Evil designs of pillage upon a complex cultural canvas

The Faustian Bargain
July 14, 2000

Most people are familiar with action films in which the "bad guy" can be immediately identified. Good versus evil is starkly portrayed. Usually good triumphs over evil. But in real life, the reasons why people act in certain ways may be complex and difficult to discern. The Faustian Bargain by Jonathan Petropoulos is a careful study of leading figures in the art world who supported the Third Reich in its denigration of the Jewish population and in its plunder of cultural treasures in Europe.

The book is broken into five main chapters that deal with different players in the art world: the museum directors, the art dealers, the critics, the historians and the artists. There are extensive footnotes, although Petropoulos cautions the reader that the source material is most plentiful for the Nazi leaders. At first glance, one might assume that the theft and pressurised sales of art were merely peripheral to the main events of the war and the Holocaust. However, as the author points out, the forced capture of art was part of the appalling process of dehumanising Jewish families. Art and antiquities can be of special importance to a nation, but they can also be personal to the family that possesses them in a way that money cannot. The Faustian pact can broadly be seen as an exchange of principles and integrity in return for power and knowledge. The art world provides a natural background to explore this notion. The people involved were cultured, educated professionals. Yet they descended into criminality.

Art embodies the highest ideals and reflects the culture of a nation; sadly, the people studied appear to have committed the supreme act of betrayal of their own profession. There is little evidence to suggest that they did so in order to survive. Indeed, most dealers were enthusiastic participants, although a few, such as the Duveen brothers in Paris, resisted the temptation to make easy money. Generally, members of the art world were wealthy and well-respected, and money would not have been a sufficient inducement in itself. Petropoulos demonstrates that what occurred was an exchange of principles for power. A good example he provides is Hans Posse, who became director of the Führermuseum and acquired and catalogued art confiscated from Austrian Jews. He dreamt of building up the greatest art collection in the world to gain a form of immortality. In fact, Posse died in 1942 of cancer and his dream was never realised. However, a burning desire to develop their holdings appears to have swayed a number of museum directors, such as Ernst Buchner, general director of the Bavarian state collections. There were also other factors. Great masterpieces often possess charismatic qualities and one can imagine the excitement in possessing such works. As the author points out, people sought to rationalise their behaviour by relying upon nationalist feelings and arguing that such works were best protected by being taken to Germany. There was also the excuse that they were merely following orders and that, if they failed to comply, other people would carry out the instructions. However, by doing their masters' bidding, various members of the art world (such as Karl Haberstock, a prominent dealer) helped to build up the personal collections of the Nazi leaders and thereby established close relationships with them.

A minor criticism is that Petropoulos does not distinguish sufficiently between property seized from Jewish families and that seized from a museum in an occupied country. These actions raise different legal and moral issues. This is even more obvious when the author considers the extent to which the museum directors, art critics and others supported Hitler's purge of "degenerate" modern art from state collections. In moral terms, decisions by museum directors to part with such art as quickly as possible cannot be equated with cases where Jewish families were stripped of works of art on the basis of racist laws. However, this information is rightly included by the author because there is evidence that people were drawn in,and close relationships established, at this first stage when they assisted the Nazis in ridding their country of unwanted works of art.

This book deserves a wide audience. It has an easy style and provides interesting background information not only for academics but also for those involved in the art trade. It sounds a note of warning by including stories of experts who, for money, were prepared to give a false provenance to works of art so that they could be sold after the war. A number of such paintings ended up in provincial museums, donated by people such as Haberstock. But there are more general lessons to be learnt from this book.

One of the biggest menaces to society now is the increase in global crime.It affects the art world, as criminals purchase works as part of a process of money laundering. It is insufficient to target the main actors alone. Successive governments have responded by casting the nets wider so that professionals, such as bankers and solicitors, have a duty to report suspicious movements of money. The Faustian Bargain supports the thesis that such criminals rely heavily upon supporting players for their operations. Those who shut their eyes or who are reckless are tainted morally.

Petropoulos contributes to our understanding of why members of the art world succumbed to the enticements offered during the Third Reich and why, in the end, most escaped prosecution.

Janet Ulph is lecturer in law, University of Durham.

The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany

Author - Jonathan Petropoulos
ISBN - 0 713 99438 X
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 349

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