Nationalgalerie, Berlin, March 1939
The clock in the old tower chimed eight times and fell silent. The neoclassical building was in darkness, except for a pool of light emanating from a single lamp burning in the curator’s office.
A loud pounding on the front doors echoed through the stillness of the night. Karl Hoffman was startled and jumped up from his desk. Who could it be at this hour?
The pounding sounded again, louder and this time accompanied by shouting: “By order of the Führer, open up!”
“I’m coming,” muttered Hoffman as he hurried down a sweeping staircase to the foyer. The moon shone in through the large picture windows, bathing the foyer in an eerie light. The normally benign marble statues standing in a semi-circle facing the doors, now cast menacing shadows. Hoffman, a short, slightly overweight, balding man in his mid-forties, shuddered and felt his heart racing as he began the process of unlocking the bolts and lifting the heavy metal bar from across the massive wooden doors. Inserting a large metal key in the lock, he had barely finished turning it when the doors were pushed open with such force that he was sent sprawling backwards across the marble floor.
Heavily armed soldiers filed into the foyer and stood to attention as an officer strode in and stood over him.
“Hoffman?” he sneered. He cut an imposing figure in his Nazi uniform. He was over 6 foot tall, with cropped blond hair protruding from under his peaked cap.
“Yes,” Hoffman replied, the icy hand of fear clutching at his throat. Having your name known by a Nazi officer was never a good thing.
The officer thrust a piece of paper towards him. “I have orders to gather all the remaining Degenerate Art that is in your possession.”
Hoffman scrambled to his feet, sweat beading on his forehead. “Now? At this hour?” he asked.
“Are you questioning an order from our Führer?” the officer shouted as he began to peel off his black leather gloves.
Hoffman held up his hands and took a step backwards eyeing the soldier’s rifles uneasily. He, like many Germans, had heard the rumours of people who disagreed with a request from Hitler, disappearing, never to be seen again. “No. No – of course not. I am just surprised not to have been given more notice. I have no staff here at this hour to assist.”
“This is why I have brought my men.” The officer smiled a cold, cruel smile. “Now, where are they?” he demanded.
Hoffman ran a hand through his thinning grey hair and took a deep breath to steady his nerves. “Follow me”. What would they want with the art and why suddenly at this time of night? he wondered.
He led the soldiers down a winding staircase into the depths of the gallery to a large basement room. He paused, unlocking the door.
“Now, which pieces do you require?” He glanced at the document he had been given by the officer. It didn’t specify, it just stated all Degenerate Art still being held at the Nationalgalerie.
“All,” the officer said sharply.
Hoffman stood up straight at the officer’s tone. He wanted to know where the soldiers were taking the artworks, but he was too afraid to ask. A few years earlier, Hitler had labelled all types of modern artistic expression as Degenerate Art, and called any artist who did not have Aryan blood a degenerate. Hitler’s decree of June 1937 had given Goebbels authority to ransack all of the German museums. Along with works by German artists, his team had also scooped up pieces by painters such as Picasso and Van Gogh.
“The items in this room are all by lesser known artists and have little value on the international market,” Hoffman said indicating the hundreds of paintings stacked on their ends in rows along the walls. Shelving at the back of the room contained many books and row upon row of bronze and terracotta statues and sculptures, stacked there only because they had been created by Jewish artists.
A wave of nausea passed over him. He recalled the Degenerate Art Exhibition he had seen in Munich in late 1937 where 650 paintings, sculptures, books and prints had been gathered from German museums and were displayed in a way that made a mockery of them. Hitler had called the artists ‘incompetents, cheats and madmen’ and over two million visitors had flocked to see the exhibition that Hitler said showed qualities of ‘racial impurity, mental disease and weakness of character.’
Hoffman prayed that this wasn’t about to happen again. He, like many in the art world, had been horrified to see works by artists such as Chagall, Klee and Mondrian treated in such a dismissive manner. But they had been powerless to stop the exhibition, which had been the brainchild of Hitler himself.
The officer signalled to his men, who pushed past Hoffman into the room and began gathering the paintings and marching back up the stairs to the foyer.
“Careful,” Hoffman couldn’t help but call after them, his curator’s hackles raised at seeing artistic treasures so roughly treated.
The officer gave a nasty laugh. “Oh, you needn’t worry about that.”
The first of the soldiers returned to the room, carrying out more paintings and sculptures. In no time the room was empty.
The officer turned to Hoffman. “Are there any more?”
“Only those being prepared for auction,” Hoffman lied.
The officer studied him. “Very well,” he said, and turned on his heel and marched back up the stairs. Hoffman let out a shaky breath and looked sadly into the empty room before closing the door and following the officer.
“Excuse me?” he called. He couldn’t help himself. He had to know. “What are you going to do with them? Is there to be another Degenerate Art exhibition?”
The officer paused at the top of the winding staircase and looked down at Hoffman with scorn and laughed. “Come, my friend, you will see.”
It was then that Hoffman smelled smoke. He ran up the stairs past the officer, whose laughter echoed through the silent gallery. He pushed open the massive doors leading onto the front steps. There on the gently sloping grass frontage, the Berlin Fire Brigade had started a large bonfire and soldiers and firemen were tossing the paintings and books from the gallery’s basement room onto it. Hoffman gave a cry and sank to his knees, watching in disbelief and horror as hundreds of works of art were systematically destroyed.
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