Book review: Hitler’s Last Hostages

This exceptionally well-written book documents how Hitler was the cause and the Gurlitts the effect in a poisonous equation


Hitler’s Last Hostages by Mary M. Lane (Public Affairs, £21.99)

There must be something about Schwabing, the affluent suburb of Munich. Hitler moved there from Vienna as a penniless would-be art student in May 1913 when it was still an affordable place for young bohemians, anarchists and intellectuals to live, and, decades later, Cornelius Gurlitt, son of the infamous Nazi-era art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, spent most of his adult life there once it had become gentrified. Cornelius was surrounded in his apartment by more than 1,200 works of mostly modern art that he had inherited from his opportunist father. The works were crammed into drawers and hung haphazardly on the walls in an otherwise sparsely decorated bolt-hole where visitors were strictly unwelcome.

This exceptionally well-written book by Mary M. Lane, a journalist who has spent her career focusing on the European visual art scene, documents how Hitler was the cause and the Gurlitts the effect in a poisonous equation. Hitler’s Last Hostages begins and ends with the art “hoard” seized by the Bavarian tax authorities from Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment in 2012. Initially taken into custody because the authorities suspected him of decades-long tax evasion, they then realised exactly whose son Cornelius was and his notoriety increased spectacularly.

It was Hitler’s policies on art that enabled Hildebrand Gurlitt to amass a small fortune and a large collection of mostly modern art of the type that was stripped out of Germany’s museums as “degenerate” in the 1930s or purloined from Jews during the Third Reich. Lane deftly and sensitively weaves together the narratives of the damaged careers, the exiles either at home or abroad, the emotional fallout from Nazism for those artists whose works were discovered in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment and the often dark and tragic histories of the works and their former owners.

There are moments, though, in this otherwise finely tuned examination of history and its legacy, where things are slightly lost in translation. In her chapter, Adolf’s Silver Hammer, which details the opening in Munich in 1937 of the House of German Art to promote the type of art sanctioned by Hitler and his cronies, Lane includes an anecdote about the head of the hammer that the Führer used to strike the foundation stone flying off on the third strike.

Lane reports that Hitler’s spin-master Goebbels made light of the mishap by saying that this was the “neue Sachlichkeit,” echoing the Weimar-era art movement Neue Sachlichkeit, by which Lane says Goebbels meant the “new reality”. But Sachlichkeit means “objectivity”, not “reality”, so her quip doesn’t quite work.

Ultimately, however, the joke was on the Nazis. Almost every artist whose work they espoused has fallen into obscurity, while the moderns branded “degenerate”, whose pictures were ejected from museums and sold off for foreign currency, or hoarded by such dealers as Hildebrand Gurlitt, still, almost without exception, have worldwide reputations today.

Richard Aronowitz’s most recent books are ‘An American Decade’ (Headline Accent, 2017) and ‘Life Lessons’ (Palewell Press, 2019).

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