How a Historian Got Close, Maybe Too Close, to a Nazi Thief

By the late Nineties, many of the Nazi artwork specialists who helped loot European Jews have been both lifeless or residing quiet lives beneath the radar. Not so Bruno Lohse, who served because the artwork agent to the Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Hitler’s right-hand man.

In 1998, Jonathan Petropoulos, a European historical past professor at Claremont McKenna Faculty, met Lohse in Munich. An effete, imperious determine standing 6-foot-4 and weighing over 300 kilos on the time, Lohse, who had “inextinguishable self-importance,” as Petropoulos writes, welcomed the possibility to regale the American scholar together with his warfare tales. Over the subsequent 9 years, they met greater than two dozen instances.

Lohse would typically pull out a field of outdated pictures and mementos, permitting Petropoulos to see over his shoulder and to pepper him with questions. When Lohse died in 2007 at 96, he bequeathed that field to Petropoulos, who used it as supply materials for his new guide, “Göring’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Artwork Plunderer and His World,” out this month from Yale College Press.

Any relationship between an information-seeking scholar and a former Nazi is sure to be an advanced one, and Petropoulos makes clear within the prologue that he had no intention of befriending Lohse. He acknowledges, nevertheless, that he “quickly appreciated his charms” and got here to get pleasure from their conferences over liver dumpling soup — which supplied the professor with entry to a misplaced world.

“I all the time tried to maintain a sure distance, and there was all the time a component of a recreation being performed, a cat-and-mouse recreation,” Petropoulos stated in an interview earlier this month. “That recreation grew to become a little bit extra spirited with time, a little bit extra like catch me for those who can.”

Within the guide, he explains why the conversations have been value pursuing.

“The paper path for these artwork plunderers, as for many second-rank figures in Nazi Germany, largely dried up after their interrogations and de-Nazifications within the late Nineteen Forties,” Petropoulos writes. “The oral historical past provided by Lohse and different outdated Nazis supplied one of many few methods to reconstruct the postwar experiences of this cohort.”

Petropoulos used a few of this materials for his 2000 guide, “The Faustian Discount: The Artwork World in Nazi Germany,” and, when probably incriminating info resulted from the luncheons, he writes that he shared it with the F.B.I. and restitution specialists at organizations such because the Artwork Loss Register. This new guide brings Lohse into sharper focus, as a character and axis level from which to discover a community of artwork sellers, collectors and museum curators related to Nazi looting, each throughout and after the warfare.

“I feel he grew to become extra snug and safe at a sure level,” Petropoulos stated. “I don’t know if he ever opened up with me all that a lot, however I used to be all the time getting little bits and items from him.”

Lohse was jailed on the finish of World Battle II and investigated. He was tried and acquitted in France in 1950.

Lynn Nicholas’s landmark 1994 guide on the Third Reich’s pillaging, “The Rape of Europa,” positions Lohse as one in all a number of brokers working for the SS in Paris who managed “exchanges” of modernist artwork (which the Nazis referred to as degenerate) for his or her extra prized outdated masters. “Göring’s Man in Paris” units him as one of many major planets orbiting Göring, in a photo voltaic system that included Nazi artwork merchants corresponding to Alois Miedl, Walter Andreas Hofer, Maria Almas Dietrich and Karl Haberstock.

Petropoulos argues not solely that Lohse was instrumental in Göring’s looting, but additionally that he stole many works for himself, conserving some hidden till his loss of life. Petropoulos reviews that Lohse was personally concerned in emptying Jewish houses and boasted to a German officer that he had overwhelmed Jewish house owners to loss of life “together with his personal palms.”

Lohse returned to the artwork commerce within the Fifties from a brand new base in Munich, the place different former Nazi artwork specialists had additionally gone again to work, buying and selling largely inside a “circle of belief” in Germany and Switzerland.

Usually, these networks linked up with the bigger artwork world. One notably complicated relationship that Petropoulos delves into is between Lohse and Theodore Rousseau, a former officer in the USA’ Artwork Looting Investigation Unit who later grew to become a deputy director of the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork. Petropoulos quotes correspondence between the 2 over 25 years from the Met’s personal archives, suggesting a pleasant enterprise relationship.

There isn’t any proof that Rousseau ever bought artwork from Lohse. “Earlier than 1959, Rousseau was in all probability utilizing Lohse to assemble info, as a part of his scouting to seek out works,” Petropoulos stated, “however that will have modified within the Nineteen Sixties when that relationship grew to become extra private and pleasant. We don’t have the entire image of the iceberg, however we are able to see the ideas of it on the market. I put out what I might, and I hope that different researchers will observe up.”

A spokeswoman for the Met stated in an e-mail that the museum’s archives include about 30 letters between Lohse and Rousseau, six of them by Rousseau from 1952 to 1969. She described them as “usually transient, courteous {and professional} in tone,” and stated the Met by no means bought any work from Lohse.

What emerges from Petropoulos’s analysis is a portrait of a charismatic and nefarious determine who tainted everybody he touched. It explores the tangled relationships linking Nazi sellers to scores of different individuals within the artwork commerce.

The twist of this scholarly enterprise, nevertheless, comes when Petropoulos finds himself within the net. In 2000, he grew to become concerned in a seek for the “Fischer Pissarro,” a Paris avenue scene by Camille Pissarro stolen from the Vienna house of a distinguished German Jewish household and bought at public sale in 1940.

The heirs suspected the work is likely to be linked to Lohse and contacted Petropoulos for his assist. With assistance from a former Lohse affiliate, the artwork vendor Peter Griebert, Petropoulos positioned the work at a non-public basis in Liechtenstein — however because it turned out (to his shock, as he tells it), that basis was owned by Lohse. It’s unclear how Lohse got here into possession of the work.

This “misadventure,” as Petropoulos referred to as it in an article in The Los Angeles Occasions, led the heirs to accuse him of extorting them for charging charges and a share of the sale proceeds. He was by no means charged with against the law, however Petropoulos stepped down from his place as director of the Middle for the Examine of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna.

The faculty, in a press release, stated it performed an investigation and located that Petropoulos “adhered to relevant contractual and authorized obligations” whereas trying to assist in recovering the portray. He stays on its college. Petropoulos concedes that he ought to in all probability not have gotten concerned and writes within the guide that he by no means earned any cash from the work. “I used to be attempting to be useful and obtain a return, however issues developed the best way they did,” he stated.

The chapter that recounts this story takes a flip into territory paying homage to Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Assassin,” which explores the moral penalties when a author will get too near a supply. As Petropoulos falls down this rabbit gap, “Göring’s Man in Paris” turns into a extra complicated learn, elevating questions on reliability in each aspect of the artwork world.

“For me, the best moral problem arose from the mutual feeling of a kind of friendship that emerged in my relationship with Lohse,” Petropoulos writes. “I informed him in no unsure phrases that I believed what he did within the warfare was reprehensible and I under no circumstances condoned his actions. He appeared unperturbed by this assertion — certainly, it introduced a smile to his face.”

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