I remember clearly my first meeting with Bruno Lohse in June 1998 at the Zentralinstitut in Munich. It was a hot summer afternoon as I sat in the shade offered by the massive neoclassical portico of the building commissioned by Hitler and designed by Paul Ludwig Troost. Looking up, I saw a mosaic of green and orange swastikas embedded in the ceiling. It seemed a fitting place to wait for a Nazi art plunderer. I was unsure what to expect. Would he be friendly or hostile? Expansive or reticent? Frank or deceitful? These and other questions passed through my mind. Finally, a large Mercedes pulled up; an elderly gentleman with a shock of silver hair and dark glasses sat in the back seat. He had an imperious air about him. A younger man, still in his fifties, drove the impressive automobile. Was this his chauffeur? Dr. Lohse was taking me to lunch in style. We were going to a restaurant—an elegant Bavarian beer garden—but not to his home. His Munich residence, rumored to be filled with valuable artworks looted during the war, was just one of the many mysteries surrounding Lohse. But that day, we headed toward a very public beer garden; it would be several more years before I was invited to his apartment. I sat in the back seat next to him as we drove southeast, along the English Garden and into the lush green valley that cradles some of Munich’s most fashionable neighborhoods.
Upon our arrival at the beer garden, the Freisinger Hof, we were escorted to Lohse’s preferred table. He was well known here—I would learn that this was the case throughout much of Munich—and he held court in his self-aggrandizing manner, arranging the seating and taking the lead in ordering. He insisted that we begin with soup, a practice that would become customary when I dined with him. It was usually some fritellen (crêpe) soup with chicken, which I rather liked, although sometimes he insisted upon the less agreeable Leberknödelsuppe, or liver dumpling soup. I suffered through a bowl of the latter during several early meetings, but subsequently developed the confidence to amend the order to some other kind of soup. He was intimidating in a way that is difficult to describe, while at the same time pleasantly engaging. At our first meeting, we began with polite small talk, chatting about the splendors of Munich and the region’s unpredictable weather. For all of the intrigue surrounding this notorious Nazi art plunderer, he looked more like a retiree, an elderly uncle dressed simply in a striped golf shirt and slacks. His build alluded to a past athleticism. At six foot four and now over three hundred pounds (he had gained weight since the war), he was physically imposing. But on this particular afternoon, he seemed to be playing the role of cordial older man as he told stories from what I later learned was an established repertoire.
It was not until later, when Dr. Lohse became “Bruno” to me and our meetings took place more frequently, that I saw the other side of him. His mood would shift, his face turning red as he became angry and aggressive. He spewed vulgarities that I found jarring (in part because German profanity can be so graphic: “Kiss my ass” in German is “Lick my ass”—Leck mir den Arsch), and language like this left me somewhat shocked and off-balance. Yet it was in these moments that the reports of his more nefarious deeds seemed not only imaginable but credible.
In spite of the many secrets he harbored, Dr. Lohse had his stories—his “safe” stories—that he felt free to tell without the danger of suffering serious consequences or disclosing incriminating information. He had been interrogated so many times right after the war and had made such a concerted effort to prepare his defense for the Paris trial of 1950 that he had developed self-serving narratives that he retained nearly his entire life. Still, as I got to know him, he seemed to grow more open and outspoken. By 2001, the ninety-year-old Lohse felt immune from prosecution or other serious consequences resulting from his wartime activities. He was still mistrustful, but he had loosened up. At times, this volubility appeared to stem from his own sense of resignation—the good old days were over and his stories were all he had left. When I first met him, he was eighty-seven years old: still sharp in general, but prone to repetition and memory lapses. The lapses would increase in frequency and scope with age, yet his basic narratives remained the same.
My relationship with Lohse proceeded in stages, and all of our early meetings were in public places. The Freisinger Hof, or what Lohse and Peter Griebert called “the Croats,” was the most common and comfortable venue for him. At these lunches, Lohse talked about his relationships with the former OSS officers who had interrogated him at war’s end; he talked about Hofer and other fellow art dealers during the Third Reich—especially Karl Haberstock and Kajetan Mühlmann, figures I was writing about in The Faustian Bargain. Lohse offered me specific stories and details that I included in the book, especially about their activities during the postwar era. The paper trail for these art plunderers, as for most second-rank figures in Nazi Germany, largely dried up after their interrogations and denazifications in the late 1940s. The oral history offered by Lohse and other old Nazis provided one of the few ways to reconstruct the postwar experiences of this cohort. Lohse’s remarks strengthened my belief that the former Nazi dealers had maintained a network in the postwar period and continued to engage in business with one another.
At the start of my sabbatical in the summer of 2000, I was living in Munich, making it easier to contact Lohse. I had his telephone number and could ring him up somewhat freely. Not long after I had settled in, Lohse invited me to his home. He suggested that I come for Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and pastries). This sounded very promising indeed. He asked if I knew the address, and I told him I did. What I did not reveal is that I had bicycled by his apartment building on several occasions. As I looked up at the balcony to his flat, I had imagined the artworks housed inside. Now I might see if the rumors about the art in his apartment were true.
And so I arrived at Bruno’s home for the first time in September 2000. I had brought pastry and wine from the Alois Dallmayr emporium, the Harrods of Munich, which I knew Lohse liked. I had also brought along a micro tape recorder. Lohse greeted me at his front door and invited me in. He appeared as friendly and relaxed as could be. He had a housekeeper, Frau Goebel, but otherwise his was a fairly modest operation. The apartment was small—three rooms plus a kitchen and bathroom—although there was a neighboring unit that housed some sort of office, which I subsequently briefly glimpsed once or twice. What I found most exciting, however, was the art on his walls. Lohse had several works by Emil Nolde, including a landscape oil painting of a marsh rendered in red and black hues, as well as a watercolor of a bright sunflower. Surprised that he placed Expressionist works in this “public” room, his living/dining room, I turned around to survey vibrant watercolors by Marianne von Werefkin and Gabriele Münter, two artists associated with the Blue Rider group that flourished in and around Munich prior to World War I. His study, which was also his television room, contained a wall filled with Dutch Old Masters. There were about a dozen pictures there, mostly pieces with smaller dimensions. I thought to myself how easy it would have been to conceal the smaller works in his luggage as he traveled back from France during the war. All told, the art in Lohse’s apartment was worth millions. I had to suppress the many questions running through my mind, beginning with how had he acquired these works and were any of them looted? These questions would continue to preoccupy me in the years to come.
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.
Praise for Goering’s Man in Paris:
“A portrait of a charismatic and nefarious figure who tainted everyone he touched . . . [Petropoulos] explores the tangled relationships linking Nazi dealers to scores of other participants in the art trade.”—Nina Siegal, New York Times
“The final chapters of the book read like a thriller, in which the 2006 hunt for a long-lost Pissarro slowly closes in on the nonagenarian Nazi.”—John Maier, Spectator
“Petropoulos has written what will surely be the definitive biography…He is an enterprising, investigative historian of the kind journalists can feel a kinship with.”—Catherine Hickley, Art Newspaper
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