How a Historian Acquired Shut, Possibly Too Shut, to a Nazi Thief


By the late Nineteen Nineties, many of the Nazi artwork specialists who helped loot European Jews had been both lifeless or residing quiet lives below 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 School, 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 prospect to regale the American scholar along with his conflict tales. Over the subsequent 9 years, they met greater than two dozen occasions.

Lohse would usually pull out a field of outdated pictures and mementos, permitting Petropoulos to look over his shoulder and to pepper him with questions.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 e book, “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 take pleasure in their conferences over liver dumpling soup — which offered 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 mentioned in an interview earlier this month. “That recreation grew to become just a little extra spirited with time, just a little extra like catch me should you can.”

Within the e book, he explains why the conversations had 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 “The oral historical past supplied by Lohse and different outdated Nazis offered one of many few methods to reconstruct the postwar experiences of this cohort.”

Petropoulos used a few of this materials for his 2000 e book, “The Faustian Cut price: The Artwork World in Nazi Germany,” and, when doubtlessly incriminating data 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 e book brings Lohse into sharper focus, as a persona and axis level from which to discover a community of artwork sellers, collectors and museum curators linked to Nazi looting, each throughout and after the conflict.

“I feel he grew to become extra snug and safe at a sure level,” Petropoulos mentioned. “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 e book on the Third Reich’s pillaging, “The Rape of Europa,” positions Lohse as considered one of 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 main 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 dying. 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 dying “along with his personal fingers.”

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 significantly 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 is no such thing as a proof that Rousseau ever bought artwork from Lohse. “Earlier than 1959, Rousseau was in all probability utilizing Lohse to collect data, as a part of his scouting to search out works,” Petropoulos mentioned, “however which 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 guidelines of it on the market. I put out what I might, and I hope that different researchers will comply with up.”

A spokeswoman for the Met mentioned in an e mail that the museum’s archives comprise about 30 letters between Lohse and Rousseau, six of them by Rousseau from 1952 to 1969. She described them as “typically temporary, courteous {and professional} in tone,” and mentioned 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 contributors within the artwork commerce.

The twist of this scholarly enterprise, nevertheless, comes when Petropoulos finds himself within the internet. 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 may be linked to Lohse and contacted Petropoulos for his assist. With the help of a former Lohse affiliate, the artwork supplier Peter Griebert, Petropoulos situated 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 Instances, led the heirs to accuse him of extorting them for charging charges and a proportion of the sale proceeds. He was by no means charged with a criminal offense, however Petropoulos stepped down from his place as director of the Middle for the Research of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna.

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

The chapter that recounts this story takes a flip into territory harking back 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 side of the artwork world.

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

Comply with New York Instances Books on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, join our newsletter or our literary calendar. And take heed to us on the Book Review podcast.