How the Nazis Looted Art in the Netherlands: Dienststelle Mühlmann

From 1940 to 1944, in Nazi-occupied Holland, the Dienststelle Mühlmann coordinated the systemic plunder of artworks. Led by Kajetan Mühlmann, it became a major player in WWII art looting.

May 20, 2024By Maria-Anita Ronchini, MA History & Jewish Studies, BA History



In his 1945 report, Dutch Intelligence officer Jan Vlug wrote, “Rotterdam was still burning when Kajetan Mühlmann in his SS-uniform arrived in Holland to take up his new task as chief of the Dienststelle.”


Established in 1940, the Dienststelle Mühlmann processed artworks confiscated from Jews and other “enemies” of the Reich. At the same time, Mühlmann’s office also acted as an agency for art dealerships, delivering paintings and other cultural items to high-ranking Nazi officials. Soon, Mühlmann created a vast network of art dealers, auction houses, and art experts and became a central figure in WWII art looting.


Kajetan Mühlmann: From WWI to the Dienststelle Mühlmann

photo of kajetan muehlmann
Photo of Kajetan Mühlmann. Source: Kleine Zeitung


Born in Uttendorf, Austria, in 1898, Kajetan Mühlmann volunteered to fight in World War I. He was wounded in 1918 and received various decorations for his service. After the end of the conflict, however, he was disappointed by the terms of the Treaty of St. Germain, the settlement that marked the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire. In particular, Mühlmann resented the provision prohibiting Austria from uniting with Germany.


After receiving a doctorate in art history from the University of Vienna, Mühlmann moved to Salzburg, where he became the Propagandaleiter (lead publicity agent) of the city’s Festspiele in 1926. The position allowed Mühlman to promote and celebrate Austrian culture. The art historian also became acquainted with Arthur Seyss-Inquart, a lawyer from Moravia and the future Reich Commissioner for the Netherlands. In the 1930s, they both endeavored to strengthen the banned Nazi party’s basis in Austria. During his interrogations after World War II, however, Mühlmann declared that he was “neither before the ban nor during the ban a member of the NSDAP.” According to Wilhelm Höhl, an officer of the Nazi Security Service (SD), Mühlmann worked as a confidential informant of the SD from 1934 to 1938.

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german soldiers national museum in cracow
German soldiers looking at a painting in the National Museum, Kraków, Poland. Source: The Warsaw Institute Review


After the Anschluss, which he helped prepare, Mühlmann was appointed state secretary in the Ministry for Interior and Cultural Affairs. While he saw the annexation of Austria to the German Reich as an opportunity for economic growth and a booster of national pride, Mühlmann became frustrated with his German colleagues’ interference. In particular, Mühlmann hoped to persuade Hitler to leave the expropriated Jewish-owned artworks in Vienna. His efforts, however, led to his dismissal from his post in June 1939.


The unemployed Mühlmann reached out to Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, who appointed him Special Delegate of the Reichsmarschall for the Securing of Artistic Treasures in the Former Polish Territories. Thus, Mühlmann began to oversee the systematic plunder of artworks belonging to Jews, other “enemies” of the Third Reich, and the Polish state. His commandos located, registered, and relocated all seized cultural items.


The art looting was part of a larger project aiming to “purge” Poland from all non-Germanic traits: “The Polish lands are to be changed into an intellectual desert,” stated Hans Frank. In Poland, Mühlmann worked swiftly and meticulously. In 1940, his friend Arthur Seyss-Inquart called him to Holland, where he put Mühlmann in charge of the WWII art looting operations.


The Occupation of Holland & Creation of the Dienststelle Mühlmann

german soldiers rotterdam 1940
Two German soldiers at the ruins of Rotterdam, 1940. Source: Lebendiges Museum Online, Deutsches Historisches Museum


The German army invaded Holland in May 1940. General Winkelman, Commander-in-chief of the Dutch armed forces, signed the surrender on May 10. At the end of the month, Seyss-Inquart, who had previously assisted Hans Frank in Poland, began to lead the new German administration in the occupied country as Reich Commissioner.


While the Third Reich violently swept through the Polish state, the occupation of Holland followed different directives. Indeed, the Nazi leadership considered the Dutch population to be racially similar to the Aryans. As a result, the German regime planned to turn Holland into a province of the Reich and, therefore, integrate the two countries’ economies. The Nazis felt that, once “restored” to its true Germanic origins, Holland would become a part of the New Order envisioned for the European continent. To pursue this racially oriented cultural program, Himmler sent representatives of the Ahnenerbe, an archeological division of the SS, to The Hague. They were tasked with the study and promotion of Aryanism in Holland.


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Photo of Arthur Syess-Inquart, 1939. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


The nature of the occupation of Holland led to a different type of WWII art looting than the one the Nazis carried out in Poland and other Eastern territories. While the operation of “purification” in the Polish state had been brutal, “the cultural amenities of the West were supposed to be enjoyed as well as conquered.”


In the future New Order, the treasures of the Western countries (“purged” from those artworks the Nazis considered “degenerate”) would be redistributed, along with their previous owners. In the meantime, the Third Reich would carefully “safeguard” the more valuable looted objects and all material useful to research its “enemies.” In Holland, for example, Arthur Seyss-Inquart oversaw the construction of state-of-the-art shelters equipped with sophisticated technology to house masterpieces such as The Night Watch by Rembrandt.


rotterdam destroyed 23 may 1940
Rotterdam destroyed by bombs, May 23, 1940. Source: Anne Frank House, Amsterdam


Shortly after Mühlmann arrived at The Hague, he immediately became involved in the art looting campaign, inquiring about the most valuable collections in the country. Soon, he and his staff established the headquarters for their operations at Sophialaan and opened three bank accounts. The first one would fund purchases for high-ranking Nazi officials. The second account was for the money that would derive from the sales of cultural items seized from “enemies” of the Reich. The third one would soon be filled with the revenue obtained from transactions with clients in Poland.


Unrolling The Night Watch by Rembrandt. Source: History Collection


While several offices were involved (and competed) in the exploitation of Holland’s treasures, the staff of the Dienststelle Mühlmann undoubtedly was the major player in WWII art looting in the occupied Dutch country. A vast network of collaborators, informants, art experts, dealers, and auction houses assisted Mühlmann’s agents in the plundering operations. As the volume of activities increased, Mühlmann set up branches of his Dienststelle in Amsterdam, Brussels, Vienna, Paris, and Berlin.


Confiscations, Forced Sales, & Exchanges

deportantion of dutch jews
Dutch Jews boarding a train that will deport them to Auschwitz, 1942 or 1943. Source: Anne Frank House, Amsterdam


After the invasion of Holland, the occupation government began to arrest German Jews who had escaped to the Dutch country after Hitler rose to power in 1933. Their belongings (and the personal possessions of those who managed to flee) were collected by the staff of the Dienststelle. Mühlmann’s agency also received items seized by the Feindvermögen (Department of Enemy Property), the Secret Service (SD), and the Gestapo.


The Dienststelle sold many of the plundered artworks to high-ranking Nazi officials, including Hitler, Goering, and Frank. For each transaction, Mühlmann and his agents received a 10 percent commission. While the revenue from the sales helped fund the Dienststelle’s operations, delivering items to those influential clients was often a delicate task: “The competition between Hitler and Goering caused pressure from which one could not escape. What was of use to Hitler, could hurt Goering. I personally was in a very difficult position,” lamented Mühlmann in his postwar interrogations.


adolf hitler looted art
Adolf Hitler perusing looted artworks. Source: National Archives


In September 1940, Eduard Plietzsch, a German art historian, joined the staff of the Dienststelle at The Hague. An expert on Dutch art, Plietzsch handed Mühlmann an exhaustive report on the most important collections in the country that the agency could expropriate or buy. In his work, the art historian relied on information collected by a network of informants.


“The storage of the Jewish Berlin collection of Dr. Jaffé in the Museum at Leiden, through confidential information from private quarters in Germany,” later reported Plietzsch to Arthur Seyss-Inquart, “led to the seizure of the large collection, owner of which had emigrated to England.” The Führer received six artworks from the Jaffé collection.


carinhall goering
Inside Carinhall, Hermann Goering’s private art collection. Source: Deutsches Historisches Museum


Besides confiscations, the Dienststelle also acquired objects through forced sales and exchanges. The Kröller-Müller Museum, named after its benefactors, held three paintings by German artists, which Goering coveted, claiming they rightfully belonged to the Reich. After a series of negotiations led by Mühlmann, the museum officials agreed to exchange the items for works by van Gogh, Manet, and Degas.


The Nazis were in favor of these transactions as they allowed them to dispose of unwanted Entartete Kunst (degenerate art). The exchanges were a peculiar feature of WWII art looting carried out by the Third Reich. On the other hand, the acquisition of the Mannheimer collection was listed by Jan Vlug as a “forced sale.” In his report, the Dutch Intelligence officer wrote that, during the complex transaction (dubbed “Mannheimer Affair”), Mühlmann “informed the creditors that they had to accept [his] offer, as otherwise he had to force the sale.


Auction Houses, Dealers, & the Dutch Art Market during WWII

portrait of hans posse georg oehme 1930s
Portrait of Hans Posse by Georg Oehme, 1930s. Source: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden


In Holland, Mühlmann and his staff were also very active in the open art market, buying valuable items for their wealthy clients. While the volume of transactions had suffered a setback during the Great Depression, the art trade blossomed during the occupation as “​​German government officials suddenly had access to millions of guilders in occupation money, forcibly siphoned off from the Dutch economy.” In times of war, people also sought to invest their money in safer assets, including artworks. “I have an impression that there is an increasing trend to invest money in material possessions,” wrote Eduard Plietzsch in his report to Mühlmann.


Plietzsch also reminded the chief of the Dienststelle that “Holland has been for more than two centuries an art export country.” In particular, the Dutch art market had always had a strong link with Germany. After the occupation, numerous German dealers convened in Holland to procure items for their clientele.


Newspapers were full of ads offering and seeking works of art. New dealerships sprang up left and right—so much so that the Dutch Nazi Chamber of Culture was forced to impose export limitations and issue restrictive rules.” Among them was Hans Posse, Hitler’s dealer. Dutch agents and auction houses were also active in the art market. Many of them collaborated with the Dienststelle Mühlmann.


The End of the Dienststelle Mühlmann

claim exhibition rijksmuseum amsterdam 1950
“Claim exhibition,” Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1950. Source: Restitutions Committee Netherlands


In 1944, Mühlmann ended his activities in Holland and moved the Dienstelle’s headquarters to Vienna. However, the volume of his transactions shrunk considerably. In 1945, Mühlmann was arrested by the US Army and sent to the Special Interrogation Center at Altaussee, Austria. During the interrogations about his role in WWII art looting, he first attempted to justify his actions, claiming that his real goal had always been the preservation of the artworks collected by the Dienstelle.


However, he later stated: “The Third Reich had to lose the war because this war was based on robbery and on a system of injustice and violence, which could only be broken from the outside. Every individual has now to pay personally for the mortgage which the German people has accepted.”


After collaborating with the Office of Strategic Services in 1947, Mühlmann managed to escape from the Allied authorities during a hospitalization. He eventually took refuge in Munich, where he died in 1958.


In 1945, at the Reparation Conference in Paris, the Dutch government declared in a memorandum that the damages caused by WWII art looting amounted to around 3.5 billion guilders.

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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.