Ian Buruma

  • The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn Nicholas
    Macmillan, 498 pp, £20.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 333 62652 4

Three episodes, three wars:

The Allied armies took possession of Tientsin and Peking and the adjoining districts. At first many of the soldiers of the composite body acted in a brutal and licentious way. Men, women and children were outraged and murdered and cities looted ... Some foreigners came to the captured districts for loot: a most disgraceful episode.

Samuel Cooling, Encyclopedia Sinica

Between their nocturnal duties as devils on the riverbank, the Japanese soldiers were employed by day for looting. According to sociologist Lewis Smythe, one of the American professors in Nanking, the pillage began as private enterprise. ‘Japanese soldiers,’ he wrote, ‘needed private carriers to help them struggle along under great loads.’

David Bergamini, Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy

We almost collided with some SS officers who were carting up silver and other loot from the basement. One had a gold-framed picture under his arm. One was the commandant. His arms were loaded with silver knives and forks, but he was not embarrassed.

William Shirer, Berlin Diary

The first episode, in 1901, concerns the behaviour of British, Russian, German and other allied troops, after the defeat of the Boxer rebellion in China. The second took place during the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1937. And the third, described by William Shirer, and quoted by Lynn Nicholas, is about the Germans in Vienna after the Anschluss in 1938.

It is probably right to conclude from these and many other examples that looting is as natural to human beings as raping and killing. In the state of nature, people show their strength by murdering, humiliating and defiling their enemies. Looting is not quite the same as stealing, for thieves prefer not to be noticed while they are at it. Looting is done openly, with the maximum amount of bluster – hence the SS man’s lack of embarrassment. Desire for the stolen goods is secondary: a show of force is what it is all about. You want to degrade the people you are stripping of their assets. In this sense, looting is like rape, and the two often go together, as the title of Lynn Nicholas’s book indicates. Atrocious behaviour can itself be the revenge of the humiliated, which is why of all wars ethnic and communal conflicts are the cruellest. The hatred of the rural Serb for the citizens of Sarajevo is well-known, as is the tension in American slums between African-Americans and Koreans.

Looting is often associated with anarchy. But since ancient times, when Roman generals would display their loot, as well as their conquered slaves, in victory parades, men have tried to justify their violent impulses by investing them with ceremony. Napoleon went further. ‘The unquestioned record-holder in the field of carrying off confiscated art’, as Lynn Nicholas points out, he not only showed off his loot to the public, but made the defeated sign treaties in which they agreed to their own despoliation. And so plunder appeared to have become a legal enterprise, precisely the opposite of the state of nature.

In her dense – sometimes exhaustingly dense – but always fascinating narrative Nicholas describes how the Nazis took a leaf from Napoleon’s book. In Holland and France, for example, they not only kept careful records of their dubious transactions, but often paid for the things they wanted. Sometimes, as in the case of fake Vermeers sold to Goering, they paid too much. Jewish property, however, was another matter, for Jews were outside the law and could be plundered without scruples. But even Germans could not turn straight robbery into an entirely neat and efficient enterprise. As Nicholas observes, ‘several non-Jewish collections belonging to people with suspicious names had to be returned with sheepish letters of apology.’

The American art historian Lane Faison, who served as an officer in the OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit, described Nazi looting as unique because of the peculiar ideology the Germans used to justify their plunder. It was, he wrote, ‘officially planned and expertly carried out ... to enhance the cultural prestige of the Master Race’. Not only did Hitler, Goering et al build up enormous private collections, but they planned for a complete re-ordering of patrimonies (as well as peoples) in Europe. Berlin, Nuremberg, Munich and Linz were to become ‘ceremonial cities’. Linz, where Hitler grew up, was to be a ‘German Budapest’, with a new museum that would be a showcase for German and other (racially kosher) European art.

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