War correspondent. Writer. Artist. Art collector. Visionary. Tax dodger. Despot. These are just some of the words that have been used to describe Buchheim, one of the most colourful and enigmatic personalities of Germany’s 20th century cultural life.
Born in Weimar during the last year of the First World War, he was raised by a single mother and was already establishing himself as an artist in the 1930s. When war broke out though, he joined Joseph Goebbels's propaganda department and became a war correspondent.
In an assignment which was to immortalize him, he joined the crew of a U-Boot as they went on the hunt for British convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic. Initially he wrote a short story on his experiences.
After the war, Buchheim went back to his first love, art. He set up his own publishing house, writing on the expressionist movement that had flourished in Germany before the Nazi era. At the same time he brought up paintings by leading Expressionist artists including Kirchner and Nolde. As these artists had been condemned by the Nazis as degenerate, he was able to buy up the art for relatively little money.
Das Boot. Photo: DPA
By the end of the 1980s, when expressionism began to come back into vogue, his collection had become internationally famous and was estimated to have a value of over €100 million.
Buchheim was to become a household name as a writer, though. His 1973 book Das Boot fictionalized his wartime experiences on an U-Boot across 600 pages. It went on to be the best-selling work of fiction in Germany on the Second World War.
The subsequent film adaptation, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, was nominated for an Oscar and stands out as one of the most famous movies in German film history.
Anybody who wishes to see Buchheim’s exceptional art collection now can travel to the Museum der Phantasie on the western shore of Lake Starnberg in Bavaria, where an elegant modern museum juts out like a ship onto the water.
But the man with the stubbly beard and eye patch was as well known in Germany for his short temper and eccentric personality as for his artistic legacy.
According to the Süddeustche Zeitung, he would regularly deride people he didn’t like as “gutter rats”, while driving around his small Bavarian village in a Rolls Royce in order to make his neighbours jealous.
He reserved particular scorn for Peterson, who had turned down his script for the Das Boot movie. He accused the director of creating a cross between a “cheap, shallow American action flick” and a “contemporary German propaganda newsreel from World War II”.
The Buchheim Museum. Photo: DPA
For a man who had amassed a huge wealth through book sales and art, he was also incredibly stingy. When former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder paid him a visit, he was received like all guests at the camping table which served as Buchheim’s dinner table.
To mark the 100th birthday of the great man, his only son Yves has brought out a biography, detailing the highly dubious ways that his father came about his wealth.
Besides insinuating that his father was a Nazi who then switched sides out of expediency after the war, Yves claims that Buchheim hid most of his wealth in Swiss bank accounts and even forged works of art for money.
“My father never paid taxes like other people,” Yves Buchheim told the Donaukurier on Monday.
“He had a few real print blocks made by Otto Müller. I saw him make prints with it twice. That was a real money maker – the prints were then signed with an OM for Otto Müller,” Yves said.
According to Handelsblatt, the artist had furrowed away 14.1 million Swiss francs in Swiss bank accounts by the end of the 1980s.
Despite the controversies, Bucheim's legacy will live on through his art collection, which is well worth a visit. The museum is accessible from Munich via S-Bahn and bus.