Daughter of Hitler’s architect on mission to return Nazi loot
How the girl in the pink dress, whose father, Albert Speer, was a favourite of Hitler, escaped from the führer's shadow
Hilde Schramm, the daughter of Adolf Hitler’s favourite architect, was nine years old when she had her photograph taken with the führer. The image, showing the girl smiling in a pink dress while the author of the Holocaust’s arm rests on her shoulder, would have overshadowed many lives.
But Schramm has refused to be defined by her past.
For the past 25 years she has worked to give back to Germany’s Jews a little of what was stolen from them by the Nazis, and now she has been honoured with an award from the Obermayer Foundation, which was set up by an American Jewish philanthropist to recognise those who keep Germany’s Jewish legacy alive.
At a time when governments across Europe are facing criticism for not doing enough to restore artwork looted by the Nazis to their rightful Jewish owners, Schramm, 82, has shown the way. She set up Zurückgeben (meaning restitution, or giving back) five years before the declaration of the Washington Principles, an international agreement by 44 countries to work for the restitution of Nazi-looted art.
And her work stands in contrast to the bitter struggle many Jewish heirs still face to get back famous artworks looted from their families by the Nazis. In 2018, it emerged that a collector had asked a Jewish family for €1m (R15m) “compensation” for the return of a Degas that was rightfully theirs. Several German museums have still not catalogued their collections for possible looted works.
For Schramm, restitution began in 1993 when she inherited part of the art collection of her father, Albert Speer, who worked with Hitler on redesigning Berlin. “I didn’t want to have the paintings because they might have belonged to Jewish people,” she said. “It was a powerful feeling.”
None of the paintings were by major artists and it wasn’t possible for Schramm to research their history, so she decided to sell them and use the money to give something back to the Jewish community. The paintings raised about DM160,000 (R1.2m). “Not a lot of money to start a foundation,” she says with a rueful smile in her book-lined flat in south Berlin.
She used it to set up Giving Back, which encourages anyone who feels they might own, or have benefited from, something that was looted from Germany’s Jews to make a donation. The money is used to fund bursaries for artistic or creative work by Jewish women in Germany.
Schramm later discovered the paintings she inherited from her father were almost certainly not stolen from Jewish owners. But, she says, that doesn’t matter. “From the beginning I was chilled by the idea that he had bought the pictures with money he made from being in a leading position in the National Socialist government. For me, it was contaminated money.”
Speer was the architect of the Nuremberg rally grounds and Hitler’s planned, but never fulfilled, redesign of Berlin. He was also minister for armaments and war production. After the war, Speer claimed he didn’t know about the Holocaust, but modern historians have cast doubt on that. Government departments under his control built concentration camps, evicted Jews and used slave labour. He pleaded guilty at the Nuremberg trials and was spared the death penalty.
Schramm freely admits part of her motivation in setting up Giving Back was to escape his shadow. “I wouldn’t let myself be identified by my father,” she said. “So many women are defined by their fathers. I didn’t want my father’s history always to be the centre of my life. It isn’t.”
Giving Back’s work is about more than just stolen artworks, she says: “So much was taken from Jewish people in so many ways. Germans who were bombed were given free furniture by the National Socialist government. Often, that furniture had been taken from Jewish families.”
Unlike many of those honoured by the Obermayer Foundation, her work is not focused on the memory of Germany’s lost Jewish heritage, but on its living Jewish community. “It’s not only concerning the past, it’s also work concerning the present,” she said.
She is concerned by the return of the far right in German politics and recent anti-Semitic attacks. But despite the success of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD), she does not see history repeating itself. “They have nationalist ideas and socialist policies, but I don’t see a parallel. It’s not just about anti-Semitism now, it’s about refugees and Muslims,” she said. “The AfD try to say they are not anti-Semitic but they are openly anti-Muslim. But I think the acceptance of migrants in Germany is greater.”
– © The Sunday Telegraph