Explained: Why German police have seized ‘fake’ Hitler watercolours

German police seized three watercolours presented as works of Adolf Hitler before they were due for auction Thursday in Berlin, claiming they could be fakes.

Explained: Why German police have seized 'fake' Hitler watercolours
Hitler in the Reichstag on May 4th, 1941. Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv/WikiCommons

The Alpine and Rhenish landscapes, which depict a mountain scene, a river and a distant figure sitting beneath a tree, were dated 1910 and 1911 and were signed: A. Hitler. They were offered by the Kloss auction house.

Berlin police tweeted they had opened an inquiry into “attempted fraud” and “falsification of documents”.

The Berlin police tweet stating that they had seized three watercolours allegedly painted by Hitler from the auction house in the Pankow district of Berlin.

The starting price was €4,000 per painting, and each carried a seal of approval by an expert attesting their authenticity.

The Nazi dictator, who committed some of the worst crimes in history, tried to enrol in the Vienna Academy of Arts twice as a young man but was rejected for lack of talent. He continued painting, however, and copied landscapes from post cards which he sold to tourists.

A 2015 auction of Hitler watercolours and drawings in Nuremberg fetched nearly €400,000 euros.  A painting of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria fetched the highest price in the lot, selling for €100,000.

An example of work said to be painted by Hitler. This is the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria auctioned off in 2015. Photo: DPA

'Highly questionable'

German daily Welt reported that the paintings that were being auctioned in Berlin are “highly questionable” for several reasons.

The Rhine landscape is said to have been painted by Hitler in 1911. However, it is thought that Hitler visited the Rhine for the first time on October 22nd, 1914.

From the end of 1909 until the beginning of World War I in 1914, Hitler earned his living by selling watercolours and drawings, first in Vienna, then in Munich in 1913. They mostly showed local sights, sometimes landscapes, rarely still lifes.

The pictures have an average artistic quality – they were often copied from postcards. Hitler initially sold his work through his one-time business partner Reinhold Hanisch, primarily to art dealers, later also to stationary art galleries and frame dealers in Vienna.

It is unclear how many paintings Hitler produced and how much money he made. He was able to afford modest accommodation in various men's hostels, as well as regular visits to operas and operettas, although mostly in the cheapest standing areas.

There are estimates that Hitler may have made more than 2000 watercolors and drawings between the end of 1909 and the beginning of his career as a politician. The vast majority of them are said to have been created during the four and a half years he spent in Vienna and Munich, a few dozen more later while he served in World War I. Hitler was stationed with the Bavarian Army in occupied north-eastern France and in Belgium.

That would mean, however, that at least in Vienna and Munich he would have to have painted a whole, finished picture every day. This seems unlikely as the dictator would have had to work very regularly and efficiently – characteristics that were never typical traits of his, commented Welt.

An example of a signature on the artwork “Nelkenstrauß” which is attributed to Adolf Hitler. It was auctioned off in Nuremberg on 12th June 2015. Photo: DPA

Doubts raised

An extensive catalogee of work attributed to Hitler has been unearthed in recent times. Billy F. Price, a Texan businessman, has collected more than 750 of Hitler's paintings and has provided information on numerous other allegedly genuine Hitler pictures.

In order to check whether watercolours attributed to Hitler actually originate from him, art historical criteria isn't so helpful. The dictator was merely a moderately gifted copyist without his own style. Furthermore, in the 1920s and early 1930s his former business partner Hanisch eagerly produced pictures similar to Hitler's and signed them with the name of the man, who was at that point a prominent party leader.

The signatures also raise doubts about the authenticity of the pictures that were being auctioned in Berlin. The name “A. Hitler” can be seen on two of the three watercolours. However, it's not written in a fluid movement, as you would expect from a painter.

Meanwhile, the signatures on the artwork arguably look different from Hitler's real signatures before 1914, however very few signatures have survived from this time.

They also do not match his handwriting. Again, there are relatively few excerpts of Hitler's handwriting that can be identified as belonging to him beyond doubt.

It's fair to say that compared to other signatures on pictures attributed to Hitler, they differ very much.

In Germany, it is reportedly legal to sell paintings by Hitler so long as they do not contain Nazi symbols.

The police probe into the authenticity of the paintings in Berlin is continuing.

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.