The Culture

Why it’s so hard to return art stolen by Nazis

bridging divides

On Sunday, Horst von Wächter returned three art pieces stolen by his Nazi parents from Poland in 1939. His father, Otto von Wächter was a notorious SS officer, war criminal, and Nazi governor in Kraków. 

A collection of artwork including an 18th-century map of Poland built into a small table and two old drawings were returned to Poland Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, by Austria's Horst von Wächter, whose family had looted them from Krakow during World War II. Von Wächter father, Otto von Wächter, was a Nazi governor of the occupied city.
Office of the Governor Malopolska/AP
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Only a few months after the beginning of World War II in Europe, SS officer Otto von Wächter was appointed governor of the Nazi-occupied Kraków, Poland. His wife, Charlotte von Wächter soon took advantage of her husband's new position by walking into the National Museum and taking what she liked, in order to decorate the local Nazi headquarters. Many priceless pieces of art, militaria, and antique furniture were handed over to the Nazi couple.

But last Sunday, three of the pieces stolen by Ms. von Wächter were returned to the Polish government during a ceremony in Kraków. The return was not mandated by a court order or government seizure. Instead, the art was returned willingly from an unexpected source: Horst von Wächter, the son of Otto and Charlotte.

For Mr. von Wächter, who lives in Austria, the return of the stolen art pieces was the product of years of work and personal soul-searching. The Wächter name still carries a great deal of notoriety in Poland, and many officials were initially reluctant to work with the son of a Nazi war criminal. But the efforts by von Wächter to return the art to its rightful place provide a template for how the descendants of Nazi officials and those whom they victimized can begin to bridge the chasm between them through a process of forgiveness and restoration.

"There are a number of children and grandchildren of Nazis, and their psychological issues are so notorious there are psychiatrists who specialize in treating [them]," says Anne-Marie O'Connor, the author of "The Lady in Gold," a book about the legal battle to return five Gustav Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis. "They love their parents, but become aware they've done terrible things. They want to protect them and honor their memories, but they must reconcile this with history."

"This man is choosing to find redemption in returning the art stolen by his parents," she tells The Christian Science Monitor via email.

A few years ago, von Wächter began his redemptive journey when he attempted to return a painting to the Potocki family, whose Kraków residence was taken over by the von Wächters during the occupation. But when he tried to arrange the transfer, the Potockis ignored him, as did the Polish government, for a time. 

"[They] did not want to have anything to do with me as the son of a Nazi," von Wächter told The Guardian.

Their reluctance is understandable. Von Wächter still maintains that his father, who died when von Wächter was still a child, had been an unwilling cog in the Nazi machine, a claim that has angered many who believe the prominent Nazi governor had connections to the Holocaust. Von Wächter has admitted, however, that his mother was indeed a "proud" Nazi.

The exchange this time was initiated by Polish historian and politician Magdalena Ogorek, who had spotted some Poland-related objects at Horst von Wächter's castle in Austria while doing research there. The transfer took place at the office of the Krakow provincial governor, according to the Associated Press. The National Museum in Krakow was also involved.

"This is probably the first time that the member of a family of one of the most important Nazi occupiers is giving back art that was stolen from Poland during the war," Ryszard Czarnecki, a vice president of the European Parliament and a member of the Polish Law and Justice party, told The Guardian.

Considering the huge amount of art looted by the Nazis, that's saying a lot.

"The Nazis stole more than 20 percent of the art of Europe," says Ms. O'Connor. "By the mid-1990s, an estimated 100,000 pieces were still missing."

O'Connor says that even today, that there is still a thriving "gray market" for art stolen by Nazis. Thousands of pieces are still likely in circulation.

In many cases, these pieces have changed hands since the end of World War II and their provenance only comes to light when the current owner tries to sell them, Owen Pell, a lawyer at White & Case firm who has worked extensively in the area of Holocaust-looted art, tells the Monitor in an email.

"It is very, very, very difficult for true owners to recover their art, because the legal system does not deal well with claims like these," he explains, "looting is fundamentally different than normal thievery, but the law has not adapted to those differences."

Art stolen by the Nazis could be from any era, in any style, even for pieces that expressed artistic qualities not approved by Nazism, says Dan Michman, chair of the Arnold and Leona Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Sometimes the thefts took place for political reasons.

"[Nazis also] collected what they called 'degenerate art' (Entartete Kunst), i.e. art that did not fit the views regarding what proper art should be in the view of the regime's ideological experts (this related mainly to modern, non-realistic, post-1900 art)," Dr. Michman tells the Monitor in an email. "These pieces of art were kept in closed places for future ideological teaching."

This Nazi obsession with art theft went all the way to the top. Adolf Hitler, himself a failed painter, supported state-sanctioned plundering of works from annexed and conquered territories in order to exhibit them in his Führermuseum in Linz, Austria, which was never built.

Von Wächter's collection of stolen art was somewhat less grandiose, but ultimately, no less stolen. One of the works returned Sunday, a portrait of a member of the Potocki family, had been one of his mother's particular favorites – and a difficult reminder of his family's connection with Nazi ideology.

"I am not especially proud of my deeds," von Wächter told The Guardian. "I do not return the objects for me, but for the sake of my mother."

This article contains material from the Associated Press.