Herman Göring’s plundered art collection now online
Hermann Göring was a senior member of the Nazi Party, an ambitious politician who occupied a number of posts in government, most notably as commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, which was no surprise given his reputation as an “ace fighter pilot” during the First World War.
He was also a keen collector of property and art, a vocation that increasingly took over his life after from 1942 onwards, as the German air force was effectively silenced by the allies. This cultural pursuit he excelled in, amassing a collection that was truly astonishing in its breadth and depth.
Needless to say, the means by which he gathered many of the prominent pieces of art was morally repugnant, ruthless and tyrannical, embezzled through the dogma of authoritarianism. No was never an option. As the writer Alan Nothnagle has wisely observed: “In the world of culture Göring is remembered as one of the greatest art collectors and art thieves in history.”
In response to the new age of the internet, this month has seen the German Historical Museum, in close collaboration with the German Federal Archive and the Federal Agency for Central Services and Open Property Issues, upload this colossal collection online, after what must have been a lengthy and painstaking process of digitisation and cataloguing.
The idea behind the project is to open up the collection so that people and institutions can examine and identify those that were acquired illegally by Göring and put in motion the mechanism for such items to be delivered to their rightful owners.
It is the latest step in a long and complicated process that has been in motion since the end of the Second World War to restore all looted artworks that were taken by the Nazis. The difficulty of the task was identified by politicians around the world, finally resulting in a singular approach to remedying the ambiguous position of many works of displaced art.
In December 1998, the Washington Declaration on Nazi Confiscated Art was brought into existence, a non-binding code that went some way to coping with the differing legal systems that are in operation across the world, a bureaucratic nightmare at the best of times.
Even then, as Mr Nothnagle has illuminated in his insightful article, there are a great many challenges ahead.
“For example, many wealthy Jewish families had to liquidate their art collections in a hurry,” he explains. “These works then passed through a number of hands before ending up in Carinhall [Göring’s own personal palace that was destined to become the most supreme gallery space in Germany].”
He adds: “Who really owned them then, and who owns them now? And how many artworks currently on display in public museums once passed through the Reich Marshal’s hands?”
Here is where we can see the worth of the contribution of the German Historical Museum in showcasing the works online. It’s a contribution to answering these extremely difficult questions, because even though the war has been over for many years, the devastating turmoil wreaked in the name of Nazi ideology is still something we are coming to terms with. Every work of art that is rightfully restored is vindication that good will always triumph against evil.