“War through Nazi Eyes”? German War Art and American Occupation in Postwar Germany and the United States

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:45 AM
Price Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Jennifer Gramer, University of WisconsinMadison
Under the American occupation of Germany between 1945 and 1946, several thousand works of artcreated by artists working under the Reichskulturkammer as well as in the Staffel der bildenden Künstler (German War Artists) of Nazi Germany were expelled from Germany and sent to U.S. military sites for storage by Captain Gordon Gilkey. Gilkey was head of the German Wartime Art Project, the operations arm of the Historical Division of the U.S. Army tasked with confiscating German “propaganda and war art.” Rather than art, many of these paintings were officially considered dangerous instruments of potential Nazi revival and were not protected by laws prohibiting art looting. Yet American officers, including Gilkey, were also empathetic to many of the paintings created by German combat artists, finding them intriguing enough to loan out to several American museum and military institutions following their confiscation and shipment to the U.S. The artists behind these paintings were similarly torn about their roles in the destruction wrought by the Nazi regime, perceiving themselves after the war as either victims of Nazism, or mere artists attempting to make a living during the darkest years of Germany’s history. This paper draws on records from the Center of Military History, Gilkey’s personal archive, and documents from the archives of the Foreign Office and the Office for Unresolved Property Issues in Berlin to trace the history of the artwork from its seizure in Germany to its internment in the U.S. to attempts in the 1950s to restitute the works to their original creators. It contributes to scholarship following the complex and unending process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in both Germany and the United States, contending that the U.S. both directed and mitigated the process of “coming to terms with the past” in Germany through this artwork and the ambivalent reactions to it postwar