In the field of Nazi art plunderers, Bruno Lohse was a literal giant. At six-feet-four-inches tall, the former SS physical instructor and semi-professional handball player cut an intimidating figure in wartime Paris. Jonathan Petropoulos observes that as specially appointed “art adviser” to infamous Nazi leader Hermann Göring, Lohse was permitted to wear civilian clothes, drive a private car wherever he pleased, and buy whatever he wished.
The self-proclaimed “king of Paris” was no idiot, either. He possessed a Ph.D. in art history (he was known as Dr. Lohse) and impressed Göring with his knowledge of the Dutch Old Masters (as opposed to “degenerate” modern art, which was verboten). Lohse helped to supervise the theft and re-distribution of more than 30,000 artworks, largely from French Jews, with many of the most prized paintings ending up at Göring’s country estate, Carinhall, northeast of Berlin. In 1945, Göring boasted to his American captors that he had amassed “the finest private collection in Europe.”
Lohse had a vulgar, cynical streak that Petropoulos, an American historian specializing in looted World War II art, experienced on several occasions during the last nine years of the art dealer’s life. “His mood would shift, his face turning red as he became angry and aggressive,” Petropoulos writes. “He spewed vulgarities that I found jarring (in part because German profanity can be so graphic: ‘Kiss my ass’ in German is ‘Lick my ass’) and language like this left me somewhat shocked and off-balance.”
In 1945, Göring boasted to his American captors that he had amassed “the finest private collection in Europe.”
This was notably the case in 2005, when Petropoulos witnessed Lohse’s reaction to news that German prosecutors wanted to question him about the death of the Jewish art historian August Liebmann Mayer during the war. The inquiry withered when Lohse, who had interrogated Mayer in Monte Carlo in 1944 and helped to dispose of his extensive art collection, himself died suddenly at the age of 95, in 2007.
Elsewhere in Göring’s Man in Paris, Petropoulos cites a German Army officer who accused Lohse of boasting to him in 1943 that he had beaten Jewish victims to death with “his own hands.” In spite of these accusations, Petropoulos confesses that “Bruno was a kind of friend.” The unrepentant Nazi, who avoided a criminal conviction at the end of the war, could no doubt be charming and frequently sat down for coffee and cake with Petropoulos. But Lohse’s lies about a looted Pissarro painting—found in his Zurich walk-in vault after his death—also helped to derail the historian’s teaching career.
The personal relationship that Petropoulos had with Lohse turns this book into a curious hybrid. The first two-thirds is a deeply researched account of the chicanery the Nazis employed to run a massive European network of art looting, while the final third is a frank and fascinating introspection from Petropoulos about the macabre dance that Lohse led him on.
“This book represents an effort to respond to his mythmaking and deception, his web of lies,” Petropoulos writes. But Lohse’s impact on how Petropoulos, 60, has grown to perceive the war perhaps resonates even more strongly. Twenty years ago, Petropoulos’s book The Faustian Bargain explored the reasons why educated and artistic Germans put all their faith in a brutal Nazi regime. “My first drafts of ‘Faustian Bargain’ read like a prosecutorial brief against the Nazi art ‘experts,’” he writes.
Now he is less inclined “to make moral judgements about subjects who experienced” the Third Reich. Petropoulos tends to side with historians such as Richard Evans and Ian Kershaw, who believe, he writes, that “our safe positions as observers can lead to a smugness, or at least a failure to appreciate the pressures and constraints of the time.” It will be interesting to see whether, 75 years from now, when historians look back at the tumultuous Trump years, accusations of a lack of ethics will also be tempered by considerations of time. Perhaps, though, it is not history so much as artistry which can provide the most compelling portrait of Lohse’s cunning and criminal enterprise.
Among several photographs that appear in the book is one of the German Expressionist Max Beckmann’s painting Dream of Monte Carlo (1940–43). According to art historians Christian Fuhrmeister and Susanne Kienlechner, the two central figures in the painting represent Lohse, on the right, and his art-dealer colleague Erhard Göpel, on the left. The two looters are depicted as menacing croupiers, each brandishing a sword. With their free hands they gather what at first glance look like cards but which Fuhrmeister has divined are more like miniature paintings. The Lohse figure has red blotches on his hands that resemble bloodstains.
“Beckmann seemed to understand what was happening,” Petropoulos writes. “Paintings were being traded for lives.”
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire-based writer and critic