Posts Tagged ‘independent historians’

Thyssen Provenance à la Terlau or The Art of Academic Ineptitude

With a delay of 10 months following the publication of Johannes Gramlich’s book on „The Thyssens As Art Collectors“, the first official review, written by Dr Katja Terlau, a German art historian specialising in provenance research, has now finally appeared on the Sehepunkte review platform, as well as in the art magazine Kunstform.

What is most shocking about this piece is that the reviewer on three separate counts fails to appreciate the fact that the collections of Fritz Thyssen and of Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (and later Hans Heinrich) were two completely separate collections, describing them instead as one collection. One can only hope that Dr Terlau operates with more care in her general provenance research work, while one is also left wondering about the standards of „Sehepunkte“ and „Kunstform“ for publishing such a misleading assessment!

In general terms, this is a glowing review of a book said to be written by an „independent historian“, „supported by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Thyssen Industrial History Foundation“. That is, one presumes, as independent as Katja Terlau herself, who in 2001, with the support of the same Fritz Thyssen Foundation of Cologne, organised a colloquium entitled „Museums in the Twilight Zone – Purchase policies 1933-1945“, at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne.

Dr Terlau describes, in a gushing manner very akin to that of Johannes Gramlich himself, the Thyssens as a „renowned“, „successful“, „influential“, and „preeminently cross-linked“ family, who acquired a „magnificent“, „outstanding“, „high quality“ collection through the „passion“, „love“ and „special feeling“ of its members (not because the latter is true – it’s not -, but because the Thyssens are super-rich and major academic sponsors, which tends to leave people supremely dazzled and gullible).

Dr Terlau’s faculties of critical analysis sink to the lowest possible level when she enthuses how Heinrich Thyssen paid „ca. 50 million Reichsmark“ between 1926 and 1936 „alone“ to buy „over 500 paintings“. Meanwhile, she leaves the explanations by Gramlich that Heinrich’s heir Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza quietly disposed of at least 125 of those paintings, in the 1960s and 1970s, unmentioned. Or the fact that many experts at the time of Heinrich’s first exhibition in Munich in 1930 were highly critical of his collection, estimating anything up to 400 paintings to be of questionable quality.

There are a few redeeming features too, for instance when Dr Terlau quite rightly criticises the fact that so few of the actual art works are described by Gramlich sufficiently precisely to make an accurate identification of the works possible at all. She also accuses him of mentioning art inventories without ever citing from them, and of using sources that are well out of date and totally behind the current level of research!

Dr Terlau goes on to criticise Gramlich’s evaluation of the Thyssens’ Rodin marble sculptures and ceramic art in particular as „very questionable“, although it remains unclear what exactly she means by this. No explanation is forthcoming. She also objects to him failing to „take into account the object of the art trade in a more concrete manner“, while stating „this trade depends on many factors and personalities and is very difficult to grasp“ – again leaving the reader at a loss to understand what exactly is the point she is trying to make.

However, her statement that Gramlich’s assessment „the Nazis’ appropriation of art can be compared to the growing interest in art of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century“ „seems very disconcerting“ is a description that chimes very much with the feeling experienced by ourselves when we first read the passage in Gramlich’s book.

It is a shame that Dr Terlau has not seen fit to include in her review more of the „very disconcerting“ elements of Gramlich’s book, such as the Thyssens taking advantage of the disbanding of Jewish collections or their abuse of art for personal aggrandisement as well as tax avoidance, to name but a few. On top of which comes, of course, the morally questionable partial source of the wealth used for the art purchases (arms manufacture, forced labour).

On the whole, Dr Terlau recommends Johannes Gramlich’s book as „distinguished“ and as forming „a broad basis for many further research approaches“. However, as far as Thyssen is concerned, it can be assumed that it is not academia, but the „influential“ and „preeminently cross-linked“ Thyssens and their organisations, with their essential control over relevant source material and their financial power, who will be deciding on that.

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Rewriting History – Thyssen in the 20th century: Still an overall exercise in vindication or whitewash, with a good number of obvious omissions – but admittedly featuring the occasional, important and sometimes puzzling admission.

It has taken seven years since the publication of our crucial book about the Thyssens (in the Asso Verlag publishing company of Oberhausen/Ruhr) for the first instalment of the „official“ Thyssen response to appear, in the form of the first in a series of eight books, co-financed by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the newly formed Thyssen Industrial History Foundation; orchestrated by the malevolent Prof. Manfred Rasch, chief archivist of ThyssenKrupp AG, whose prejudice is manifest in the fact that while our book is often referred to, it is never credited.

Prof. Rasch even manages to deny our existence by claiming that the late Baron Heini Thyssen-Bornemisza failed in his ambition to commission an authorised biography.

In 2014/5, following numerous delays, three volumes of the series have appeared: “The United Steelworks under National Socialism”, “Forced Labour at Thyssen” and “The Thyssens as Art Collectors“. We will review all three over the coming weeks.

The authors of the books are all, somewhat surprisingly, junior academics with no or limited previous knowledge or practical experience of their subjects and described as „independent historians“, who are said to be „closing the gaps“ in research concerning the history of the Thyssen Family, ThyssenKrupp AG and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Group.

However, as the authors were commissioned, funded and assisted in their research by the same people, commercial organisations and related foundations, there can be no way in which they could be accurately described as „independent“ and such a claim is at best misleading and at worst fraudulent.

In the case of the major investor, in what often appears to be little more than an academic hagiography, it should be remembered that the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung was started by Amélie Thyssen, who had joined the Nazi party in 1931 – two years before her husband Fritz Thyssen – and who never publicly recanted or displayed any regret for her support of Adolf Hitler.

One also wonders why senior academics of proven knowledge and ability were not won over to deal with this important and sensitive program. One has to assume that it was either because the juniors were more „malleable“ or because more senior academics were not prepared to risk damaging their own reputations while polishing the Thyssens’ tarnished history.

Of course for the project’s supervising professors Margit Szöllösi-Janze (Munich University) and Günther Schulz (Bonn University) the lines of academic whoring must be extremely blurred, as so many general academic research projects in Germany in the past 55 years have been funded by this same Fritz Thyssen Foundation. It must be incredibly difficult to emancipate oneself from this ever primed sponsorship pump.

By contrast, when we visited the archives of ThyssenKrupp AG in 1998, not only did Manfred Rasch accuse us of forging our letter of introduction from Heini Thyssen, but he was also offensively un-cooperative and purported to have nothing to do with the history of the Thyssen family, who he spoke of derisively and said that „his“ archive contained no material that related to them. So the question is: what has changed for him to now be a contributor to such a project?

Presumably, it was the publication of „The Thyssen Art Macabre“ and the resulting adverse publicity in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, as this appears to be the point in time when his, the family’s and the corporations’ academic program of damage limitation was conceived.

Guido Knopp, the éminence grise of German historiography, has said in one of his popular television programs that „our generation is not responsible for what happened under the Nazis, but we are responsible for keeping the memory alive of what happened“.

In light of the Thyssen story, this begs the question: how are we supposed to adequately research and remember the history of the Nazi period if people like the Thyssens sit on evidence for 70 years and reveal it only to a selected few under privileged, academic criteria, thus keeping it very much outside the perception of the general public?

The result of such an opaque approach to Aufarbeitung can only be an exercise in vindication and in this series, as with so many books supported in the past by the Thyssen organisation, there is plenty of that. And if not in fact, then in conjecture.

But as far as we can see there are also now important admissions being made, presumably in order to retain a modicum of credibility, or perhaps at the insistence of the more forward thinking members of the team. This fact vindicates the time and effort we expended in producing the first honest portrayal of the Thyssen family and its activities.

We are delighted that our book has had the intended effect, namely to force the organisation to depart from the old official version of events which refused to admit anything that could be considered negative and only ever represented the Thyssens in a light of selfless heroism and untarnished pride, particularly manifest in a claimed rejection of Nazi ideals.

Recently a 94-year-old German former Auschwitz camp administrator, Oskar Gröning, who had not been directly involved in the killings, was sentenced to four years in prison. He showed deep remorse and apologised for his involvement, not something often displayed by his co-accused, if ever.

It felt like a concerted effort to present an image of Aufarbeitung which is a new, more open and honest way, and one that is explicitly sympathetic with the victims. Or maybe Mr Gröning is just a very enlightened individual.

In addition to Gröning’s statement, the public prosecutor commented that far from being just about individual crimes, Auschwitz was very much about „a system“, and that „whoever contributed to that system was responsible“.

The Thyssens contributed in many ways and much more than many others to the Nazi system, for instance by helping to arm Hitler’s troops to the point where the Nazi terror regime could be implemented over much of Europe. Their descendants, who have profited and continue to do so, from their forefathers’ (and mothers’) ill-gotten gains, have far more reasons than the German general public today to apologise and certainly to remember.

The question is: will they ever make a comparable statement to the one Oskar Gröning has made?

And more importantly: if not, why not?

"He who pays the piper calls the tune". The eternal sponsor, Amelie Thyssen (copyright Fritz Thyssen Foundation)

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