Nazi plunder refers to art theft and other items stolen as a result of the organized looting of European countries during the time of the Third Reich by agents acting on behalf of the ruling Nazi Party of Germany. Plundering occurred from 1933 until the end of World War II, particularly by military units known as the Kunstschutz, although most plunder was acquired during the war. In addition to lucre, such as silver and currency, cultural items of great significance were stolen, including paintings, ceramics, books, and religious treasures. Although many of these items were recovered by the Allies immediately following the war, many more are still missing. Currently, there is an international effort underway to identify Nazi plunder that still remains unaccounted for, with the aim of ultimately returning the items to the families of their rightful owners.
Adolf Hitler was an unsuccessful artist who was denied admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Nonetheless, he thought of himself as a connoisseur of the arts and, when he became Chancellor of Germany, enforced his aesthetic ideal on the nation. The type of art that was favoured among Hitler and the Nazi party were classical portraits and landscapes by Old Masters, particularly those of Germanic origin. Modern art that did not match this was dubbed degenerate art by the Third Reich.
While the Nazis were in power, they plundered cultural property from every territory they occupied. This was conducted in a systematic manner with organizations specifically created to determine which public and private collections were most valuable to the Nazi Regime. Some of the objects were earmarked for Hitler's never realized FÃ¼hrermuseum, some objects went to other high ranking officials such as Hermann GÃ¶ring, while other objects were traded to fund Nazi activities.
In 1940, an organization known as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg fÃ¼r die Besetzten Gebiete (The Reichsleiter Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories), or ERR, was formed, headed for Alfred Rosenberg by Gerhard Utikal. The first operating unit, the western branch for France, Belgium and the Netherlands, called the Dienststelle Westen, was located in Paris. The chief of this Dienststelle was Kurt von Behr. Its original purpose was to collect Jewish and Freemasonic books and documents, either for destruction, or for removal to Germany for further "study". However, late in 1940, Hermann GÃ¶ring, who in fact controlled the ERR, issued an order that effectively changed the mission of the ERR, mandating it to seize "Jewish" art collections and other objects. The war loot had to be collected in a central place in Paris, the Museum Jeu de Paume. At this collection point worked art historians and other personnel who inventoried the loot before sending it to Germany. GÃ¶ring also commanded that the loot would first be divided between Hitler and himself. For this reason, from the end of 1940 to the end of 1942 he traveled twenty times to Paris. In the Museum Jeu de Paume, art dealer Bruno Lohse staged 20 expositions of the newly looted art objects, especially for GÃ¶ring, from which GÃ¶ring selected at least 594 pieces for his own collection. GÃ¶ring made Lohse his liaison-officer and installed him in the ERR in March 1941 as the deputy leader of this unit. Items which Hitler and GÃ¶ring did not want were made available to other Nazi leaders. Under Rosenberg and GÃ¶ring's leadership, the ERR seized 21,903 art objects from German-occupied countries. Other Nazi looting organizations included the Dienststelle MÃ¼hlmann, which GÃ¶ring also controlled and operated primarily in the Netherlands, Belgium, and a Sonderkommando Kuensberg connected to the minister of foreign affairs Joachim von Ribbentrop, which operated first in France, then in Russia and North Africa.
Hitler later ordered that all confiscated works of art were to be made directly available to him. Art collections from prominent Jewish families, including the Rothschilds, the Rosenbergs and the Goudstikkers and the Schloss Family were targeted because of their significant value. By the end of the war, the Third Reich amassed hundreds of thousands of cultural objects.
In Western Europe, with the advancing German troops, were elements of the â€˜von Ribbentrop Battalionâ€™, named after Joachim von Ribbentrop. These men were responsible for entering private and institutional libraries in the occupied countries and removing any materials of interest to the Germans, especially items of scientific, technical or other informational value.