Pounds 20. - 0 713 99438 X.

Dedicated to art: scholarship and idealism in the Third Reich.

A common phrase in the obituaries of famous artists is that he, or she, "lived entirely for his (her) art", or, in a slight variation on the same theme, "dedicated his (her) life to art". This is generally held to be a good thing.

It suggests sacrifice and dedication to something higher, greater and deeper than the mundane business of simply doing a job, or being an upstanding citizen, or a good family man. Dedication to art has acquired an almost religious dimension in our secular age, when museums are being turned more and more into temples and artists into prophets. Art is just about the last cause left, after the collapse of Church and revolution, to which human sacrifice, of the artist, and even of his loved ones, is still often regarded as necessary, even laudable.

Germany before the Second World War probably had more citizens who were dedicated to art than any other nation on earth, more even than France. Art, since Richard Wagner, really was a German religion. Art history was virtually a German invention. Music and poetry were the finest expressions of the German soul. Every educated middle-class family aspired to imbibe something of this spirit, as though

Kultur were something like the sacred incense that leaves holy traces on the worshipper.

This produced many splendid things. Not only did Germany have the greatest orchestras and opera houses, but German scholars of art were among the best in the world. And artistic knowledge was not limited to the universities. Especially during the Weimar years, there were a large number of popular guides and books on art for the general reader. Since not a few of the most distinguished art historians and art-book publishers in Germany happened to be Jews, Britain and America received the benefit of their invaluable skills as soon as Hitler began his demolition job on German culture in the early 1930s.

Not all of them were Jewish, however. 'The Faustian Bargain: The art world of Nazi Germany', by Jonathan Petropoulos, is about art historians, art dealers, art journalists and artists, who not only stayed in Germany after 1933, but, in one way or another, helped and benefited from the Nazi enterprise. Some were opportunists, some were fanatics, and some just continued doing their work, fastidiously averting their gaze from the unpleasantness their own endeavours might well have been promoting, justifying, or at least supplying with a facade of respectability. Most of them, disingenuously or not, claimed to have been dedicated to art.

Why a Faustian bargain? In Goethe's story, Faust promises his "soul" in exchange for fortune and fame. But what is soul, anyway? Is it some inner core of our being, something absolutely authentic to which we are supposed to be "true"? Is it a form of sincerity? Or is it perhaps that part of ourselves, expressed in dedication to a higher cause, the worship of God, say, or art? And what if our deepest and most sincerely held beliefs were to heighten our chances of worldly success? Would that make us insincere, or inauthentic? Would we then lose our souls? I raise these questions, because most of the figures described by Jonathan Petropoulos were true believers in the cause that made them rich and powerful.

One of them was a world-famous scholar of art, named Dr Otto Kuemmel, who ran the Berlin State Museums between 1933 and 1945. Since he was a proud and convinced Nazi, he tried to have as many party members as he could on his staff. And he contributed all his considerable expertise to the Nazi cause, by moving works of art of German origin from foreign collections back to the cultural Heimat. It was not something we would praise him for now, but it was not insincere, nor was he being untrue to himself. And so I can only assume that Dr Kuemmel died in 1952 with his soul intact. 

Petropoulos foresees a problem with his Faustian metaphor, so he stretches it a little. He writes that most of his characters "realized their responsibility for wrong-doing, even if it came after the fact, with defeat, and this indicates an awareness that a moral compromise occurred". Did it really? Weren't those belated mea culpas, intended to impress the Allied interrogators, often far more insincere than the actions for which apologies were suddenly required? Petropoulos mentions a few cases of suicide, one of which is especially pathetic. An art historian, Hermann Bunjes, killed himself and his family, after being arrested by the Americans in 1945. He was an expert on medieval French sculpture, educated at Harvard, Paris and Marburg. But he was keen enough on the Nazi Party to join the SS in 1938, which was unnecessary even for a true believer.

He also wrote learned dissertations for Heinrich Himmler with such titles as: "Forest and Tree in Aryan-German Spiritual and Cultural History".

Later, Bunjes got caught up in ever more criminal shenanigans. He channelled looted works of art from Jewish collections in France to such patrons as Himmler and Goering, and even led an expedition to seize the Bayeux Tapestry, which was regarded in his circles as a particularly fine example of Teutonic artistry. When he was captured after the war, he begged his American interrogators to find him a job, preferably in Paris. Apparently, he was afraid of German retribution, because he had been in the SS. When he failed in his attempt to secure a job with the Allies, he decided the game was up and chose to die. But was this truly because of his conscience, for having made a "pact with the devil", as Petropoulos has it? I'm not so sure. Still, even if we cannot be certain about the state of Bunjes's soul, there is surely little doubt about the sincerity of those who remained unrepentant after the war, and continued to thrive, albeit sometimes in rather suspect circles.

There is the case, for example, of Robert Scholz, who became the art critic for the main Nazi journal, the Volkische Beobachter. Like many Nazi fanatics, Scholz was born outside Germany itself, in Moravia. He joined the SA in 1933 and became a German citizen the following year. The idea of an art critic strutting around in a brown uniform might strike one as odd, but it matched his brand of art criticism. Picasso was denounced as a "Spanish Jew", and German art, in Scholz's view, had to be purged of "racially alien elements". Scholz's taste ran more to the monumental works by the likes of Arno Breker and Joseph Thorak, sculptures in marble or bronze of fine, muscle-bound Aryan specimens, carrying spears. They represented, in Scholz's words, the "great artistic impulse of the Third Reich". Like Bunjes, and indeed most prominent Nazis in the art business, Scholz was involved in looting: that is to say, in his case, supervising the removal from Paris of "ownerless Jewish property". 

Petropoulos mentions two factors that might suggest that Scholz was more than a thug, and even had principles of a kind. One was his sense of loyalty, especially to his boss, Alfred Rosenberg, the ideologue from Estonia, whose sincere belief in Nazi mumbo-jumbo went to such extremes that he was ridiculed by more cynical operators in the Third Reich. I am not sure that Scholz's loyalty to a fellow fanatic and outsider shows he had a conscience, without which a Faustian bargain cannot exist. But
perhaps there was at least a betrayal of his own taste. Petropoulos shows that Scholz had been attracted in the early 1930s to certain modern trends, especially German Expressionism. But, as Petropoulos also points out, this taste was shared by other Nazis, including Goebbels. It was Hitler who decided Expressionism was no good.

Like most characters in Petropoulos's unsavoury cast, Scholz got off rather easily after the war. The artistic heritage was used to forge a new, better Germany: Goethe and Beethoven as antidotes to Hitler's poison. In 1948, a German denazification court declared that Scholz had nothing much to answer for. And he went on to have a career of sorts, writing articles for extreme right-wing newspapers and publishing books about the glories of German art, slipping in artists of the Third Reich with more illustrious figures, like Caspar David Friedrich. He died in 1981, and was given a glowing obituary in one of the right-wing journals. The headline is here translated as: "Broad-minded Artist and Incorruptible Fighter Has Left Us for Ever". In fact, the text says "feinsinnig", meaning "sensitive", not "freisinnig", which would be "broad-minded" (not that sensitive seems quite the way to describe Scholz either).

The case of a hack like Scholz is actually less interesting than the more ambivalent cases of serious art historians, whose research into such subjects as folk culture or national character lent prestige to murderous projects.

These lines of inquiry are deeply unfashionable now, but they were not in the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries. Indeed, they were respectable in Britain, as well as Germany. Nikolaus Pevsner's teacher, Wilhelm Pinder, was a respected scholar interested in the essence of Germanness in German art. And this later drew him into the Nazi cause. 

There were others, too, such as the Austrian, Hans Sedlmeyr, whose theories on "purity" and national character put him in the Nazi camp. He became a fellow-traveller before 1938, when the party was still illegal in Austria.

There is no reason to believe that these men were opportunists. After all, when Pevsner applied his teacher's theories on national character in art to the Englishness of English art, no one ever suggested he did this to further his career in Britain. It was the way he saw things. Naturally, applying such ideas in a democracy, where minorities are not being murdered, is not the same as doing so in the Nazi State. Such men as Sedlmeyr or Pinder were either extraordinarily naive about the way their theories were being put to use, or they did not care, since they were above such things. They were, after all, scholars, not party hacks, like Scholz or Rosenberg. In other words, they were perhaps so dedicated to their art, and their theories about art, that political consequences did not really bother them, especially when they were in broad sympathy with the regime.

This, at least, would be the charitable view. But the point here is that sincerity can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than opportunism. It is possible that some art experts, engaged in artistic asset-stripping in Nazi occupied countries, were sincere when they claimed to be "saving" priceless works from the ravages of war. Petropoulos describes several instances of bravery shown by these men, when the war finally came to Germany, and they risked their lives to protect the loot. I think it is probably fair to say that to some of them at least art was more important than humanity. They found it easy to close their eyes to how a particular work was acquired, for it was the work itself that counted. Greed and power politics, especially in the case of cultural bureaucrats and museum curators, played a large part, to be sure, but I would not discount the factor of "fachidiotie", or blind dedication to one's "field".

The lesson to be drawn, then, from this depressing tale is not only that men are vile when it comes to money and power. We knew that already. What we don't always question enough is the romantic ideal of "living" for art, or science, for those who claim to do so, in all sincerity, are too often excused for failing to see the moral consequences of their idealism. As for the argument that without such morally blind dedication, great things cannot be accomplished, it is good to remember at least one great German scientist who never fell for that line, and indeed protested when he recognized it in others:  Albert Einstein.

Ian Buruma's most recent book is Voltaire's Coconuts: Anglomania in Europe, 1999.
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