Book Review: “Hitler’s Last Hostages” (2019)
By Madhulika Murali.
What do art and fascism have in common? More than one might think, as Mary M. Lane details in her thorough exploration of how art came to play a powerful role in the ideology and history of Nazi Germany. In her new non-fiction book entitled Hitler’s Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich (PublicAffairs, 2019), Lane writes about Adolf Hitler’s failed career as an artist and underlines the way in which the wider art world served as a political tool for the German government during WWII. The “last hostages,” as the book skillfully charts, are the Nazi-looted artworks that continue to remain unsettled in contemporary German society.
The book opens with a dynamic account of the Cornelius Gurlitt case in 2013. Cornelius Gurlitt was the son of art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, often referred to as Hitler’s art dealer. German authorities broke into Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment and subsequently discovered around 1,200 works of art, spanning those by Picasso and Matisse. These artworks were discovered to have been stolen during the Nazi era, including Otto Mueller’s “Portrait of Maschka Mueller” (1925) and Otto Dix’s “Self Portrait Smoking” (c. 1912-14). Lane herself spent several years investigating and reporting on the case and how the German government dealt with the issue of restitution. In order to explore the significance of Nazi-looted art in contemporary German society, she details the influence of art and artists on German politics from the early 1900s through to the 1950s. The conclusion is that art — an obsession of Hitler’s — was a core aspect of how fascism was developed and sustained in Nazi Germany, and its hangover remains today in the inadequacies of the German government’s response to looted art.
More specifically, Lane explores the question of how the art world came to influence Nazi Germany so powerfully in a fulsome, if occasionally confusing, manner. She focuses in-depth on Hitler’s personal journey as a failed artist in order to contextualize his fixation with art that would persist throughout his political career. She also maps the career of German artist George Grosz, whose political art often critiqued or satirized the occurring rise of German nationalism, in order to offer a detailed example of how Hitler and his government suppressed political dissent by classifying such art as “Degenerate Art.” This classification ultimately led to Grosz’s migration to the United States moments before Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. Through the targeting and purging of various similar artists by galleries and art dealers, the potential for art to question the status quo was stifled, while art that expressed Hitler’s version of the Aryan ideal was promoted, in which not only the government but also artists, art dealers, curators, gallerists, arts events coordinators participated. Herein lies the central discovery that the art world played a significant role in drawing from and reinforcing Nazi-era fascism. The case Lane makes is convincing, through an extensive narrative of Grosz’s life, allowing the reader to grasp the thematic connection of the various art historical events.
Lane concludes that the art world’s past involvement in Nazi Germany has contemporary significance, exemplified by Germany’s somewhat unsatisfactory response post-Gurlitt. Lane notes the tendency of various German actors, such as government-funded museums, the Culture Ministry, and the legislature, to “point fingers” at each other instead of shouldering responsibility for a “broken restitution system.” Given the injustice of looted art, particularly so when this is contextualized in German history, this is a cause for concern. “The prevailing German attitude was that the Holocaust should be remembered annually in speeches and ceremonies, but its victims should let go of hope that they would recover stolen property,” is her indictment.
Ultimately, the book raises salient questions about the role of art in political life. As the contemporary world has seen, art has played an important role in political activism and social justice movements, spanning artists such as the Guerrilla Girls and Kara Walker. The art world, however, is also known for its undeniable elitism and exclusion, made all the more troublesome by the role played in upholding fascism in 1930s and 1940s Germany, as explained by Lane. Learning from the past would be a welcome endeavor for the art world, in Lane’s eyes. Art does indeed influence public and political life. In that vein, there is no reason why the art world should be above the journey of introspection and self-critique that other public institutions embark on.
About the Book: Mary M. Lane, Hitler’s Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich (PublicAffairs, 2019), ISBN 1610397363, available here.
About Mary M. Lane: Mary M. Lane is a nonfiction journalist and writer. After graduating from Middlebury College, she went on to receive a German Academic Exchange Service Journalism Scholarship in 2010 and a Fulbright Journalism Scholarship for 2010 through 2011. She gained recognition as the chief European Art Reporter for the Wall Street Journal, in which capacity she conducted journalistic work on the Gurlitt trove case.
- Hili Perlson, Hildebrand Gurlitt Built a Brilliant Trove of Art Under the Nazis. Two New Exhibitions Show His Taste, and His Duplicity., Art Net (Feb. 19 2020) https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/gurlitt-trove-bern-bonn-shows-1137587 ↑
- Sarah Cascone, The Notorious Collection of Nazi-Looted Art Amassed by Hildebrand Gurlitt Will Travel for an Emotional Show in Jerusalem, Art Net (Feb. 19 2020) https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/gurlitt-trove-israel-1644586 ↑
- Mary M. Lane, Hitler’s Last Hostages (2019) at 264. ↑
- id. at 265. ↑
- id. at 246. ↑
About the Author: Madhulika Murali was a Fall 2019 legal intern at the Center for Art Law. She is undertaking a Master of Laws (LL.M.) at New York University School of Law, focusing on how law relates to social justice. She completed her undergraduate law degree at the University of Oxford (U.K.) and specialized in human rights law. Madhulika can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.