Nazi crime revelations raise questions about the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

The late collector Heini Thyssen forced himself to forget his family’s Nazi involvement, but so did the countries that vied for his and his father’s pictures in the 1980s. This well documented book gives the details


Collecting art and then putting it on public display is a very traditional way of polishing up a murky reputation. Think of Henry Clay Frick of the oh-so-refined Frick Collection: a capitalist of the most ruthless kind, a heavy-handed strikebreaker, with 16 workers left dead on one occasion. No one today remembers the origins of that museum, or if they remember, they do not care.

In recent years, however, there has been one crime for which this convenient amnesia does not seem to work and that is any support of the Nazi regime. In 2001, when Friedrich Christian Flick wanted to put his collection of contemporary art on display in Zurich, the locals got together a protest movement because his fortune came from Mercedes, and Mercedes had been deeply involved in armaments production for the Nazis, employing slave labour. Flick is too young to have been involved himself, but the mere fact that his money came from a tainted source and that he chose to collect art rather than compensate victims was enough for Zurich to turn him down. Berlin then went on to accept the collection, but not without a huge public row about it.

David Litchfield’s book on the Thyssen family now forces us to be aware of what that family of steel barons was up to during World War II. This had largely been forgotten or fudged but is now clearly revealed.

Baron Hans Heinrich (Heini) Thyssen, who died in 2002, is immortalised in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, one of the city’s main tourist attractions. His fifth wife, Tita, is still buying and hopes that the Spanish government will continue to finance an expansion of the museum. Mr Litchfield, a friend of Heini’s nephew Stephen Bentinck, was originally employed 14 years ago by Heini and Tita to write a hagiography, but gradually, with the help of the researcher Caroline Schmitz, the book emancipated itself (although the author is clearly a Tita fan). Heini’s eldest son George also gave them access to the family and business archives in Monte Carlo, which put the project on an altogether more serious footing.

Mr Litchfield’s judgement on Heini Thyssen is that he managed to repress all memory of what the family enterprises had been doing during the war. He quotes the baron as saying to the Spanish journalist Luis de Villalonga: “During the war, a group of big industrialists employed Jewish deportees in their plants and made them work like slaves. When they became too ill or too weak to work, they were sent to concentration camps and to the gas chambers. Not only did we have nothing to do with this, but we were persecuted by the Nazis as well.”

But Heini must have known this was not true. Although only a very young man and living in Switzerland during the war, he was present at all the meetings there of the directors of the Thyssen enterprise. He would have known, for example, that in 1942, everything was going swimmingly, with the steel factories posting a 2% ?dividend, Thyssen Gas a 6% dividend on profits of 2m Reichsmark, their Dutch bank, BVHS (which had helped finance the Nazi party in the early 1930s) had a DFL3m surplus, while the “armament enterprises” at one of their shipyards were credit-worthy: it is all in the company reports in the Monte Carlo archives.

In addition, Heini’s brother Stephan, who remained in Germany during the war, was chairman of the board of MABAG, a company that sank mine shafts, built machinery, including parts for the V1 and V2 rockets that bombed Britain, and built petrol storage installations. Together with IG Farben, it constructed the Reich’s main fuel-storage depot in the Kohnstein mountains. By the end of 1943 there were more than 10,000 forced labourers living underground and by October 1944, it had become a concentration camp in its own right, Mittelbau, which would hold 60,000 prisoners of whom 20,000 were worked to death. In addition, a US government memo in the Washington Archives says that in 1943, one in two miners in the Thyssen’s Walsum mine was a slave labourer.

There was also the dreadful happening in 1945 at the family castle, Schloss Rechnitz, involving Heini’s sister Margit Batthyany. The very least that can be said about her is that she enjoyed extremely bad company. She stayed there throughout the war and became very friendly with the SS officers billeted on her. On the night of the 24 and 25 March, it was decided to hold a party in the castle for local Nazi dignitaries and around midnight, Franz Podezin, the chief of the Gestapo, invited the senior guests for fun to shoot 200 or so half starved Jews, who had been working on the town’s? fortifications. Their burial place has never been found. Shortly afterwards, as the Russians moved in the castle burnt down, some say razed by locals to destroy incriminating evidence. No action was taken against Margit Batthyany, but the rest of the family could not have escaped knowing what had happened because there were trials in Rechnitz after the war, although no one went to jail for more than a few years because all the key witnesses died in “accidents”. The Thyssens never rebuilt the castle.

It was the Allies themselves, especially the Americans, who decided to let bygones be bygones and help revive the Thyssen empire in the interest of the German economy and opposing the Soviets. Before Berlin was even taken, Thyssen Gas and Water was working with the Allied Military Governor and by 1948, Bremer Vulkan, the Thyssen shipyard that had made U-boats for the Nazis, had orders from the Allies worth DM11.25m. The fact that in 1946, Averell Harriman, who in January 1941 still nominally held the Thyssen shares in their BVHS bank, became Secretary of State for Commerce almost certainly helped the family get back their banking assets.

Forty years pass and in 1986 the word gets out that Heini Thyssen is thinking of moving his collection from the Villa Favorita on Lake Lugano. Countries fall over themselves to get hold of it (including Prime Minister Thatcher—the only time she takes a direct interest in the arts) and the Nazi past never gets mentioned. As Heini intended from the outset—because it was what his new Spanish wife, Tita, wanted—Spain wins, and in 1993 pays $350m for half the collection.

What of the man himself? One of the less attractive aspects of the art world is the servile admiration for major collectors when, for every true collector, in the sense of someone with real knowledge and passion, there are dozens of neurotic shopaholics, snobs or greedy investors. This book, which describes Heini’s addictions to alcohol and women with gusto, puts him squarely in the shopaholic category and says that he had little real knowledge or love of art, merely a craving to acquire. Since, however, Heini’s most dynamic and inspiring art advisor, Simon de Pury, refused to talk to David Litchfield, this is the part of the book that is weakest. During the period when de Pury worked as Thyssen’s curator, the range of his collecting expanded to include US art and the Russian Avant-garde, the collections were properly ?published and the extraordinary exchange exhibitions of the 1980s between the Hermitage and the Villa Favorita took place. It was a good partnership and probably the most productive and enjoyable part of Thyssen’s generally disappointing life, so it is a pity that it does not get more subtle and informed treatment, because the rest of this Thyssen saga is pretty unedifying, with almost everyone in it variously or severally degenerate, deranged, greedy, callous, vulgar or snobbish.

Should Heini Thyssen be blamed for what his family did? No. Although he knew what was happening, he did not take part in events and was too young to influence them. Would a Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum be created today with such insouciance by a national government? Probably not. What should happen now? The provenance of any works in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum bought by Heini’s father, Heinrich Thyssen, in the period 1932 to 1945, but particularly after the fall of France, should be examined very closely. Because one of the revelations of this book is that, far from having ceased to buy works of art in 1938, as Heinrich and then Heini maintained, pictures moved between Paris and Switzerland, where Heinrich Thyssen lived, and by 1945, 218 works of art had been bought. Heinrich Thyssen always denied that he went to France during the Nazi occupation, but in fact he made numerous journeys to Paris, where Hotel Drouot was selling works stolen from French Jews. And so were Julius Böhler and Karl Haberstock, with both of whom he had dealings. If any works are found to have been stolen from Jews, the very least that should happen is that they should be returned to the rightful owners.