The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR)

The creation of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) was a direct result of the professed ideological objective of the Reich leadership to ‘study’ Jewish life and, in particular, Jewish culture. The architect of this pseudo-academic and propaganda undertaking was Alfred Rosenberg. In order to fulfill his ambitious mission, Rosenberg proposed to collect archives, books, and related materials that his cohort of antisemitic scholars and specialists could examine under the aegis of an institution devoted to anti-Jewish studies. The Institute for Research on the Jewish Question (IEJ), established in Frankfurt, which Rosenberg opened in March 1940, was an important first operating segment of the university-level ideologically oriented Hohe Schule for the future Nazi elite that Rosenberg planned to establish in Bavaria after the war. The search for archives and books for the IEJ and other Hohe Schule institutes shaped the initial contours of the campaign of plunder that Alfred Rosenberg was soon to implement in newly-occupied territories. The German invasion of Western Europe and, specifically, of France offered the first major opportunity for Rosenberg to collect massive amounts of materials from archives, libraries, and cultural institutions.

The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), his “Special Task Force,” started operations in occupied France soon after the invasion in June and early July 1940, when the Führer authorized seizure under Rosenberg’s direction of cultural holdings of Jews and Masons, and other ‘enemies’ of the Third Reich, particularly those who had fled the country with the Nazi invasion. The newly created ERR was an operational offshoot of a large bureaucracy and network of ideological and cultural operations developed by Alfred Rosenberg in the late 1930s. Within days of the German Army’s victory march near the Arc de Triomphe in June, the plunder began. German agents and military personnel took over Jewish bookstores, Masonic lodges, and other cultural institutions identified as “Jewish.” At first during the summer of 1940 in France, the ERR concentrated on books, archives, and other research materials to form reserves for the Hohe Schule. The most important private French Jewish and Masonic library collections were destined for the IEJ in Frankfurt and the Central Library of the Hohe Schule (ZBHS) in Berlin, later moved to Austrian Carinthia. The ERR also confiscated Slavic libraries and private socialist collections in Paris, destined for other research operations against designated ‘enemies’ of the regime.

Meanwhile during the summer of 1940 in Paris, important French Jewish-owned collections of art were seized under orders from Otto von Ribbentrop, head of the German Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt). German Ambassador Otto Abetz had designs of his own concerning the cultural bounty to be garnered in occupied Paris, which he shared with his chief in Berlin. Units from the Secret Field Police (Geheimes Feldpolizei, or GFP) under the German Military Commander in France (Militärbefehlshaber in Frankreich or MBF) among others, assisted by art historians and experts, converged on high-profile galleries owned by world-renowned collectors and dealers like the Seligmann brothers, Georges Wildenstein, the Bacri Brothers, and Paul Rosenberg, to name only a few. Various members of the Rothschild family were priority targets among collections first assembled for “safeguarding” in an annex of the German Embassy in the rue de Lille and inventoried by an art historian brought in from Berlin.

Starting in October 1940, on Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s instigation, however, the ERR took over almost all of the seized art—not only paintings and works on paper, but also antique furniture, carpets, tapestries, objets d’art, and antiquities. Göring was anxious to enrich his own collections, and could offer Luftwaffe and other assistance for seizure, processing arrangements, and transport, while he cleverly manipulated further ERR art-looting operations in France. The initial collections brought to the German Embassy were moved first to several rooms in the Louvre, but space there was too limited. By the end of October, the ERR set up shop for processing near the Louvre at the Jeu de Paume, a prewar museum in the “Jardins des Tuileries” (Tuileries Gardens). During the next four years, until early August 1944, the ERR seized over 200 private Jewish collections in France and Belgium and dispatched many of the contents to special ERR art repositories in Bavaria and Austria. So-called “Foreign Exchange and Currency Protection Commandos” (Devisenschutzkommandos or DSK) under Göring’s control seized additional art from selected bank vaults which they turned over to the ERR. Other special police and military units seized Jewish art collections that had been deposited under French government protection in a series of specially designated châteaux situated for the most part in the Loire Valley of central France. Aside from a handful of Belgian Jewish collections brought to the Jeu de Paume, the ERR was not involved in art-looting elsewhere in Western Europe, such as the Netherlands, where other specialized Nazi art agents were operating.

The ERR carefully recorded their achievements, in part to control their valuable art loot, but also to justify their activities and increased funding in trying wartime conditions and with competing predators. They went to great pains to register and identify the provenance of a large number of the art objects they seized and to keep track of their wartime destinations, which later proved a blessing for those trying to trace and identify their loot after the war. First their art specialists prepared detailed inventories of each collection. Objects were assigned unique ERR alphanumeric codes, reflecting the collection owner’s name or other assigned designation for the collection and consecutive for the items processed within. While the inventories were usually started in the Jeu de Paume, many of them were later reedited once the collection reached the ERR art repositories in the Reich. The ERR registration cards repeated the data. However, there were an undetermined number of items that were never carded, some of which were inventoried, others not. The ERR staff photographed many of the looted items that were brought to the Jeu de Paume for processing. These items were also photographed in depots in Germany and Austria. The photos from the Jeu de Paume were oftentimes printed on very high-quality Velox photographic paper, a brand supported by the German subsidiary of Kodak Eastman Co.

Most of the earliest art shipments from Paris went to the main ERR art repository in the legendary Bavarian castle of Neuschwanstein. Later shipments went to the former Cistercian Abbey of Buxheim, and there were also other Bavarian destinations. Some of the most valuable art first sent to Neuschwanstein, starting in 1944, was transferred the salt mines above Altaussee in near-by Austria, where the ERR was allotted a special storage area.

Beginning in the spring of 1942, art objects were brought to the Jeu de Paume as part of the loot collected by the ERR offshoot, the Möbel-Aktion (M-Aktion; literally “Furniture Operation”), which stripped furnishings from the homes of Jews who had fled or were deported. By April 1942, when the program became fully operational, the M-Aktion had been administratively shifted to the Western Office (Amt Westen) of the Rosenberg-headed Ministry for Occupied Eastern Territories (RMbO), allegedly because many of the goods seized were to be destined for German offices on the Eastern Front. However, the ERR reaped many of the prize cultural proceeds. The first choice of art objects plundered by the M-Aktion, including fine furniture, was turned over to the ERR in the Jeu de Paume. The M-Aktion art loot was separated into a number of special type-specific “M-A” collections, from paintings and Oriental objets-d’art to weapons and rare books. Those were inventoried without revealing the name and address of the home from which they were seized; most of the Jeu de Paume “M-A” collections were first shipped to Kogl and Sessenberg, both in Austria; most of the Belgian collections were destined for Nikolsburg, a special ERR art repository in Southern Moravia, then part of Austria; many crates from those castles were also later moved to Altaussee. The famous final shipment of 1 August 1944, predominantly of modern art destined for Nikolsburg was detained by French resistance and never left France.

Some of the art objects from the Jeu de Paume went to enrich the collections of Nazi leaders. Records show that only 53 items (actually 56 objects), among the first shipped to Germany in February 1941 went to Hitler’s collection gathered for the museum Hitler projected for his hometown in Linz, the so-called Sonderauftrag Linz, while in the course of Jeu de Paume operations, at least 875 went to Göring. Many paintings that came into the Jeu de Paume were sold or exchanged by the ERR or its agents, including Göring’s art specialists. More than 500 objects, considered by the Nazis as “degenerate,” were slated for destruction by the ERR. It is still a matter of conjecture as to how many of these objects were destroyed while stored at the Jeu de Paume.

Postwar ERR Art Restitution to France and Belgium

Postwar recovery and repatriation of the ERR art loot was possible because of the careful detail with which the ERR documented and photographed many of the art objects that it seized, and by the efforts of Allied military and civilian art specialists and field investigators, including especially the so-called “Monuments Men” (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives or MFA&A officers). Crucial to the Western Allied postwar repatriation and restitution programs, the MFA&A organized a series of collecting points in the U.S. Occupation Zone of Germany under the Office of Military Government (usually known by its acronym OMGUS) for the cultural loot found in numerous repositories across the Western zones of occupation in Germany and Austria. MFA&A officers succeeded in bringing together many of the surviving German documents pertaining to art looting in a Document Center at the Munich Central Collecting Point (MCCP), the most important U.S. military-run center handling the inventorying and repatriation of Nazi cultural loot found in the major ERR cultural repositories taken over by American military units. It should be noted, however, that some of the ERR-processed loot did not go through collecting points in the US zone of occupation in Germany, while many other items were never recovered and may still be at large.