Skip to main content

The Faustian Bargain

The Faustian Bargain – The Art World in Nazi Germany (Jonathan Petropoulos)1

The Faustian Bargain is a detailed study of twenty leading figures in the art world in Nazi Germany, all of whom who supported the Nazi party both in its policies and in its looting of cultural treasures in conquered territories in Europe – the latter of which had the projected purpose of reclaiming “Germanic” works of art and suppressing ‘degenerate art’. This ‘legitimised’ the cultural pillaging (it is notable that a large portion of the art market, of art criticism and art-historical scholarship happened to be in Jewish hands prior to the art plundering. “Aryanization”, therefore, was ‘required’: this is the Nazi term for “the transfer of Jewish property to gentiles as a means of ridding the economy of Jewish influence” [27]). The Nazi party needed collusion with art experts – to Petropoulos, these experts sold their souls for power and status. 
 The book is split into five chapters that chronicle prominent figures in different professions within the art world – 1) the art museum directors, 2) the art dealers, 3) the art journalists/critics, 4) the art historians and 5) artists – all of whom not only stayed in Germany after 1933 but also benefited and collaborated with the Third Reich, and most of whom claimed to be dedicated to art. The people involved were skilled and successful professionals who descended into criminality – their individual motives seemingly ranging from Nazi convictions to ambition, opportunism and greed.   

Although these figures may not have been directly responsible or involved in the deaths or deportations of the Jewish population, they are shown to be an integral cog in the machine of the Third Reich, particularly in relation to propaganda. Petropoulos provides the thesis that criminals rely heavily upon supporting players for their criminal operations, and that those who were opportunists, fanatics or simply averting their eyes from the unpleasantness of their actions were morally corrupt. The figures studied thus appear to have betrayed their own profession, as “the romantic ideal of "living" for art”2  is thrown into question.
Petropoulos also documents immunities/pardons granted to these figures in postwar Germany – most were not persecuted as post-war ‘de-Nazification’ was not severe enough – US occupiers are portrayed as mostly indifferent to the cause. As a result, the major figures in Petropoulos’s case studies continued to live cushy lives – managing to preserve their reputations and re-establish their careers. He ends the book with this judgement: “The art experts of the Third Reich largely avoided punishment while they were alive; it is therefore imperative that they not be exonerated by history.” (280)

Buruma muses on the Faust metaphor used in the book: “Why a Faustian bargain? In Goethe's story, Faust promises his "soul" in exchange for fortune and fame. But what is soul, anyway? Is it some inner core of our being, something absolutely authentic to which we are supposed to be "true"? Is it a form of sincerity? Or is it perhaps that part of ourselves, expressed in dedication to a higher cause, the worship of God, say, or art? And what if our deepest and most sincerely held beliefs were to heighten our chances of worldly success?”3

-    History of “skilled and successful individuals who collaborated with the Nazi leaders and helped implement a nefarious cultural program” (3). Petropoulos uses a prosapographical (comparative biographical) approach by researching case studies of figures in the art world of that period. Project of book is “to understand the various motivations that have induced talented and respected professionals in the art world to become accomplices of the Nazi leaders – in most cases, to become art plunderers.” (4)

-    Not author’s intention, however, to “demonize either these figures or the Nazi leaders… Timothy Garton Ash made a relevant observation about Stasi informers: “If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person. But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human. Yet the sum of their actions was a great evil.”” (4)

-    “The phrase “Faustian bargain” is often used in an imprecise manner to describe any immoral or amoral act that leads to self-advancement… In fact, since its inception in the sixteenth century, the story of Faust and his pact with Mephistopheles entailed more than self-interest. He made his deal with the devil in return for greatness and in pursuit of a lofty ideal (in many versions, for knowledge). The figures in this study were not simply corrupt or self-promoting. They were at or near the top of their respective fields and held ambitions for even loftier accomplishment. They collaborated with Nazi leaders, whom they often recognized as brutal or vainglorious, because they perceived opportunities in their own work. They […] pursued a vision of greatness that would ultimately yield fame and a kind of immortality. Additionally, they themselves would have been familiar with the Faustian myth [… which] was a well-known trope at the time for those who were culturally literate… One finds cases like Albert Speer, who remarked in his memoirs, “For the commission to do a great building, I would have sold my soul like Faust. Now I had found my Mephistopheles. He seemed no less engaging than Goethe’s.”4  The Faustian metaphor, then, is useful not only because of its expressiveness, but also because it was central to the culture discussed in this book. Nonetheless, the metaphor should not be viewed as a procrustean bed where all are trimmed to fit. It is meant as a kind of shorthand for the ethical compromises that occurred and not as an all-encompassing explanation for these highly complex histories.” (4-5)

-    “These figures in the art world had the opportunity for a Faustian bargain because the Nazi leaders themselves cared so much about culture – the visual arts in particular…” Control of the arts = important element of their totalitarian system. Petropoulos refers to Third Reich as a “kleptocracy” as their purchase and plunder amassed hundreds and thousands of art pieces. This they could not have done without the assistance of figures in the art world: “The leaders provided the political leverage and the operating capital, and the subordinates offered their skill and expertise.” (5)

Notable main case studies

-    Dr. Ernst Buchner

- Art director who “realized his longtime ambition to become director of the Bavarian State Paintings Collections in July 1932” (20), but, “with the National Socialist seizure of power in January 1933, Buchner faced the prospect of losing his new job” (21). Petropoulos notes that Buchner viewed joining the Nazi party (which he did in 1933) as “a career move” despite having “certain reservations about the Nazi party” (22).
“It is difficult to explain Buchner’s behaviour, which […] became gradually more immoral with greater proximity to those with power. His motivation for collaborating with the Nazi leaders reflected a combination of rationalization and indoctrination, a very complex process that entailed an inner struggle” (26). 
He was “tried on a board by Munich in 1948 […] The court found evidence that attested to ambivalent behaviour: while he had been in the service of the regime […] he also supposedly “up until the end stood in the closest confidence of clear opponents of the National Socialists 5 […] and was credited for criticizing certain ideological exhibitions […] and for eliciting attacks from Nazi extremists” (43-44).
After the war, he claimed that he “could not bring himself to purchase “Nazi art” that was exhibited in the official shows” (24).   

-   Hans Posse

- Art director who “made his Faustian bargain by accepting the directorship of the Führermuseum for the opportunity to build the greatest museum of all time” (8)

→ “Exhibitions were a form of propaganda for the regime, and they articulated the ideological tenets of nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism and conformity […] The individuals administering museums were remarkably important to Nazi leaders because they helped communicate ideas fundamental to the regime […] The careers of Buchner [and] Posse […] have shown that many directors were not merely compliant, but also even instigated some of the Nazi’s activities” (61).
It is worth noting that museum officials such as Buchner and Posse “always had the option of resigning […] These educated men had options and were not forced down the path of criminality.” (16)

-   Karl Haberstock

- Art dealer: although “the sincerity of Haberstock’s anti-Semitism is difficult to gauge, there is no doubt that he was an opportunistic businessman who continued to play both sides, catering to conservative anti-Semites while maintaining relationships with a select number of Jews” (76). At the beginning of the Nazi regime, he had a gallery that was not a “prestigious locale for an art dealer”– not enough for him, he “wanted more, including a high-profile establishment in the fashionable West End”: he joined the Nazi party in 1933, viewing “Party membership as not only a type of insurance policy, but as a means of furthering his career” (78).  

-    Robert Scholz

Art journalist (= “effective propagandist” [163]) who “became a sincere believer in the National Socialist ideology, and his Faustian bargain came more from his desire to lead a crusade than from personal ambition or greed. His journalistic efforts in the 1930’s contained an earnestness that is undeniable. And even when engaging in plundering in Paris during the war, he abjured personal enrichment and turned down offers from Göring to take pictures […] What is evident first and foremost was the fervor of Scholz’s convictions, and it was this belief in National Socialism that led him back to the radical right in the 1960’s…” (152).

-    Kajetan Mühlmann

Art historian who was successful member of the Austrian intelligentsia, and was “arguably the single most prodigious art plunderer in the history of human civilisation” (170). The reasons behind his gravitation toward the Austrian Nazi party “remain unclear. In his postwar interrogations, he himself denied ever being an Illegaler: he repeatedly stated under oath that he was neither before the [1934-38] ban nor during the ban a member of the NSDAP […] yet, he testified to this under threat of conviction for Party membership prior to 1938.” (174). Played massive part in the despoilment of Poland and of the Netherlands.

-    Arno Breker

Artist: representative of an artist collaborating with the Nazi leaders, but also exceptional in the sense of his stature within the Third Reich: he was “one of the most celebrated artists in Nazi Germany”. His “Faustian bargain” included “changing the style of his art”, which shifted from variants in naturalism to a “characteristically fascist idiom” (8). Post-war, there was the realisation within the intelligentsia and the general public that Breker’s rehabilitation would be difficult because “there was the obvious fact that he had been a Nazi artist […] he was dishonest about his own past […] even years later, he remained an apologist for the Nazi regime” (251). So in this sense “Breker deviated from the character of Faust: in most versions, this mythic figure repented and asked to be pardoned for his transgressions. Arno Breker lived his life in denial” (253).

- “Within the cultural realm […] what started out as a compromise and collaboration on the part of a few individuals became a widespread phenomenon […] the regime co-opted “ordinary” people – or alternatively, individuals induced themselves – to support the Nazi policies and participate in criminal acts. This brings us back […] to Faust. He was, like the figures in this book, exceptional in many respects as he pursued knowledge and power. But Faust’s story also speaks to humans more generally. He shows us that ambitions leaves us vulnerable and that we often make unfortunate decisions in the fact of a greater power […] It is in this spirit [that] we examine their pacts with the devil.” (11)

- “The elite of the Nazi world rehabilitated their careers after 1945, and they maintained contact with one another in a manner that protected their own interests and impeded the restitution of looted artworks.” = Petropoulos makes the association that this situation is “inextricably linked with the concept of a Faustian bargain, as Doctor Faustus struggled to reconcile ambition with ethics” (280). According to Petropoulos, just after the war Karl Jaspers (German philosopher) considered the issue of ethical transgressions, and constructed 4 categories of (decreasing) culpability: criminal, political, metaphysical and moral – each category covering a spectrum ranging from the contravention of national/international law (criminal guilt) to failure in opposing the regime (moral guilt). Petropoulos notes, when relating this structural analysis of ethical responsibility to the art figures of the Third Reich, that these figures “came up short in all four categories.” (280)   -- (Nb. how would Faustus relate to these four categories?)

  1The Faustian Bargain – The Art World in Nazi Germany, Jonathan Petropoulos. 395pp. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2001, ISBN 014-02-9035-4
  2Ian Buruma, a review of The Faustian Bargain in The Times, 9 June 2000
  3Ian Buruma, a review of The Faustian Bargain in The Times, 9 June 2000
  4“Dan van der Kat, The Good Nazi: the Life and Times of Albert Speer (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997, 53)
  5BHSA, MK 50859, BSUK memorandum, 27th February 1953