By Angus Trumble
THE THYSSEN ART MACABRE
David R.L. Litchfield in collaboration with Caroline Schmitz
450pp. Quartet Books. £25.
978 0 7043 7119 4
In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, in a province about to be transformed by heavy industry, with much shrewd talent for business and sheer hard work, the sons of the sober proprietor of a minor local bank devote their life to building a huge industrial conglomerate. Buoyed by an unlimited international demand for coal and steel, and by the absence, up to a certain point, of income tax, company, or wealth tax, or planning regulations of any kind, or effective unionization of the labour force; supported by equally ambitious joint venturers; barely interrupted by the slump of the 1890s (and not even particularly incommoded by the First World War, which on the contrary was a great boon for the banking and steel branches of the family business), they create a mesh of intertwining companies that generates profit on a scale hitherto unknown, such that the shareholders’ vast wealth is almost impossible to calculate. Their banking, steel, coal, gas, oil and transport interests continually refinance and stoke one another, bringing about unstoppable expansion and causing the whole region to become one of the industrial powerhouses of the Continent.
One brother, short, thin-voiced, frugal in his personal life, emerges early as the dominant personality; his knowledge of and hold over the concern is total. His marriage collapses, at a time when divorce was wholly scandalous. In old age, he becomes interested in art. Dutch paintings hang in the small but comfortable apartment he keeps in the nation’s capital; a large but cold principal residence remains within walking distance of the office, not far from the belching factories. His handsome, well-educated son and heir, Heinrich, inherits his interest in fine art, but disappoints the father by not inheriting his single-minded passion for business above all else. After the old man dies in 1925, universally regarded as one of the greatest industrialists of the age, the son’s art collecting activities accelerate and become exceedingly ambitious.
In these respects, the remarkable life led by August Thyssen of the Ruhr runs eerily parallel to that led on the other side of the Atlantic by Andrew W. Mellon of Pittsburgh in Western Pennsylvania, and suggests that, given a bit of luck, for the capable, single-minded man of business in the fifty years between 1870 and 1920, anything was possible. This, however, is where the resemblances end. As David Cannadine has shown in his magisterial study Mellon: An American life (reviewed in the TLS, November 24, 2006), Andrew Mellon’s life was big in precisely the ways that August Thyssen’s (or so David R. L. Litchfield would have us believe) was severely limited. In addition to the vast enterprise which he continued to run until the end of his life, it was said of Mellon that he was the most distinguished, certainly the longest-lasting, Secretary of the Treasury under whom three Presidents of the United States (Warren G. Harding, J. Calvin Coolidge, Jr, and Herbert C. Hoover) had yet served.
Thyssen showed no interest in public office; at his birth the unified Germany from which his family would in future extract such dizzying wealth did not yet exist, and it remained for him merely a marketing opportunity; nobody could have hoped for a better customer than the Kaiser. Near the end of his life, on New Year’s Eve, 1936, Mellon presented to the nation his core collection of Old Master paintings and a great building on the Mall in Washington, DC, to house a new National Gallery of Art, an act of astounding generosity, given that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had done his very best to bring Mellon down. Thyssen’s philanthropies were meagre.
Fritz Thyssen with Hitler
Mellon was slight, and well-dressed; Thyssen was nuggety and more at home at the pit. Mellon was scrupulous in paying his taxes; Thyssen and his heirs and their lawyers did their best to evade them. By his hold over the Pennsylvanian Republican Party machine, Mellon engineered state legislation by which he minimized the damage brought about by his divorce in 1912; Thyssen’s divorce, in 1885, nearly wrecked the company, because Frau Thyssen’s family had put up the capital for the first iron smelting and rolling mill. Where possible, Mellon, a Scots Presbyterian, avoided hiring Catholics; Thyssen was a Roman Catholic, and determinedly anti-Semitic – his children even more so. Andrew Mellon’s greatest art coup – a reflection of his brilliant business philosophy in that he took advantage of never-to-be-repeated opportunities and bought for the lowest possible price – was the secret acquisition, through Knoedler in 1930–31, from a Soviet Government desperate for hard currency, of major pictures in the Hermitage. The central episode of August Thyssen’s far more limited art-collecting life was the highly public, excruciatingly slow purchase of six marble sculptures by Auguste Rodin for 145,000 francs, spread over the years 1905–11, during which time he haggled pettily with the sculptor’s secretary, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, going so far as to seek a hefty, contractually enforceable discount in case Rodin died before the works were complete.
Mellon’s son, Paul Mellon, fought in the US Cavalry during the Second World War, studied Jung, bred champion racehorses, and dedicated the rest of his life to philanthropy on a scale rarely if ever matched in the United States. By courtesy of an absurdly late decree of the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, August Thyssen’s son Heinrich bought into the Hungarian aristocracy and, as Baron Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszón, helped his father profit from the production of steel and electricity during the First World War. With barely concealed distaste, Thyssen père’s obituarist in The Times remarked that “during the Great War the firm of Thyssen was exceedingly busy, and prospered greatly”. Heinrich and his brothers evidently underwrote and profited vastly from the Nazis. They exploited forced labour, acquired confiscated Jewish racing stables, and, when the Second World War looked like being lost, escaped to Switzerland.
Thereafter, as far as possible the family hid behind fake Hungarian nationality, Dutch and Argentine residency, and, later, Swiss citizenship. Meanwhile Baron Heinrich continued to maintain a permanent suite at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin. Assets were routinely hidden offshore; funds at first poured into the Netherlands for safekeeping, then, through the Union Banking Corporation of New York, to South America. (The Union Bank was incorporated in the State of New York in 1924 with the assistance of the railroad magnate W. Averell Harriman, a future Secretary of Commerce under President Truman, and on its board sat the future Senator Prescott S. Bush, grandfather of the current President.) Well ahead of D-Day, assets and share certificates were rushed from Rotterdam back to Berlin, again for safekeeping. With the aid of the Allied occupying forces, Thyssen industries in the Ruhr were permitted to restart almost immediately – occasionally, at a few undamaged plants, without losing more than a single day of production; assets were easily salvaged; incriminating documents were illegally removed from Germany back to Holland under Russian noses, then destroyed.
David Litchfield’s somewhat breathless, bafflingly titled book The Thyssen Art Macabre is not nearly as thorough or as measured as Cannadine’s Mellon: Litchfield’s style tends to the sensational, which sometimes renders the unpleasantness of the family portrait it paints almost beyond belief. But the facts as Litchfield presents them are unpleasant enough. He brings out the cynicism and the scale of the duplicity with which the Thyssen family’s third billionaire, Heinrich’s alcoholic son and heir, Hans Heinrich (“Heini”), carried forward the Konzern in the decades following the Second World War, and the extraordinary degree to which the Allies and, perhaps worse, the Swiss (who knew exactly what was going on), found it curiously difficult or impolitic to pin more than a few charges on the Barons Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszón, or even adequately to investigate their activities. Why, for example, were the Thyssens’ pre-war gold deposits in London never confiscated? And why were they eventually returned (incidentally, at Harold Macmillan’s urging), when military intelligence and the Foreign Office certainly knew how thoroughly the family had been mixed up in the Nazi regime? It would be interesting to learn how much Commerce Secretary Harriman and Senator Bush knew about the financial services apparently provided for years to the Thyssen businesses (and through them, let us hope unwittingly, to the Nazis) via the Manhattan boardroom of the Union Bank. Why also did a single truck laden with share certificates, safety deposit boxes and other valuables manage to find its way unmolested from the Russian sector of Berlin all the way across Europe to Rotterdam – making the trek for the second time – thus partly shoring up Thyssen banking interests, a daring coup that was referred to as “Operation Juliana” (presumably because Queen Wilhelmina’s own Thyssen share certificates were on this occasion rescued)?
More perplexing even than these is the question why, during the war, did thousands of loyal, hard-working German lawyers, company directors, middle managers, and other employees, all the way down to factory foremen, risk life and limb to protect the assets of the Konzern from the Americans, British and French, and then the Russians, when their proprietors – who by their status as a wholly owned private family company were relieved of the basic obligation even to publish a simple balance sheet – reclined in comfort in the Villa Favorita on the shore of Lake Lugano, surrounded by Baron Heinrich’s conveniently portable art collection, which he regarded with total frankness as an excellent way of disguising his wealth from the tax authorities? In fact, Uncle Fritz was charged as a “major offender” in 1948 before the Denazification Court at Bad Königstein, having, in 1939, published an ill-judged but cheerful book entitled I Paid Hitler, in which he boasted about financing the putsch of November 9, 1923.
He retired to Argentina. But big brother Stephan, who worked on the V2 rocket project and shot his girlfriend in Hungary, lived unmolested in Monte Carlo, producing a bizarre tract entitled The Explanation of Life, which carries a somewhat embarrassing dedication to Max Planck. Meanwhile, big sister Margit and her husband, Count Batthyány de Németújvár, who throughout the war ran a stud farm at the huge, depressing Bornemisza castle of Rohoncz, by then in Austrian territory, shared the premises with the SS. In March 1945, they apparently turned a blind eye to an appalling massacre of 200 Hungarian Jews in the castle grounds, calmly packed their bags, got in the car and, in the path of the Red Army, drove unimpeded all the way across Austria, and trundled safely over the frontier into Switzerland. There, with two other disgruntled siblings, they contested Baron Heinrich’s shockingly inequitable will, which cursed his four children with just about the most corrosive division of assets as it is possible for a parent to devise: one-eighth, one-eighth, one-eighth, five-eighths, giving total control to the youngest, Heini, who, aged twenty at the height of the war, had amused himself with an Argentine lover: “I am trying to find out what it is I like so much in you”, he wrote to her, charmingly; “the sensual mouth, the wolf’s teeth, the laughing eyes?”. The Thyssens make the House of Atreus look cosy.
Such, anyway, is the picture Litchfield presents. But how much of it is true? Certainly the German habit of meticulous record-keeping, which has proven so valuable to Nazi-hunters and later researchers of every description, provides him with ample well-documented evidence that the big picture is correct. He was initially commissioned by Heini and his fifth wife to produce a friendly account of the Thyssen dynasty, largely to contradict the lies they claimed had been spread by the (four) earlier ones. One can see how difficult that task must have been, enjoyable though it was, no doubt, to act for a time as Heini’s confessor.
Not surprisingly that book foundered. This one is unfriendly, but contains enough evidence to persuade one that the sharpened hatchet was possibly presented to the author by its own subject. One of the most chilling photographic reproductions in The Thyssen Art Macabre shows a certificate dated June 4, 1941, in which Judge John P. Nields of the United States District Court states that Baron Heinrich’s ghastly Bornemisza mother-in-law (née Matilda Louisa Price of Wilmington, Delaware) “has no trace of Jewish blood in her veins”. Above all, the discussion of Baron Heinrich and his youngest son’s scattergun art-collecting activities, which drags the reader kicking, if not screaming, through a series of ownership disputes and legal settlements among heirs and ex-wives, fails to persuade one that the purchase by the Spanish state of one half of the collection for (in theory) $600 million in 1993 was, on the Thyssens’ part, more than a shabby, expedient fire sale. The claim that it was intended to complement the holdings of the Prado, one of the greatest art museums in the world, is plucky, certainly, but by any measure insulting.
Unfortunately, Litchfield does little more than pour scorn on Baron Heinrich’s “generally appalling collection of over-restored paintings, many of which suffered from questionable provenance and very few of which were masterpieces”. His account of the crucial role played by the Thyssens’ principal adviser, the dealer Rudolf Heinemann, and his association with Bernard Berenson, Max Friedländer and others is inadequate. For example, the author claims, weirdly, that Berenson “introduced such phrases as ‘the work of an anonymous German master’, ‘attributed to’ and ‘from the studio of’”, as if these were in any case inherently deceptive, while early acquisitions of rare fifteenth-century Netherlandish and German paintings are dismissed as “inconsequential” merely for lack of a firm attribution. It is all very unfortunate.
But what Litchfield’s cursory tour d’horizon makes clear is that a lowering black cloud hangs over many Thyssen paintings, which lack documented provenance in the Nazi period. This ought to be a matter of grave concern for their present owners, as it is for the rest of us who routinely face this moral problem. Just when Heini thought that by investing in German Expressionism and other twentieth-century masterpieces, which Baron Heinrich shunned at around the time much of it was despised as entartete, he was making the right sort of gesture – and, with the benefit of hindsight, for the prices he paid, a series of dazzlingly good investments as well – he may merely have compounded the larger evil created by the orchestrated Nazi spoliation of cultural property.
He was certainly aware of the problem. In May 1969, Heini was accused by the Italian authorities of “illegally exporting Italian art” in relation to his purchase of the exquisite Sienese “Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John the Evangelist” by Ugolino di Nerio (now in Madrid) and the not quite as good “Madonna and Child with Angels and St Catherine” by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (now in the Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Pedralbes). After he was, with others, charged with smuggling, he told the New York Times, in 1972: “I buy the stuff in Switzerland and the United States, but how it gets there I don’t know. I can’t check all that”. It seems the case was suspended. The paintings had been taken out of Italy before the sale, and it is now left for someone else to check all that for him.
Angus Trumble, sometime winner of the Barry Humphries Prize for the Liberal Arts, is curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.