17 May 2015


by Ori Z. Soltes

On September 28, 1791, two years after the onset of mass revolutionary violence that we know now as the French Revolution, the Convention, having pronounced itself a champion of the rights of humankind, and after having spent some time debating the issue, declared that Jews—some of whom had ancestors resident in what had become France over the centuries since the early Roman Imperial period—were no longer to be thought of as and treated as foreigners (and less than humans). Rather than Jews who happened to live in France, they were to be understood as Frenchmen who happened to be Jewish.  Fully enfranchised as citizens of the new Republic, they were to be accorded liberté, égalité and also fraternité to the same extent that French Catholics were (together with any stray Protestants who had wondered back after the Revolution, having been expelled more than a century earlier under King Louis XIV).

Napoleon and the Jews

Although France was not the first country to emancipate its Jewish population—the Hapsburg Emperor, Joseph II, had begun that process seven years earlier with the Edict of Tolerance of 1784—the French began to think of themselves, and to be thought of by the rest of Europe, as the paradigm of a polity in which one’s form or place of worship was all but disconnected from one’s role and one’s ability to play a role in the socio-economics, culture and even politics of the nation. Even as the First Republic collapsed into a renewed succession of autocracies, beginning with the rise to power of Napoleon I, this sense of self remained essentially intact—Napoleon himself both questioned (under pressure from Count Mole) and then reaffirmed both Jewish loyalty to France and the extension of citizen rights to Jews within France.

It came as somewhat of a surprise, then, a century after the 1791 declaration by the Convention—in the context of a spying scandal a generation after the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, as the army still sought a scapegoat for that catastrophe besides its own bloated inefficiency—that the Jewish army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was framed and tried and found guilty in 1894 for the crime by an absurdly organized military court. Aside from the eagerness with which the French Army ate one of its own, facilitated largely by the fact that he was a Jew and that he came from the border territory of Alsace that had been lost to Prussia 23 years before, the frame-up and what accompanied it should not have been so surprising.
Captain Dreyfus

Edouard Drumont, a political pamphleteer, journalist and virulent anti-Semite, had penned a book in 1886, La France Juive, in which he warned his fellow French Catholics of the danger to the nation of its voracious Jewish minority. So when Dreyfus was brought to trial, Drumont’s feuilleton, La Libre Parole (Free Speech) mounted a steady campaign not only to support a conviction of Dreyfus, but expended enormous energy to promote a broader campaign of anti-Semitism marked by cartoons and caricatures that sought to restore a medieval sense of Jewish complicity with no less than the Satan himself and his cohorts. The Church itself eagerly supported that sort of perspective. Drumont’s campaign was successful. Deep wells of hatred against Jews boiled their contents up to the surface of French society and revealed that the Emancipation Decree of 1791 by the First Republic and that of Napoleon in 1807 had effectively been false: Frenchmen continued, in large numbers, to support the ongoing notion of the fundamental alien-ness and even lack of humanity of Jews.
Edouard Drumont

Not everyone fell into that ugly pit of hatred, of course. Emile Zola most famously refused to. He partnered with the brother of Dreyfus in pressing the case for the Captain’s innocence—it would take 12 years for this to be proven, and for the real perpetrator of espionage crimes to be revealed, a financially and morally bankrupt member of the lower nobility, Walter Esterhazy, whose drinking and gambling problems necessitated his selling French military secrets to the Prussians for a reasonable price. The lynchpin in moving the process forward to the eventual exoneration of Dreyfus was Zola’s now-renowned very public essay, J’accuse, in which he named the names of all those in the government, army and church who had allowed their anti-Jewish sentiments to twist justice into a knot.
Emile Zola
More than a century after the Dreyfus affair we find France once again twisting justice into a knot by way of a completely different affair. It doesn’t involve spying and it doesn’t involve Jews but it does involve a profound contradiction of what France has purported to be its persona among the nations as it has lessened its colonial ambitions around the world and with it, its manifestation of the Euro-American habit of freely dispossessing non-European peoples of their cultural heritage.

I refer specifically to the—now repeating—willingness to ignore morality and justice in favor of financial profits by permitting, indeed encouraging, the auctioning off of precious religious objects that belong to the Hopi nation, one of many significant Native American groups that has been recognized both by the American government and internationally with regard to its cultural and spiritual integrity and distinctness.

In the past year HARP has twice partnered with the Hopi Nation in using our expertise to argue before the French courts that these auctions amount to no less than plundering a people of its heritage. We have failed twice; the French have been deaf to our arguments, their deafness, as so often in such cases, based on legal technicalities (for example, that the actual entity speaking before the court, the Chairman of the Tribe, is not the actual owner of the objects, but rather the tribe itself is, but the tribe cannot speak on its own behalf in the court because the court does not recognize the tribe as a legal entity—they, of course, offer their Chairman as their representative, who does legally represent them. The court further refused to recognize HARP as a legitimate representative of the Hopi Nation, although to solve that issue they made us their legal representative by according to us power of attorney. The French court chose to be blind to the court-worthy presence of both the Chairman and HARP. Figure that one out).

Yet another auction of sacred Hopi objects is now swiftly approaching, scheduled for early June 2015 and so far there is no indication that the French courts will diverge from the path they have thus far taken. What does this mean? At least three things:
Hopi protesting auctions of sacred objects in Paris

1/ they have chosen to ignore the international documents of which they are signatories that recognize the integrity of indigenous peoples all over the globe and that, in this case, should by any moral logic to protect the Hopi Nation from being plundered of its cultural and spiritual heritage;

2/ in so doing, the French are repeating the same sort of crime committed by the Nazis and others, historically, including the French Emperor Napoleon I, when they plundered the cultural property of other nations or, in the case of the Nazis, individual families and galleries across Europe. In this latter case, the post-World War II choice by the French to appropriate at least 2100 objects for their own museums on the grounds that the owners or their heirs could not be located has left a bad taste in many peoples’ mouths still, now, seventy years after those misappropriations were quietly carried out;

3/ France has now positioned itself to become the place where galleries and collectors know that they can dispose of their ill-gotten (as opposed to legitimately gotten) objects of cultural and spiritual value to peoples across the planet at a profit. The traditional French disdain for the Americans as cultural barbarians must hide itself, it would seem, behind the paradoxical veil that, what the American legal and moral system will not allow with respect to such objects can, if they are smuggled outside the United States, make it through French customs and enter France where their illegitimate owners will be rewarded for their trouble rather than be punished for their crime.

So the paradox—or is it hypocrisy?—that carried from the twisting of the principles of the Revolution into l’Affaire Dreyfus has carried a century forward and twisted those principles of respect for humankind into another turn. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as one of those French Enlightenment philosophers said, I suppose.

For additional references, see the following posts on plundered art:

10 May 2015

The day after…

by Marc Masurovsky
We just commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, at least that portion of the war being fought on the European continent. It took another three months of heavy fighting, two atomic bombs, and an invasion of Japan to bring the Empire of the Rising Sun to the table and sign an unconditional surrender in mid-August of the same year.

Let’s try and imagine what it must have been like to wake up the day after the surrender of the Reich and to think about all that had occurred since Hitler took power in January 1933.

With 60 million people dead, including six million Jews, men, women and children, five million others who perished in prisons and camps, a third of the male population of the Soviet Union destroyed, one third of Europe’s infrastructure in ruins. Basically a traumatized world. Not a pleasant morning on which to view a sunrise.

Let’s focus on the thefts and displacements of objects. With every act of physical aggression comes a theft especially during military conflicts, civil disorder, and wholesale extermination of one group by another. In this case, the backdrop of a war on culture decreed by National Socialism everywhere Nazis set foot provoked a systematic and systemic displacement of objects from homes, businesses, and public places.

Take a camera with a very wide angle lens and click. The snapshot you record should tell you where objects were located on May 10, 1945.

 In short, it was an utter mess. Displacement meant movement. Objects were removed from their original home and taken somewhere else, never to return again. Liberators, whether military or militia or resistance units, found “things” everywhere they went---barns, attics, basements, gyms, cellars, abandoned apartments and villas and farmhouses, barracks, everywhere someone with a gun showed up, there were objects strewn about or carefully stacked, no matter.

There was no system in place on May 10, 1945 to properly dispose of “found” objects. It was all improvised which led to massive abuses, naturally, like theft.

In most places, objects did not travel very far. They remained within the immediate geographic area and ended up mostly in other people’s homes, which means that those objects were never recovered unless someone denounced you after the war ended, neighbors stealing from their neighbors, communities cannibalizing themselves.

Those objects which traveled far were those taken either by people fleeing one area and getting as far away as possible from the scene of the crime, or by paramilitary or military units, resistance groups on the prowl. In that case, objects could travel long distances, ten, one hundred, even one thousand kilometers or more.

So, on May 10, 1945, you must imagine that most objects that were removed illegally from people’s homes by neighbors, strangers, policemen, thugs, agents, soldiers, officers, either stayed on your street, or moved to another neighborhood, or another city, or another country, ultimately another continent.

On May 10, 1945, Europe was a mess, like an attic through which a tornado had passed and objects blown out and falling wherever.

That is why “things” taken from Western Europe went as far as Kiev, Ukraine.

Soviet counteroffensive, 1943-44

That is why “things” taken out of the Soviet Union went as far as Germany and Austria.

That is why “things” taken out of Norway went “south.”

“Things” taken out of France went north, east, south, and west.
Northern France
   And so forth and so on.
Axis-occupied Europe
The problem of restitution on May 10, 1945, was a staggering mess with a crime scene engulfing 15 European countries.

Now, let’s finally get to the point.

How many objects were removed?

No number can adequately reflect the reality of the thefts.

But, governments and armies are in the business of releasing information which is supposed to be accepted as “official”, therefore not up for discussion.

When the French government says that 40,000 objects were removed from its territory, it’s because it recovered 40,000 objects from Germany, Austria and other places. Half of those objects presumably went through the Jeu de Paume in downtown Paris. That makes it easier to count. 

On December 1, 1998, American pundits announced that there were 125,000 works of art still missing which needed to be identified, recovered and returned to their rightful owners. No one bothered to ask: How did you come up with that figure?

Then, as recently as this year, another figure was proposed: 600,000 objects were still missing. And yet again, no one bothered to ask where that figure came from and what documents were used to tabulate a figure which had grown more than five-fold in less than two decades.

At the end of the movie, “Woman in Gold” a text appears indicating that there are 100,000 works of art still missing. Already people who have seen the film are quoting that figure as if it is manna from heaven. But here again, where did the filmmakers obtain that figure? Does it apply only to Austria or to Europe as a whole? That figure mysteriously coincides with one put forth by the London-based Art Loss Register (ALR) as the total number of all objects in its registry of stolen objects, including contemporary commercial thefts.

The short answer is: no one knows because no one has bothered to know. Simple. If you don’t bother to know how many objects were stolen, you don’t really have to focus on restitution issues. The missing objects are gone with the wind, just like in the wake of a storm. Poof! Disappeared. It would be simpler to consider WWII and the Holocaust as a natural disaster. It does not work that way. These were nightmares created by human beings against other human beings, a man-made disaster which implies accountability.

If you do come up with a number like 100,000 or 125,000, you might have something in mind. Could it be that those 100,000 works of art are worth something? Could it be that the numbers game is all about value? And not necessarily about individual losses? That the only way to interest someone in restitution is to place a monetary value on an object?

Maybe, for some people, the “restitution game” is just a global treasure hunt where we forget about the “why”, the ”where” and the “how” of the thefts committed in the context of genocide. People hunt for treasures from the Holocaust the same way they look for metal on beaches and dive for gold laying about on the ocean floor. With a little effort, you too can get rich. Or so you think.

Except that we have no idea how to define a “treasure” and, for the most part, we don’t really know what we are looking for, except for objects listed on online databases.

The only way to understand the reality of the thefts that took place across Europe is to collect all relevant information about what disappeared, sift through the evidence, sort it, and catalogue it. This exercise began but was never finished in the years that followed May 9, 1945, perhaps because it took too much time and the chances of finding anything were deemed to be close to zero. So why bother? Instead of recording everything that was lost, the focus was placed on registering losses of “culturally significant” items. No one really defined “culturally significant” except to suggest that the loss of the cultural item meant a loss for the nation. In other words, someone had to decide whether your objects had any “cultural” meaning as determined by the government of your country. That “someone” was usually an art historian, a museum curator or director, or an official in a government ministry. This is where the recording of cultural losses crossed over into cultural policy and esthetics.

If you were unfortunate to have owned objects deemed “insignificant”, chances are that your government was not going to assist you in locating them.


If, on the other hand, there was something “significant” about your collection, the government did take an interest and registered your claim.

It is difficult to pinpoint the difference between significant and insignificant. If we use French archival records as a point of reference, those containing information about cultural losses as an example, we can begin to understand the difference.

The members of the Art Restitution Commission, Commission de récupération artistique (CRA), were mostly museum curators and art historians. They devised, perhaps through trial and error, a ranking system using different colored pencils and a lettering system from A to H. Each letter stood for a type of object. Many lists of losses submitted by victims were hardly annotated, meaning that there was little chance that the objects that they contained would ever be registered as “worthy” or “significant.” [This question will be explored in greater detail in future articles on plundered art. Stay tuned…]

As an example, the “Répertoire des biens spoliés”, a central registry that the French government published in 1947, can be viewed as a central catalogue of “culturally significant” objects listed as still missing by that date. Similar lists were published in other countries using different formulas and presentation schemes. But the end result was the same: these official lists tended to summarize, encapsulate the universe of what was missing as “significant” and what was being sought by the governments of the nations which had suffered under the Nazi boot.

It’s time to understand, better late than never, that art restitution, the idea of cultural loss, was quickly subverted even before the ink had dried on the act of surrender of the Third Reich. It was not about what you lost but whether what you lost was important enough for the government to take heed of your loss. The principle of restitution was transformed into an arbitrary State-sponsored diktat which implicitly carried a judgment about the quality of your losses and how the government perceived your ownership of cultural assets.

A far cry from being the victim of an act of cultural plunder and genocide.

That explains in part why restitution efforts fell far short of their potential, because they quickly had very little to do with you as an individual victim. The idea of ‘recovery’ was intertwined with the interest of the nation, of the State. When the State decided: enough was enough, it meant that it was no longer interested in promoting location, identification and recovery of objects, even those that were deemed “significant.” It was easier to mourn them as a nation’s loss than to make the effort to “find” them.

The irony of this exercise is that many “mourned” objects ended up sitting in the museums of the nations that “stopped looking for them.” Hypocrisy? Double speak? Or sheer deceit?

So, we are back to where we started: a staggering mess. The only way to solve it is through citizens’ initiatives, publicizing the losses, identifying where lost objects are located especially if they sit in State collections and demanding their return.

It is up to each and everyone of us to document these crimes and to tell their stories, not necessarily for the sake of restitution but to teach a public lesson about the crime of cultural plunder, to restore the word “significant” to its proper context and to assert that an individual’s cultural tastes and losses are not subject to government whims and elitist conceptions of “Kultur.”

04 May 2015

Monday diatribe: How to buy your way out of genocide accountability

by Marc Masurovsky

Chances are that not a month goes by without us buying a product, investing in a transportation company (railroads and a select group of airlines), buying insurance policies, or for those with more cash buying stocks in firms whose parent companies were around in the 1930s and 1940s. Do we ever ask ourselves how those companies reacted to the coming to power of Fascism in Italy, authoritarian governments in Southeastern Europe, National Socialism in Germany, and pro-Axis governments in Western Europe (France and the so-called neutrals—Spain and Portugal)? We probably don’t ask these questions any more than we ask ourselves where an art object came from which we admire in an art museum, a gallery, or at an auction.

Here's a simple statistic that should be easy to absorb: There were at least 300 American companies with subsidiaries operating in Nazi Germany until Pearl Harbour came and went on December 7, 1941. In other words, for eight years, American businessmen consorted and traded with their German counterparts from the moment that Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, until that fateful morning in the Hawaiian islands which cost more than 3000 American lives and the near-total destruction of the US Pacific fleet.

The Third Reich, the Holocaust and the Second World War would have been greatly hampered and impeded had it not been for the active participation of the private sector—industries, banks, traders, merchants—and professional groups—lawyers, accountants, finance personnel, cultural officials, brokers of all kinds, chemists, doctors, civil servants, and the list goes on.

Persecution, internment, deportation, extermination, are acts which require money and infrastructural support—human, and otherwise.

Since the end of WWII, few companies have been held accountable for “aiding and abetting” acts of persecution, internment, deportation, and extermination, except for the most egregious ones—IG Farben and Krupp being the standouts, as well as leading German bankers who were tried at the International Military Tribunal of Nurnberg and who lived like destitute princes under house arrest at Landsberg Prison until their release was ordered by the Americans.

In Europe only a small number of corporate executives and bankers went to prison or were fined for their wartime role as "collaborators."  None were punished in the United States, Canada, Great Britain or in the so-called neutral countries. And yet… tens of millions of documents are stocked on shelves in archives in the United States and Europe which illustrate and quantify the gory details of how the private sector was allowed to enrich itself off of persecution and genocide. Yes, crime does pay again and again and again.

There were a handful of punishments (if you want to call them that) meted out against companies in the past two decades.

Leading Swiss banks agreed to pay 1.25 billion dollars instead of the ad minima sum of 10 billion dollars that had been requested by the plaintiffs in order to settle class action lawsuits for their "mishandling" of financial assets deposited in their facilities by Jewish owners who fell victim to Nazism. The settlements paved the way for a groundbreaking merger of two of the three defendant Swiss banks.

JP Morgan and Chase National Bank were asked to donate a small sum of money to Holocaust survivors in exchange for authorization to merge into a megabank. They both had tripled their profits in German-occupied France in part through the Aryanization and reselling of Jewish-owned companies and real estate.

Ford Motor Company underwrote the ad-free screening on American television of “Schindler’s List” and contributed a token sum of money to charitable causes dealing with the Holocaust in exchange for being left alone about its role as an employer of Jewish and other slave labor during the Third Reich.

Barclays Bank settled for an absurdly small amount to wriggle its way out of litigation that linked its wartime activities to the fleecing of Jews living in occupied territories.

Slave labor settlements negotiated with Jewish organizations enabled multibillion dollar German companies to contribute sums that would help needy Holocaust survivors in exchange for "Holocaust peace."

The Italian insurer, Generali, was “fined” 100 million dollars out of the billions that it stole from Holocaust victims, the worst settlement on record dealing with Holocaust-era profiteering.

And the list goes on. For every company named above, there are hundreds, no, thousands that went about their business in the postwar era, unmolested, same executives, same corporate offices.

It’s hard to imagine how one can discuss the Holocaust without thinking that the most important financial, commercial and mercantile pump to the international wartime and postwar economic order came from the stolen and recycled wealth and assets of the victims of the New Order, mostly Jewish but also from non-Jews. Jewish assets were restructured, comingled with "non-Jewish" assets, Jewish-owned companies were merged into new holding companies and joint ventures through aryanization schemes that were, in fact, wholesale thefts of corporate assets. No one has been held accountable and especially not the armies of lawyers, accountants, and "notaires" who were indispensable for establishing these new "Aryan" entities and facilitating these thefts.

That stark reality explains why restitution in the postwar years was a dead letter no sooner had the word "restitution" been uttered and printed on official Allied documents.

Reparations became the token expression of what the victorious Allies and postwar governments in Europe refused to do, which was to hold the private sector fully accountable for its complicity in crimes against humanity. Had there been such justice, our ethical and moral fibers might be playing different tunes today and we might all be the better for it.

With so much cynicism about our capacity as a species to tolerate and endure mass murder and wholesale persecution around the globe, it is difficult to react except with the usual disgust at the news that a company like the French Railroad Company (SNCF) implicated in the deportation of Jews from German-occupied France has been trying to convince state governments and Holocaust remembrance institutions in the United States to accept charitable donations in order to help it cleanse its  wartime record... and facilitate its bids for contracts to provide high-speed train technology to the US. The public relations departments are working overtime to spin these fake expressions of contrition and repentance into genuine ethical moments that we are asked to savor.