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The Case Picasso, Hitler and Arno Breker


The exciting story of how Picasso managed to escape the Nazis-Without his artist-friends Jean Cocteau and Arno Breker, the "communist" Picasso would have been executed during the Second World War


By Arno Breker,

an eye-witness of the 20th Centuiry


Pablo Picasso's life-long art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (right), meets Arno Breker's editor Joe F. Bodenstein in Paris. Kahnweiler was a Jew who grew up in Germany. He knew Arno Breker since 1927, and has cooperated with Breker's Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim in Berlin until 1932. In 1970, the newcomer Joe F. Bodenstein continued the tradition of Flechtheim after the "Third Reich." Breker gave Bodenstein the exclusive copyright to represent his works worldwide. The friendly relations between Bodenstein and Kahnweiler continued up to the death of Picasso's art dealer in Paris.

Photo: C Marco-Press


Shortly after the death of Picasso (April 8, 1973), a sensational report about him roared through the West German newspapers. I quote the famous Frankfurter Allgeneine (FAZ): 'Did Breker save Picasso?' Question mark. Following the trend of the general opinion of the West German press with respect to my fate after 1945, this question mark indicated that something, which the press did not want to accept under any circumstances at all, must not be true.

It would have been easy for them just to rely on the witnesses to the events in order to be able to inform the public truthfully. However, that was not the intention of the press reports, which did not hesitate to assert that Picasso was to be murdered by the German Secret Service Gestapo in a concentration camp. Fortunately, French television acted more objectively in this macabre affair; the television correspondent came to me at ten o'clock in the morning and left at noon in order to turn the interview about the facts over to the waiting airplane at Düsseldorf-Lohausen airport. It was broadcast that very evening. Even the tone of the French press remained objective, without any polemics.


Picasso supported the Communists

That Picasso was a communist is no secret. It caused neither surprise nor acrimony even during the occupation of France. He was always close to the party, especially to its dynamic leader Thorez. One of the last photographs of Picasso before his death showed him with the successor of Thorez: Duclos. Almost without exception the circle around Picasso was directed to the political left: among them belonged Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, the painter Léger -- to cite only a few of the most important personalities.

In France the Communist Party was the home of many intellectuals. One of their most visible adherents was named André Gide, whose widow bequeathed her entire inheritance to this party.

It would have surely never come down to a shadowing of Picasso by the Gestapo in Paris, if someone had not begun a series of vicious murders of German soldiers, who as tourists wanted to get to know the metropolis on the Seine. I experienced first hand the horror and the deep depression about these events among all responsible French as well German authorities in Paris.

They still did not know if these were isolated, unrelated events, or if it were a question of a new kind of warfare. They were confronted with a mystery.

The military commanding officer von Stülpnagel decided to use measures in the strictest sense of the Hague Conventions.

An especially tragic case occurred several days after the opening of my art exhibition in the Orangerie on the Place de la Concorde.

After a new one of those horrible murders from ambush, the military government declared a curfew for civilians and military personnel after eleven o'clock p.m. Only military patrols rode through Paris. In the Montmartre quarter a young woman lay in labor. Shortly after midnight her husband left the house to get medical help. The streets were totally deserted. A military patrol stopped him just short of his destination. A meeting of the minds was impossible. They took him to the infamous prison of Fresnes, a suburb of Paris. At dawn he was shot!


Speer and Bormann were not interested in Picasso

On the same day Speer and I were invited to lunch at the home of the military commanding officer von Stülpnagel in the legendary Villa Said. On the way I told Speer excitedly about the night's events and indicated that I would like to get information from von Stülpnagel. Speer replied laconically, "That is absolutely none of your business. You cannot to appear to be in charge here."

Immediately after soup I nevertheless spoke to von Stüplnagel about the event. As Speer had expected, I was severely admonished. "For us the principles of the Hague Tribunal are absolute," advised Stüplnagel. "Without deterrent measures, these incidents can increase in frequency. We must prevent that."

I ventured only the objection that the really guilty ones would not be caught by the method adopted, as this case proved. A movement of the hand of Stülpnagel wiped the problem from the table. The otherwise extremely conciliatory von Stülpngel showed himself here from an unexpected angle. Nevertheless, I did not give in.

I had more success with Bormann, to whom I gave an extensive report upon my return. After a few days I learned Hitler's position on this problem.

On the basis of the incident he had given the order that the shootings of hostages in France were no longer to be carried out without a court verdict. The Communist Party, on whom the blame had been placed and which later admitted its guilt, was placed now under the greatest pressure. Many members in leading positions were arrested; others were shadowed, incidentally with the complete approval of the French government. With the intensification of the situation the danger for Picasso, the greatest magnet of the party, grew.


Helped by the "Red Telephone"

Since Speer lived with us in our Chateau at Jäckelsbruch, north-east of Berlin, I was able to make use of a special telephone connection that reached all the way to the Führer's headquarters.

In the course of the year 1943, the body of evidence grew that Picasso had smuggled large amounts of money into Spain as well as--in mysterious ways--into Soviet Union. Cocteau was in the picture. My warnings, which I imparted to Picasso through Cocteau, just rolled off his back. His ever-present regal attitude remained for him intact. With this frame of mind he placed himself in the highest danger.

Officials of the Gestapo suddenly checked his visitors. Finally Picasso himself sensed that the noose was drawing closer around him; he discussed the situation again with Cocteau, who immediately contacted the former prefect André-Louis Dubois. A short time afterwards, Dubois appeared in the rue des Grands Augustins, the home of Picasso. In the courtyard he was detained by plainclothes Gestapo officials, who checked his papers and asked what he was doing there. In the atelier he found the deeply depressed Picasso, who had finally comprehended how serious things were for him.

After the war the international press reported that the Gestapo officials had destroyed his pictures in the atelier in his presence. An artless fabrication!

A simply fabulous circumstance extricated Picasso from this extremely dangerous position; in addition, it was fully expected and with a basis which lay at the very heart of the matter.


The opportunity came at lunch with Hitler

Hitler was in Berlin. I was invited to lunch at the Neue Reichskanzlei at the Voßstraße. The status of my works for the restructuring of Berlin always received his undivided attention. I sat across from him at the table. Himmler had taken the seat on his right. Excitedly Himmler conversed with his neighbor. Repeatedly the name of the painter Ziegler came up. Suddenly Hitler joined in, "What is it with Ziegler?"

The painter Adolf Ziegler, President of the Reich's Chamber of Plastic and Graphic Arts had sought in Spain, with inconceivable naivité, ways to bring a quicker end to the war. He did not suspect that the Gestapo was shadowing him. On his return trip he was arrested at the Spanish-French border. Now a trial for high treason awaited him. After Himmler's report, Hitler decided at once, "Ziegler is to be set free immediately! You must know once and for all that artists understand nothing of politics. Artists are like Parzival!" Himmler, pale, arose from the table in order personally to carry out the command to release him Hitler's spontaneous decision had visibly irritated him.

Having returned home, I learned that Paris had called many times. Soon the telephone rang again; I heard the excited voice of Jean Cocteau.

Highest danger for Picasso, who feared being led away in the course of the evening. Picasso was convinced that I alone was his last hope.


Appointment with Gestapo-Müller

Immediately I telephoned the Berlin headquarters of General Müller in Albrecht Street, headquarters of the Gestapo. An appointment for the coming day at 10:00 a.m. was set.

The night passed without sleep. In uninterrupted waves, squadrons of English bombers returning home roared over us, after one of the heavy air attacks on Berlin. The inner city had been their target. We left Jäckelsbruch early; it lies about 75 kilometers east of Berlin. My wife was driving the car.

The area around Albrecht Street, the site of the Gestapo, was terribly damaged. The bleak part of the city and the even bleaker building showed signs of the last attack. Even inside one still stepped on a carpet of glass shards.

General Müller sat at his writing table--ashen and bleary-eyed. Mountains of reports surrounded him like a fortress. With a beckoning gesture without ever looking at me, he motioned me to a chair. The days when he stood up to greet me now belonged to the past.

A dangerous question: Is Picasso a Jew?

One could suspect that he already knew what new difficulty was to be debated. After I had finished my urgent appeal, which he let go on without interrupting me or without looking up, he suddenly looked at me sharply:

"Is Picasso a Jew?"

A dangerous question which gave an additional reason for arrest.

Calmly I answered, "Here we are discussing the fate of a world-famous painter, in a situation that is grave for him."

"Every countryman who is arrested here for the same crimes goes to prison in accordance with the law, " was Müller's first protest.

"Surely these laws are unknown to Picasso," I tried to soften him up; "otherwise he would have either behaved more carefully or done nothing at all. But I tell you that the Deutches Reich cannot afford to lock up the most famous artist-genius of our times in a camp. The furor that the world press will unleash, will be devastating. It will not pay to incur these consequences, even if millions have been secretly shifted for political purposes."

"We have withstood harder cases already," he replied coolly.

"I can give you no encouragement; my time is limited."

I was obviously slipping into the role of the accused. However, I did not give up.

"Perhaps, you know," I began anew, "that I was at lunch in the Chancellory yesterday. Perhaps, you also are familiar with the controversy between the Führer and Himmler about the Ziegler case? The result was that the imprisoned peace-seeker was given back his freedom. Artists know absolutely nothing about politics; for that reason they are like Parzival!"

I shall never forget Hitler's pithy statement with which the problem had been swept from the table. Müller stood up; there was nothing left but for me to do the same.

The Picasso case must be brought to the Führer

"The Picasso case is closed for us. Our decision has been made," Müller said.

"Then you are thereby forcing me to speak to Bormann at once. The Picasso case must be taken to the Führer at once, before it is too late. Time is pressing; you know that as well as I. May I use your telephone?"

Müller went back to his writing table and bade me sit down again. The name Bormann had visibly shaken him. At this critical moment nothing was further from my mind than bluffing. The atmosphere was tense to the breaking point.

"I know nothing of art, lest of all the art of Picasso. In your opinion is that great art?"

I left the question unanswered.

"If someone is guilty of a crime, then it is our duty to call him to account."

"General Müller, in this precarious case do struggle with yourself to make an exception, I beg you most urgently. Your positive decision will produce a powerful, positive echo in Paris, in France."

After a dramatic silence, which seemed an eternity to me, he sat up straighter in his chair. "O.K., we shall let him go!"

"Would you please pass on the order to spare him to Paris in my presence?"

"That can take too long, but you can trust me."

When I left the building and went down the entry steps, my wife, waiting in the car, had to have sensed that my action had met with success. She ran to me and enfolded me impetuously in her arms. For years she had known Picasso personally and knew just what had been done for him.

The next morning Cocteau, completely euphoric about the new and defused situation, called. So the "troopers' crowded now again as before into the atelier Picasso in the rue des Grands Augustins as if nothing had ever happened.

Only the just-published memoirs of the former prefect André-Louis Dubois have brought this story into public light.


 * * *

The above was written by Arno Breker only in 1973, some 31 years after these events took place.An excerpt from the book "Collected Writings" by Arno Breker.

Published by the courtesy of Historical Archive of the European-Art-Foundation, http://www.europaeische-kultur-stiftung.org

Copyright on all works of Arno Breker by MARCO Edition, Haendelstrasse 12, 53115 Bonn, Germany.

Photograph by Marco, Paris-Bonn

Copyright 1990 Museum of European Art



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