Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Occupied Europe and German Art Historiography: Methodology and Morals

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Occupied Europe and German Art Historiography: Methodology and Morals

Article excerpt

Review of:

Kunstgeschichte in den besetzten Gebieten 1939-1945, edited by Magdalena Bushart, Agnieszka Gasior and Alena Janatkova. Cologne/Weimar/Vienna: Böhlau, 2016, 327 pages, b/w illustrations, ISBN-10: 978-3-412-50168-6, € 45,00.

Arnold Witte

In the late 1970s, German art historiography finally began to tackle a thorny subject that had been pending for over two decades: the state of the discipline during the Fascist era and the involvement of its practitioners in the political discourse of dominion and dictatorship. Since then, an avalanche of edited volumes and studies has reported on these academic and moral inquiries. Publishers have launched entire series dedicated to the subject, such as Forschungen zu Kunst und Kunstgeschichte im Nationalsozialismus, of which the book reviewed here is the second volume.

The focus on the development of art history during the Third Reich was a logical response to prior historiographies that either avoided the subject altogether or focused solely on theoretical developments from an internalist perspective. The latter had resulted in contested parallels between emigrant art historians such as Erwin Panofsky and regime-supporting academics such as Dagobert Frey, thought of as 'adopting similar methods' as Udo Kultermann wrote in 1966 - on the basis of Frey's own post-1945 evaluation of the field.1 After several studies on individual art historians - such as Marlite Halbertsma's work on Wilhelm Pinder2 - Heinrich Dilly was the first, in 1988, to dedicate a comprehensive study to art historians active between 1933 and 1945, dealing with the phenomenon from an institutional and statistical perspective.3 He discussed the numerical growth of the field thanks to nationalist and expansionist policies, and the involvement of many academics in 'intellectual warfare'; but he also stated that little was known of the practical workings of many art history institutes. Subsequent publications from the 2000s onward were therefore dedicated to the specific situation in German art history departments and the career, or fate, respectively, of individual (Jewish or non Jewish) lecturers and professors after Hitler's rise to power in 1933.4 Moreover, these recent publications were based on archive materials, and as a result avoided merely repeating apologetic autobiographical accounts and moved beyond the phase in which the relationship between ideological and methodological issues was the main focus of these historiographies.5

The volume reviewed here takes on board these recent methodical developments, but at the same time widens them in a geographical sense. The book deals in particular with the actions of German art historians and the response of their international colleagues, specifically in nations under the influence of, or directly occupied by, the German Reich. What were the responses of academics in the Czech, Polish, Dutch, Belgian, Lithuanian and Swedish contexts to the new political situation after the outbreak of the Second World War? What were the differences between the countries actually occupied by the German forces and those that remained 'neutral'? And how did German art historians, often working for Nazi institutions such as the SS-Ahnenerbe, the Einsatzstab Rosenberg (responsible for the large-scale looting of art works) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (under the banner of the Ministry of Education) operate in these occupied territories?

As the practical, political and ideological impact of the Second World War differed in each country, the present volume presents the kaleidoscope of choices facing academics and the extremely variegated circumstances they had to navigate. For example, in Bohemia, the Netherlands and Belgium, the German occupying authorities opted for the strategy of self-Nazification; by means of cultural propaganda, in which art and its history played a significant role, the (non-Jewish) inhabitants of those territories were to be convinced they were Aryans and thus a natural part of the German Reich. …

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