The ERR: How the Nazis Plundered France’s Priceless Art

Created by Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) plundered countless artworks and other cultural items during World War II.

Apr 13, 2024By Maria-Anita Ronchini, MA History & Jewish Studies, BA History

err nazis plundered france art


Throughout history, art looting from the victors has always been a sideline of war. Napoleon famously seized numerous cultural objects from the countries he conquered. Similarly, during World War II, the Nazis plundered the occupied European countries from their most valuable treasures. However, unlike Napoleon, the Third Reich justified its systematic seizure of cultural items with racial constructs. From 1940 in occupied France, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), or Task Force of the Reichsleiter Rosenberg, oversaw the complex machine of art looting aimed to “scientifically” prove the existence of a “Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy.”


The (Ideological) Origins of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg

alfred rosenberg
Photo of Alfred Rosenberg, ca. 1940. Source: Lebendiges Museum Online, Deutsches Historisches Museum


In 1933, Alfred H. Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, witnessed the beginning of the process of Gleichschaltung (Nazification) of German culture. In Stuttgart, for example, Barr attended a speech at the local Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur (Combat League for German Culture): “It is a mistake to think that the national revolution is only political and economic. It is above all cultural.”


The director of the League further stated that “all the expressions of life spring from a specific blood … a specific race! … Art is not international.”


In 1930, Alfred Rosenberg, an early member of the Nazi party and the founder of the Combat League, had laid the foundation of the Third Reich’s cultural theories in Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhundert (The Myth of the Twentieth Century). In the book, Rosenberg expressed his firm belief in the irreconcilable dichotomy between the Aryan and Jewish “races,” claiming that all Western culture had originated solely from the ancient German tribes. Thus, according to Rosenberg’s racial rhetoric, the modern Germans, the direct descendants of the Aryan Nordic race, were entitled to claim their cultural legacy. The book sold around one million copies and helped gain its author the status of party ideologue.

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1940 edition myth of the twentieth century
The 1940 edition of Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century. Source: Lebendiges Museum Online, Deutsches Historisches Museum


After Hitler became Chancellor, he appointed Rosenberg “Commissioner of the Führer for the Supervision of the Entire Intellectual and Ideological Schooling and Training of the NSDAP.” In the following years, Rosenberg expanded his office to transform it into an intricate network overseeing different fields of culture. Then, in 1938, after receiving Hitler’s approval, Rosenberg started to plan for the establishment of the Hoch Schule, a university-level educational center that would have trained the future elite of the Reich.


Among Rosenberg’s ambitious undertakings, collecting materials to “scientifically” prove the existence of an alleged “Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy,” thus legitimizing the Reich’s racial policy, was a crucial objective. In March 1940, Rosenberg founded the Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage (Institute for Research on the Jewish Question) in Frankfurt to pursue his ideological project. In the summer of the same year, Germany’s invasion of France provided Rosenberg and his staff the opportunity to start gathering cultural and scientific material for the institute and the future Hoch Schule.


Before the War: Nazi Art Policy

degenerate art exhibition 1937
Visitors looking at works in the Degenerate Art Exhibition, 1937. Source: Deutsche Welle


In Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhundert, Rosenberg described the works of German Expressionists as “syphilitic, infantile and mestizo.” He was not the first Nazi party member to express his disdain for modern art. In 1928, in Art and Race, German architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg compared the works of modern artists with photos of people with disfigurements. While art movements like Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Cubism, and Fauvism thrived during the “Golden Years” of the Weimar Republic, the Nazis considered them “degenerate.” According to Hitler, modern art embodied those liberal and defeatist political forces that had “stabbed Germany in the back” after World War I.


alfred rosenberg 1934
Alfred Rosenberg opening an exhibition at the National Library in Berlin, 1934. Source: Lebendiges Museum Online, Deutsches Historisches Museum


After attempting to purge the German art world of “degenerate” artists, in 1937, the Nazi regime opted to hold their works up to public scorn with an itinerant Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) Exhibition that aimed to “offer a firsthand overview of the dreadful concluding chapter of those decades of cultural deterioration preceding the great change.”


The exhibition opened on July 19 in Munich and drew more than three million curious visitors. The previous day, dubbed “Day of German Art,” Hitler had opened the Great German Art Exhibition in the newly-built Haus der Deutsche Kunst in Munich to glorify the works expressing the regime’s aesthetic and political goals.


The “purification” of German art left the Nazi leadership with the problem of what to do with the “degenerate” paintings and sculptures. To solve the conundrum, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering proposed to sell the most valuable objects abroad. In March 1939, the works least likely to raise revenue for the Reich were burned during a drill in the headquarters of the Berlin Fire Department.


The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in Action: Libraries & Archives Looting in France 

books confiscated by the err in a us depot
Crates full of books and other documents confiscated by the ERR in a US depot after the war. Source: Yad Vashem


On June 14, 1940, German troops entered Paris. In the days after the occupation, several Reich agencies started to plunder libraries, archives, and private collections, especially those owned by Jews. Gestapo officials, for example, seized objects from Jewish-owned houses and places of business. The Devisenschutzkommando (Currency Control Unit) confiscated the contents of bank vaults of many Jews.


In the immediate weeks after the invasion, the ERR officials concentrated their efforts on plundering Jewish and Masonic libraries and archives. After receiving Hitler’s authorization, between the end of July and the beginning of August 1940, the ERR systematically looted the manuscripts and documents of the main Jewish collections in France, including those of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the École Rabbinique, and the Fédération des Sociétés Juives de France. In total, around 20 million documents were seized. It was the biggest looting operation in history.


chief rabbi maurice liber identifying looted manuscripts
Maurice Liber, Chief Rabbi and director of the Rabbinical School of France identifying manuscripts looted by the Nazis. Source: Yad Vashem


The books and documents confiscated by the ERR were not immediately destroyed. On the contrary, Rosenberg distributed them among the Reich’s research centers, such as the Central Library of the Hoch Schule in Berlin or the library of the Institute for Research of the Jewish Question. Once in Germany, the products of Jewish culture “would provide a basis for future intellectual study, as considered necessary for the political, ideological, and academic operations of both the NSDAP and the Hohe Schule.”


While the ultimate goal of the Nazi regime was the obliteration of the European Jews and their culture, Rosenberg (and Hitler) planned to “safeguard” the traces of Jewish intellectual life to turn them into ideological weapons in the Reich’s anti-Semitic propaganda.


The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg & Art Looting in France

looted art jeu de paume
Paintings looted by the ERR displayed at Jeu de Paume. Source: Ministère de la Culture, France


Before the war, Paris was the capital of the European and international art world. Numerous artists, collectors, dealers, and art historians had convened in the French city. As the invading German army began its advance through the country, many artists and collectors, especially those of Jewish origins, tried to escape. Often, they were forced to leave behind their works and possessions.


Soon after the armistice, the German government demanded the restitution of all cultural objects of German origins previously seized by the French. Before the war, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had secretly sent art experts to France to inspect the country’s art collection and identify items Germany should claim. To this purpose, in 1939, two art historians published the three-hundred-page Memorandum and Lists of Art Looted by the French in the Rhineland in 1794.


room full of looted art at jeu de paume
A room at Jeu de Paume filled with artworks looted by the ERR. Source: Ministère de la Culture, France


In the fall of 1940, on Hermann Goering’s suggestion, the ERR also began to oversee the seizure of private Jewish-owned art collections. The main targets of the looting operation were renowned dealers and collectors, as well as members of the wealthy Rothschild family. In October 1940, the ERR began to store the seized items in the Jeu de Paume, a museum located in the Tuileries Gardens.


At Jeu de Paume, ERR officials carefully inventoried the objects by assigning them alphanumeric codes. After the war, these codes helped the Allies return the stolen artworks to their rightful owners. However, some items were never registered. Rose Valland, a French art curator who worked at Jeu de Paume, secretly recorded the looting operations and kept track of the fate of several items. The first shipments to Germany, for example, were sent to Neuschwanstein, Ludwig II’s Wagnerian castle in Bavaria. By 1944, Hitler ordered to move the most valuable items to the salt mines in Altaussee, Austria.


err file room neuschwanstein castle
ERR file room in Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, 1945. Source: National Archives


Hermann Goering, an avid art collector, frequently visited Jeu de Paume to choose some of the most valuable paintings for his collection at Carinhall, his country residence northeast of Berlin. Other artworks went to the Führer, who intended to display them in the so-called Sonderauftrag Linz, a museum to be built after the war in his hometown of Linz, Austria. In July 1943, the ERR divided the “degenerate” art collected at Jeu de Paume into three categories in order to identify the objects suitable for trade or sale in Europe. The selected items were moved to a separate area. The ERR men destroyed the rest of the Jewish and modern paintings and burned them on July 27, 1943. The lost paintings were then labeled as vernichtet (destroyed) in the ERR’s registers.


To legitimize its looting, the German Reich conveniently stripped the French who had left their country before the invasion of their citizenship. As the Vichy government protested the ERR’s plunder, Gerhard Utikal, chief of operations of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, wrote a document justifying the ERR’s actions on racial arguments. The Germans, argued Utikal, had liberated France from the pernicious influence of Jews. In this sense, the “safeguarding” of Jewish property was only “a small indemnity for the great sacrifices of the Reich made for the people of Europe in their fight against Jewry.” Additionally, Utikal claimed that the Jews had unlawfully amassed their riches through corruption, thus robbing the Germans of their right to “having their proper share of the economic and cultural goods of the Universe.


Looting Furniture: The ERR’s Möbel-Aktion 

buying looted itmes
Buying items looted from Jewish-owned houses. Source: Deutschlandfunk Kultur


In France (and the rest of the Western Front), ERR officials did not limit their plundering operations to solely art collections and archives. In 1942, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg launched the so-called Möbel-Aktion (Furniture Operation). The new project, led by Baron Kurt von Behr, consisted of removing furniture from the houses of Jewish families who had managed to escape.


Starting in the Spring of 1941, the ERR men thoroughly stripped the former residences of French Jews of furniture, art objects, clothing, and mundane items, such as glasses, plates, and soap dishes. The most valuable spoils went to the repository in the Jeu de Paume, where the ERR officials labeled them with specific “M-A” codes. However, the names and addresses of their owners were omitted during the inventory. The victims of the looting could reclaim their belongings only with a so-called Certificat de non-appartenance à la race juive, meaning a certificate proving their Aryan origins.


Initially, the furniture was sent to the German officers stationed on the Eastern Front. Rosenberg, who had become Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern territories, pointed out that, in the East, “living conditions were frightful and the possibilities of procurement so limited that practically nothing more can be purchased.” Toward the end of the war, when the Allies started advancing to Germany, the items looted by the ERR also went to German bombing victims. By August 1944, Rosenberg’s special task force “had raided 71,619 dwellings, and shipped off more than 1,079,373 cubic meters of goods in 29,436 railroad cars.


The ERR on the Eastern Front: Looting in the Soviet Union

the hermitage museum during world war ii
A destroyed room at the Hermitage Museum during World War II. Source: Daily Art Magazine


When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the ERR became immediately operative on the new eastern front. Soon, Rosenberg’s officials began to plunder the Soviet state’s cultural and academic institutions, looking for research material useful for their anti-Bolshevik propaganda. The Communist government had nationalized the private art collections of wealthy Jews. During their looting operations, the ERR often competed with Heinrich Himmler’s Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage), a special branch of the SS devoted to archeological studies aiming to prove the superiority of the Aryan race.


On the eastern front, the campaign of plunder was less subtle than in France or Belgium. “​​Those whom we considered as our adversaries or opponents from the point of view of our conception of the world are different in the West from what they are in the East,” explained Rosenberg during the Nuremberg trial, “in the West there were certain Jewish organizations and Masonic lodges, and in the East there was nothing more than the Communist Party.”


Rosenberg’s anti-Bolshevism was shared by Hitler, who planned to destroy St. Petersburg and Moscow and push the Slavs to Siberia in order to provide the Germans with their Lebensraum. As a result, throughout the Soviet Union, museums and houses of important cultural figures, such as Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Chekhov, were destroyed.


alfred rosenbger at the nuremberg trials
Alfred Rosenberg at the Nuremberg trials. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


As the German army began to lose ground, the most valuable cultural items collected by the various Nazi offices were shipped to Germany for “safeguard.” In August 1944, Utikal issued a directive stating that “Reichsleiter Rosenberg had ruled that the most precious cultural riches of the Ostland could still be removed by his staff, insofar as this can be done without interfering with the interests of the fighting forces.” In the general chaos, however, many valuable items were lost.


In December 1945, American Colonel Robert G. Storey, addressing the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg trials, declared:


“​​[T]o obtain a full conception of the vastness of this looting program, it will be necessary to envision Europe as a treasure-house in which is stored the major portion of the artistic and literary product of two thousand years of Western civilization. It will further be necessary to envision the forcing of this treasure-house by a horde of vandals bent on systematically removing to the Reich these treasures, which are, in a sense, the heritage of all of us, to keep them there for the enjoyment and enlightenment of Germans alone.”


The International Military Tribunal sentenced Alfred Ronsengerb to death. The mastermind behind the ERR was hanged on October 16, 1946.

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By Maria-Anita RonchiniMA History & Jewish Studies, BA HistoryMaria Anita currently works as a writer in Italy. She holds a BA in History from the University of Bologna and a MA in History & Jewish studies from LMU-Munich. Her primary interest is the relationship between memory and history. Maria Anita is passionate about analyzing the construction of historical narratives and collective memories. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching tv, and writing fiction.