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Art Stash May Include Nazi Loot

During and after the war in Europe the Allies recovered five million works of art and cultural relics looted by the Nazis. But 1,400 pieces that got away are now upending the art world.

A magazine in Germany revealed in November that authorities there have confiscated hundreds of works— believed to have a collective value of as much as $1.4 billion—held by the heir of a German art dealer who had close ties to the Nazis.

The brouhaha dates to the 1930s, when the Nazis, who scorned modernist art as “degenerate” for its makers’ apparent lack of self-control, passed legislation authorizing confiscation of such materials by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Henry Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, and many others from museums and households. To dispose of the stolen hoard, the Reich recruited four art dealers, including Hildebrand Gurlitt, who also acquired art in Paris and claimed later to have been defending avant-garde artists even as he did the Nazis’ bidding.

Allied art specialists known as the Monuments Men, the subjects of a recent motion picture, detained Gurlitt in 1945, seizing 163 pieces that he insisted he owned legally. Gurlitt claimed records proving his ownership were destroyed in the bombing of Dresden. Authorities released the dealer and eventually returned the art to him. He died in 1956, leaving the artworks to his son, Cornelius, who kept much of the collection in a Munich flat from which he rarely emerged. Now serious questions have arisen about the Gurlitt collection’s provenance, leading Jewish groups to pressure Germany to ensure that artwork stolen before and during the war is returned to its rightful owners.

In 2010, customs officials questioned 77-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt as he was returning home from Switzerland carrying 9,000 euros—about $12,200—in cash. That find triggered a tax investigation, and in 2012 German authorities seized about 1,400 works of art from Gurlitt’s residence. The government kept the case secret until November 2013, when the German magazine Focus reported on it. The younger Gurlitt has parted with individual pieces. In 2011, he sold The Lion Tamer by German artist Max Beckmann for $1.17 million and turned 45 percent of the proceeds over to its former owners, a Jewish family, according to The New York Times.

German authorities say Cornelius Gurlitt legally owns hundreds of the disputed artworks, which they plan to return to him, but experts are examining 970 of the paintings to determine whether the Third Reich stole them. Of 25 pieces identified publicly so far, curators have flagged four as having been in museum collections before the war. However, the 1938 mandate authorizing seizure of the art remains on the books. No postwar German government has moved to overturn that measure, in part because nullifying the Nazi law would entangle countless transactions involving repatriated artworks.

Do You Know These Soldiers?

Traveling to European battlegrounds with the American Red Cross, Elizabeth Black at first gave out candy, smokes, and coffee, but her real skills came to the fore and soon she was sketching GIs in charcoal. Black, who died in 1983, saved copies of about 100 portraits along with her journal of those days and thank-you notes from troops. Her son discovered the collection in a footlocker in 2010. Now WQED, a TV station in Pittsburgh that based a documentary on Black, a native of the city, is trying to find veterans who were her subjects, or their families, to give them their portraits. Families can search the portraits at wqed. org/elizabethblack.

Japanese Monster Sub Spotted in the Deep

A World War II veteran and early Cold War casualty has been found off Oahu: Japan’s I-400, one of the biggest, most advanced submarines of its time. In August, scientists with the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory studied the hulk from aboard a submersible hovering 2,300 feet down.

“We were approaching what looked like a large wreck on our sonar,” said lab operations director Terry Kerby. “It was a thrill when the view of a giant submarine appeared out of the darkness.” Researchers, who had expected the sub to be farther out to sea, delayed publicizing the discovery until December, after American and Japanese officials had reviewed their findings.

The 400-foot, 5,900-ton Sen-Tokuclass boats, more than twice the size of the era’s biggest American subs, had a range of 37,500 miles. The Imperial Navy ordered 18; three were built. The I-400, I-401, and I-402 had 144-man crews trained to transport, launch, and retrieve as many as three Seiran seaplane bombers. Each of the giant subs also had eight forward torpedo tubes, automatic weapons, and naval guns.

In mid-1945, strategists were planning to send two of the huge vessels to destroy the Panama Canal’s Gatun Locks—until Okinawa fell. Instead, the I-400 and I-401 would raid Ulithi, where American aircraft carriers were staging to invade the home islands. Before that sortie could take place, Japan surrendered, and the victors seized the leviathans. The Allies had agreed to share recovered Japanese military technology, but rather than let the Soviets examine the super-subs, the Americans scuttled the I-402 off Japan and, in June 1946, after months of intense scrutiny, sank the I-400 and the I-401 off Hawaii. The I-401 was found in 2005. There are no plans to salvage the sub. Researcher Jim Delgado told Reuters that seeing the I-400 in its grave is “like watching a shark at rest.”

Chinese Nationalists’ War Role Reappraised

Furor over neglect of a wartime cemetery near Kunming in southern China suggests Chinese veterans of World War II are beginning to get their historic due.

A forested slope is the resting place for hundreds of Nationalist troops who served with the Flying Tigers—American airmen who helped defend China.

Volunteers found the burial site strewn with trash in 2007. Kunming officials promised a cleanup but that did not occur, triggering outrage at the disrespect shown to the wartime dead. “Japanese Class A war criminals are enshrined as national heroes in the Yasukuni Shrine,” writer Bei Cun declared. “But Chinese Flying Tigers war heroes are seen as trash to be discarded on a hillside.”

The Nationalists, toppled in 1949 by Mao Zedong’s Communists, were the butt of international scorn for decades. Now historians hail them for keeping as many as 500,000 Japanese troops fighting in Asia and not in the Pacific. Oxford University historian Rana Mitter, author of Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II 1937–1945 (see “Who Lost (and Won) China?” November/ December 2013), credits politics in part for the attitude adjustment. Beijing wants to mend fences, push reunification with Taiwan, and stoke hostility toward Japan, Mitter notes. “Anyone who looks at East Asia today will perceive that Chinese anger against Japan has increased compared to three or four decades ago,” he says. “The narrative of a united front between Nationalists and Communists is part of the toolkit for creating that anger.”

Do Nazi Bones Lie in a Jewish Cemetery?

As Soviet forces entered Berlin in May 1945, Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller vanished. Over the years, rumors flew: Müller, the highest-ranking Nazi to go unaccounted for, was in Czechoslovakia. No, Argentina. No, Panama.

Now evidence suggests that the Gestapo head, who helped plan the Holocaust at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, died as the Third Reich unraveled—and lies in a Jewish graveyard. “I can’t think of a worse desecration of a Jewish cemetery than to bury Heinrich Müller there,” Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The New York Times. German paper Bild broke the story.

Müller was last seen alive in the Reich Chancellery the night of May 1–2, 1945. Johannes Tuchel, director of Berlin’s German Resistance Memorial Center, says “clear-cut” evidence shows he died in Berlin at war’s end. Müller had “told several people his intention to commit suicide by shooting himself,” says Tuchel. He claims Müller was consigned to a grave near Luftwaffe headquarters.

In August 1945, workers found his remains, which they reburied—at the site of a Jewish cemetery the Nazis had destroyed in 1943. A gravedigger who identified Müller’s body in 1945 reported that sighting in 1963, but officials did nothing, Tuchel says. Soviet occupation of East Germany kept American and Israeli investigators out of the cemetery’s vicinity until long after the Berlin Wall came down.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.