As soon as I met Dr. Bruno Lohse in June 1998, I knew I wanted to write a book about him. Lohse had been Reich Marshal Hermann Goering’s chief art agent in Paris during the war and became the co-director of the Nazi plundering agency called the ERR (an abbreviationfor Special Task Force of Reich Leader Rosenberg). Lohse helped steal over 30,000 artworks from French Jews and was a player in the Paris art market during the war.
I had been studying Nazi art plundering for fifteen years when I first traveled to Munich to meet him. When we met, he said he didn’t want to talk about himself, but would answer questions about his cohort during and after the war. This immediately made me curious about his own story, but for the time being, I acceded to his wishes and we talked about others.
Some years after Lohse’s death in 2007, I saw a document written in 1951 by a former German army officer, where he described meeting Lohse during the war. Lohse, this aristocrat recounted, had boasted of killing Jews with his own hands. The writer did not know whether to believe Lohse, and to this day, I do not know if Lohse personally murdered anyone, but the letter brought to the fore the question of Lohse as a perpetrator. This is one of the questions I focus on in my latest book, Göring’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and His World.
I found evidence that Lohse accompanied the ERR commandos as they conducted their raids on the homes of French Jews. Sometimes the residents had been removed so recently that the dwellings were described as “warm.” As a member of the SS, Lohse had no illusions about the “war against the Jews.” The fact that he saved several Jewish colleagues — such as legendary museum director and art historian Max Friedlaender — indicates he knew that Jews sent to the East faced a grim fate. Using the authority of his chief, Herman Göring, Lohse rescued the Jewish wife of a Parisian art dealer from a French camp — meaning he saw a concentration camp first-hand as well.
Bruno Lohse also had a very active career in the postwar period, which raised the important question that no other author had yet answered: what had become of the Nazi art plunderers? Lohse had spent five years in prison before being released by a French Military Tribunal in 1950. He relocated his art dealing operations from Berlin to Munich and became part of a network of former Nazi dealers and museum officials. The networks radiated outward and extended to Paris and the United States.
The picture had been owned by the Fischer family — the famed Jewish publishing house in Frankfurt. The family had moved to Vienna in the mid-1930s and the Pissarro was stolen from them after the Anschluss in 1938.
One of the most fascinating finds of my research concerned Bruno Lohse’s networks. It included not just the aforementioned Nazi figures (many based in Munich), but also Monuments Man and Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Theodore Rousseau, along with members of the Wildenstein family — the legendary French-Jewish art dealing dynasty. Lohse had turned to Rousseau and the other OSS officers in the Americans’ Art Looting Investigation Unit after he was transferred to French custody in 1946. What started as a plea for help developed into a twenty-five year-long relationship — and indeed, a friendship. Rousseau was a risk-taker — a swash-buckling curator who embraced danger and adventure. The Wildenstein story is more complicated (there is a chapter on the subject in the book). Some of the Wildensteins’ art had been looted by the ERR during the war, and it is extraordinary that Lohse had a relationship with family members in the postwar period.
Lohse, like many trying to conceal assets, utilized the Alpine principality of Liechtenstein to great advantage. Liechtenstein is a kind of appendage to Switzerland; while the latter is well-known for its secretive banking culture, the former also has a lesser-known history, since World War II, in specializing in foundations that have served to conceal wealth. Lohse availed himself of the opportunities in both countries: his Zurich lawyer arranged for a bank vault, which held looted artworks among other pictures, and this same lawyer set up the foundation for Lohse in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. The lawyer, Frederic Schöni, called Lohse’s foundation “Schönart” — a deceptive name that afforded Lohse a bit more cover. Frederic Schöni was also a key lawyer for the Wildensteins, and helped them ship dozens — if not hundreds — of valuable artworks via Switzerland to the United States in the 1950s.
Additionally, Frederic Schöni helped Lohse conceal a painting by the Jewish French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. The picture had been owned by the Fischer family — the famed Jewish publishing house in Frankfurt. The family had moved to Vienna in the mid-1930s and the Pissarro was stolen from them after the Anschluss in 1938. Family members continued the search for decades until its discovery in Lohse’s Zurich bank vault. Lohse’s story has important implications for the ongoing restitution work.
I find it satisfying that my research has practical application and that I have been able to assist many victims and their heirs in recovering Nazi looted art. I have worked on more than a dozen cases — always on the side of the Jewish claimant — and I believe there is an ethical component to my work.
There is still so much we don’t know about Bruno Lohse and his life — both before and after 1945. My book has been optioned for a documentary film that is still in production, and the researchers for the film have already made discoveries since the publication of my book. I am reminded of the observation of the great Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg, “… there is no finality. Findings are always subject to correction and reformulation… The reality of events is elusive, as it must be, and the unremitting effort continues for the small incremental gains, no matter their cost, lest all be relinquished and forgotten.”
Further Reading: while a rich literature on Nazi art plundering has developed since 1945 (there is an Oxford Bibliography guide to the topic), the following books illuminate some of the themes in Göring’s Man in Paris:
Hector Feliciano, The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
Catherine Hickley, The Munich Art Hoard: Hitler’s Dealer and his Secret Legacy (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015).
Meike Hoffmann and Dieter Scholz, eds., Unmastered Past? Modernism in Nazi Germany: Art, Art Trade, Curatorial Practice (Berlin: Verbrecher Verlag, 2020).
Arthur Brand, Hitler’s Horses: The Incredible True Story of the Detective Who Infiltrated the Nazi Underworld (Kindle edition, 2021)
 Raul Hilberg, Sources of Holocaust Research: An Analysis (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2001), 204.
Jonathan Petropoulos is the John V. Croul Professor of European History at Claremont McKenna College. He is a Life Member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow at the Royal Historical Society.