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Art Theft

Spring 1945 brought warm weather to the allied armies providing surer traction in the foot race to the last redoubt of the Nazi Reich. The rabid wolf of the Nazis was about to get put down, the question was, by who? To the east lay the massive Soviet Army coiled north and east of Berlin getting ready to exact deep revenge for earlier atrocities committed by the German Army on mother Russia a short time before. To the west were the smaller faster armies of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France and Poland. A dying President Roosevelt had agreed at Yalta to halt at the Elbe, in the upper echelons of leadership, most notably General George Patton, knew no such restraint.

Patton dreamed of hitting Berlin and single handedly winning the war. In between the two allied armies lay a dying Reich, some two million worn out Nazi soldiers, men and boys under arms, who in the late stages of the war fought the communists ferociously so some could escape west. That was the way it ended in the history books, most notably that of Max Hastings in his book Armageddon, 1945. Hastings told a good story, but the Brits in 1945 were a tired and worn out power, a great untold story yet involves a "stray" American armoured column that risked it all, and but for a wrong turn might have altered history, and who might have wound up with a certain art collection in Thuringia, the long lost art that legally belonged to Otto Krebs.

Victory 47b"K" for Krebs shows Thuringia in the section conquered by Third Army

In April 1945 Patton sent a probe towards Berlin consisting of armour and 20,000 men, one of whom was the great uncle of a family member, known to all as "Uncle Eddie." It was at a holiday gathering decades ago that this writer asked Eddie, "World War Two must have been exciting, how was it?"

The question was asked of a frail elderly man in 1995, and in answering the question, the years fell off his face and what stared back was that of a frightened young man.

Per Patton's orders they drove towards Berlin, but in the chaos and confusion, the Americans ran off the map and wound up in Poland, which in 1945 had a border some one hundred miles east of the current line. Eddie reported they were in Poland to his Sargent, who snarled, how the f-ck would you know that? Eddie’s answer, “Sarge, I’m Polish, so I got to tell you, I can read the road signs, they aren't in German, they are Polish.” Holy sh-t they were playing blind man's bluff and liable to walk right into a Soviet artillery offensive. The Reds always started off with a giant barrage.

Out of position, the Americans pulled back to points west, Patton yet again in deep trouble for trying to take out Hitler's nest all by himself. Aside from these souvenirs seen below and donated to the West Point Museum, this story gets lost, subsumed by the eventual Iron Curtain across the Elbe and the assumption the Americans never got that far east.

0001 780DSC 1922

0001 780DSC 1924Wartime Souvenirs of Patton's lunge towards Berlin - West Point Museum, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY

In 2010 the oral story was confirmed by the discovery of correspondence written by a friends grandfather, Captain J.Spencer Janney, a Ranger trained sniper whose letters home to his family told of a now familiar harrowing trip east to end the war in a single shot, before first a wrong turn towards Poland forced them to call back for directions. When the brass found out they ordered them back. What could 20,000 Americans have done if they hit the back side of Berlin while two million Nazis sat by the front door and a final battle with some four million Soviet soldiers bent upon steep revenge? Answer, probably not much, however, when General Eisenhower found out about the rogue run to Berlin he ordered everybody back to the other side of the Elbe. That meant Thuringia, which included Weimar and most importantly Holzdorf Villa, home to the Otto Krebs art collection.

HolzdorfHolzdorf Villa – Thuringia - Home of the Otto Krebs Collection

The west most points of what became East Germany were to be administered by the tender mercies of the Soviet Army. The War ended on May 8, 1945 and by the end of June the last American units pulled out of Weimar. What happened to the art of Thuringia? A German countryside spared a brutal Soviet attack by the lightning fast Americans, would not be found out for fifty years.

We were in touch with Ulrike Oberländer about Otto Krebs, his estate, and his legendary Art Collection.

Dr. Krebs himself lived in Mannheim, later in Heidelberg (Western Germany) and he came only for summer vacation or short visits while being on his way to his business dates in Berlin or other cities in the East (from Heidelberg to Holzdorf it is about 350 km). Dr. Krebs engaged an administrator in Holzdorf who had full authority to sign contracts etc. That was absolutely necessary to let the work go on. Since the 1920s Dr. Krebs investigated a lot of money to enlarge and improve the different buildings of Holzdorf. His manor house was enlarged and got a quite different look: stucco at the ceilings, leather and gobelins on the walls, wooden interior accessories etc. We must imagine that there had been marbles, carpets etc. And of course his art collection. What we can see today is the wooden floor, the walls and ceilings with their decor. All moveable items are gone.

You should be aware: all his paintings or antiquities were usually in the safe rooms. Only in the few days or weeks while Dr. Krebs was staying in Holzdorf, some pieces of his art collection were taken out of the safe rooms to decorate the inhabited rooms. Most of the time the manor house wasn´t resided at all. After Dr. Krebs died in 1941 (in Heidelberg) the life in Holzdorf didn´t change at all. All the agricultural workers did their work as usual, the administrator looked after "his" people - in times of war it was very important to keep the agricultural production going on. The death of Dr. Krebs was not so important for the business in Holzdorf because Dr. Krebs himself had not so much to do with it. His widow (living in Heidelberg as well) came to Holzdorf a few times (last time in April 1945). She used it temporarily as her place of retreat, invited her piano students or private guests - the situation in Holzdorf at the countryside was much better than in Western Germany where the bombings were part of daily life.

In 1945 when the Americans left Thuringia, they asked the chief of the Weimar Museum if they should take the art collection of Dr. Krebs with them to bring it into the West. I don´t know why they asked him - it was known that the art collection was private property, and the Museum of Weimar had nothing to do with Dr. Krebs at all... But maybe the Americans didn´t know whom they could ask. The chief of the Weimar Museum denied to transport the art out of Holzdorf.

When the Soviets adopted Thuringia the Holzdorf manor house was used as a residence for high military people. But the agricultural business never stopped. I think that is very important to know: there was no time without "normal" and regulated life in Holzdorf. No time when Holzdorf was empty and the possibility to plunder would have been given. The administrator of Dr. Krebs neglected to go with the Americans because he felt responsible for all the working people there. The transports of the mobile property of Dr. Krebs couldn´t happen without being seen by the German working people of the farm. And there was one witness who told the chief of the Weimar Museum that it was one week in Summer 1949 when the Soviets came with lorries to bring all the stuff.

IN CONCLUSION

The plundering of a private collection belonging to an art collector with no known Nazi affiliation, took place well outside the circumstances of combat. The Soviets never had to fight for Thuringia, therefore, they lose the traditional right of the ‘bloody conqueror’ to take from the inhabitants that resist. The Americans moved out, and the Soviets waltzed in. No blood was shed by the Reds for Thuringia.

Three years of peace pass by, occupation induced recovery slowly occurs, famine and hardship the norm. In 1948 the United States proposed the Marshall Plan as a way of extending recovery efforts to the shattered Europe.

The Soviet Union forbade its satellite government puppet states to avail themselves of this capital. Publicly, the Soviets under the command of General Vasily Chuikov in Germany, made statements that they were not there to punish the locals any more, even though rape and plunder remained commonplace throughout the Eastern Zone, if not officially condoned. According to the book The Russians in Germany - A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945 - 1949 by Norman M. Naimark (published September 1997), there are estimates that all women in East Germany between the ages of 8 and 80, were raped by occupying Russian soldiers.

In 1954 the Hague Convention was established, a for-runner of what became UNESCO, and yes, even the Soviet Union, and later Russia, signed that treaty forbidding the plunder of art and cultural artifacts.

We asked prominent former assistant United States Attorney Mark Gaffney about this subject, was the Soviet Union or Russia a party to the Hague Convention? His answer was simple; “they signed it.”

Seen below are a sample of the paintings belonging to Otto Krebs, which the Soviets stole in 1949 and that the Russians to date, simply refuse to hand back.

Alex Boyle & Elliot Lee

780archipenkoNude Female Figure Shown from the BackAlexander Archipenko (1887-1964), Nude Female Figure Shown from the Back, Pencil/charcoal/chalk/cardboard, 50 by 32 cm

780Cezanne Jas de Bouffan the PoolPaul Cezanne (1839-1906), Jas de Bouffan, the Pool, Oil on canvas, 46.1 by 56.3 cm

780CezanneBathersPaul Cezanne(1839-1906), Bathers , Circa 1890/1891, Oil on canvas, 54.2 by 66.5 cm

780CezanneSelf PortraitPaul Cezanne (1839-1906), Self-Portrait, Oil on canvas pasted on panel, 55.5 by 45.5 cm

780Degas DancerEdgar Degas (1834-1917), Dancer, Circa 1874, Oil on canvas, 40.5 by 32.7 cm

780Degas Seated DancerEdgar Degas (1834-1917), Seated Dancer, Circa 1879/1880, Charcoal/pastel on paper/cardboard, 63.5 by 48.7 cm

780Fantin FlowersHenri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Flowers, 1860, Oil on canvas, 40.5 by 32 cm

780FantinPeonies in a VaseHenri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Peonies in a Vase, Circa 1864, Oil on canvas, 46.6 by 33.5 cm

780Fantin PetuniasHenri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Petunias, 1881, Oil on canvas, 29.6 by 42.4 cm

780gauguin At the WindowPaul Gauguin (1848-1903), At the Window, 1882, Oil on canvas, 54 by 65.3 cm

780Gauguin BouquetPaul Gauguin (1848-1903), Bouquet, 1884, Oil on canvas, 65.3 by 54.5 cm

780Gauguin Piti TienaPaul Gauguin (1848-1903), Piti Tiena, 1892, Oil on canvas, 90.5 by 67.5 cm

780Gauguin Taperaa MahanaPaul Gauguin (1848-1903), Taperaa Mahana, 1892, Oil on canvas, 72.3 by 97.5 cm

780Manet Portrait of Mademoiselle Isabelle LemonnierEdouard Manet (1832-1883), Portrait of Mademoiselle Isabelle Lemonnier, Circa 1879, Oil on canvas, 101.8 by 81.5 cm

780Monet Grand Quai at HavreClaude Monet (1840-1926)Seine at Rouen, 1872, Oil on canvas, 54 by 65.5 cm

780Monet Seine at RouenClaude Monet (1840-1926), Grand Quai at Havre, 1872, Oil on canvas, 61 by 81 cm

780MonetGarden in Bordighera Impression of MorningClaude Monet (1840-1926)Garden in Bordighera, Impression of Morning, 1884, Oil on canvas, 65.5 by 81.5 cm

780NoldePortrait of a Young Woman and a ChildEmil Nolde (1867-1956), Portrait of a Young Woman and a Child, 1910-1930s, wc/p, 45.8 by 35 cm

780Picasso AbsinthePablo Picasso (1881-1973), Absinthe, 1901, pastel, 65.2 by 49.6 cm

 780Pissaro Still Life with a CoffeepotCamille Pissarro (1830-1903), Still Life with a Coffeepot, 1900, Oil on canvas, 54.5 by 65.3 cm

 780Pissaro Tuileries GardensCamille Pissarro (1830-1903), Tuileries Gardens, 1900, Oil on canvas, 54 by 65.3 cm

 780PissaroFair in Dieppe Sunny MorningCamille Pissarro (1830-1903), Fair in Dieppe, Sunny Morning, 1901, Oil on canvas, 65.3 by 81.5 cm

 780PissaroQuai Malaquais Sunny AfternoonCamille Pissarro (1830-1903), Quai Malaquais, Sunny Afternoon, 1903, Oil on canvas, 65.3 by 81.5 cm

 780Renoir Landscape at BeaulieuPierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Landscape at Beaulieu, 1899, Oil on canvas, 65.3 by 81.5 cm

 780RenoirLow Tide at YportPierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Low Tide at Yport, 1883, Oil on canvas, 54.5 by 65.3 cm

 780Renoir Portrait of a WomanPierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Portrait of a Woman, 1877, pastel 65 by 48.8 cm

 780Renoir Party in the Country at BernevalPierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Party in the Country at Berneval, 1898, Oil on canvas, 60.3 by 73 cm

 780Roualt Nude with Raised ArmGeorges Rouault (1871-1958), Nude with Raised Arm, 1906, wcp/board, 70.4 by 53.2 cm

 780Signac Bank of the Seine Near the Pont des Arts with a View of the LouvrePaul Signac (1863-1935), Bank of the Seine Near the Pont des Arts with a View of the Louvre, wc/p, 21.2 by 26 cm

 780Signac Large Pine Saint TropezPaul Signac (1863-1935), Large Pine, Saint-Tropez, Circa 1892/1893, oil/panel, 19 by 27 cm

 780Signac Square of the Hotel de Ville in Aix en ProvencePaul Signac (1863-1935), Square of the Hotel de Ville in Aix-en-Provence, wc/p, 27.2 by 41.9 cm

 780Signac Suspension Bridge in Les AndelysPaul Signac (1863-1935), Suspension Bridge in Les Andelys, wc/p, 20.4 by 28.3 cm

 780vanGogh Landscape with House and PloughmanVincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Landscape with House and Ploughman, October, 1889, Oil on canvas, 33 by 41.4 cm

 780vanGoghMorning Going out to WorkVincent van Gogh (1853-1890), After Millet, Morning: Going out to Work, January, 1890, Oil on canvas, 73 by92 cm

 780vanGoghPortrait of Madame TrabucVincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Portrait of Madame Trabuc (wife of the head warden of St. Paul Asylum) September, 1889, Oil on canvas and panel, 63.7 by 48 cm

 780vanGoghWhitehousenightVincent van Gogh (1853-1890), White House at Night, Auvers-sur-Oise, France, June, 1890, Oil on canvas, 59 by 72.5 cm

 780Vulliard Old Woman in an InteriorEdouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Old Woman in an Interior, Circa 1893, Oil on cardboard, 27.5 by 22.8 cm

* Die Otto-Krebs-Sammlung: Kriegsbeute oder Friedensplünderung?

 

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