The Machinery of Nazi Art Looting

The Nazi Law on the Confiscation of Cultural Property in Poland
  • Wojciech W. Kowalski


World war II is commonly associated first of all with tremendous human losses and demolished towns, which were often left in almost complete ruin. In view of millions of victims, tragic memories from the death camps, or photographs of the sea of ruins, the plunder of works of art, even though effected on a massive scale, seems to make no impression.1 In fact, it is often treated as less important, especially since a considerable part of the plundered cultural property was restored after the war. This ‘second position’ on the list of war misfortunes should not, however, overshadow the extent of the losses that resulted from thoroughly planned and meticulously organized confiscation of works of art, books and archives. As in many other fields of activity, the Nazi machine generally operated with no failures, and the goals that it was supposed to achieve were often diversified, depending, for example, on the nationality of the people subjected to expropriation, or on the occupied country in which it functioned.


Cultural Property Executive Order Public Possession Cultural Good Occupied Territory 
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  1. 2.
    As an official French report noted: ‘Différentes méthodes furent employées par les Allemands en vue d’accaparer des objets d’art ou précieux. La méthode officielle incombait à l’Organisation Rosenberg, que présidait Goering; elle consistait à profiter de l’occupation pour enlever toutes les collections juives, (…) Le contenu des Musées nationaux, évacué dès le début de la guerre vers les châteaux de la Loire et du Sud-Ouest, est resté en France. Le Traité de Paix devait s’en occuper. Par contre, près de 2.000 piéces du Musée de l’Armée furent emmenées en Allemagne. La plupart ont été retrouvées d’ailleurs. (…) En province, les “déménagements” des musées n’ont été ni nombreux ni importants :…’. Spoliations et restitutions des biens culturels publics et privés. (Objets d’art ou précieux). La Documentation Française. Notes et Etudes Documentaires. No. 1. 109, Paris, 14 Avril 1949, pp.3–4. For more details on the relevant Nazi policy towards France see also: Ch. de Jaeger, The Linz File, Hitler’s Plunder of Europe’s Art. (Exeter, Webb & Bower, 1981), p.64 et seq.;Google Scholar
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    For more details see: W. Kowalski, Liquidation of the Effects of World War II in the Area of Culture, (Warsaw: Institute of Culture, 1994), p.21.Google Scholar
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    Background of these legislative works is shown by L. Wooley in A Record of the Work done by the Military Authorities for the Protection of the Treasures of Art and History in War Areas (London, HMSO, 1947), p.5.Google Scholar
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    The 1998 catalogue of lost Polish painting gives more precise data referring only to 442 pictures, while the office responsible for the work on this catalogue gathered more general and often only fragmentary information on about 4600 lost paintings. It is generally acknowledged that the second number also does not reflect real losses. A. Tyczynska, K. Znojewska, Wartime Losses. Polish Painting, Oil Paintings, Pastels, Watercolours lost between 1939 and 1945 within the post-1945 Borders of Poland (Poznan, Ministerstwo Kultury i Sztuki: Biuro Pelnomocnika Rządu do Spraw Polskiego Dziedzictwa Kulturalnego za Granica, 1998).Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2001

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  • Wojciech W. Kowalski

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