The U.S. government is considering the return to West Germany for four watercolors by Adolf Hitler and more than 6,000 works of art commissioned to glorify the conquests of Nazi armies in Europe and North Africa.
The paintings and sketches were collected at the end of World War II by the U.S. Army from hiding places such as salt mines, castles and museums, as well as from individuals. The search followed an agreement by the Allies -- the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union -- to locate, confiscate and destroy all art that might revitalize Nazism.
Instead of destroying the art, however, the U.S. Army shipped the collection home, storaging the items at various locations and loaning them for display at U.S. military bases and in hospitals, government buildings and traveling exhibits.
Before Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's visit here last week, State Department specialists recommended to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. that the collection be returned to West Germany as a gesture of friendship between the two countries.
As another option, they suggested returning to Germany that portion of the collection judged by a committee not be Nazi propaganda.But the officials warned about possible controversy as the committee decided whether oil portraits of Hitler and his cohorts, and items featuring swastikas and other emblems of the Third Reich, were propaganda and thus not returnable.
In 1945, the Allies defined as the goal of occupation the prevention of "all Nazi and militaristic activity or propaganda."
According to Fritz Ziefer, a press counselor with the German embassy here, Bonn has not initiated any action toward getting the collection back. "We don't consider that war art part of German culture, and we have no national interest in it," he said. However, he added, former owners of the paintings and families of the artists have asked the government periodically to try to retrieve the art works. Ziefer concluded that "it's strictly a legal matter," not a political one.
Much of the collection -- if returned -- would have to be closed to the public because display of Nazi insignias is against German law. A 1946 Allied agreement declares as illegal "the planning, designing, erection, installation, posting or other display of any monument, memorial, poster, statue, edifice, street or highway name marker, emblem, tablet, or insignia which tends to preserve and keep alive the German military tradition. . . ."
Earlier this month, Rep. William Whitehurst (R-Va.) introduced legislation to authorize the return to West Germany of "certain works of art" seized by the U.S. Army at the end of the war. Whitehurst says that no U.S. funds would be expanded in the transfer.
Since 1947, when the collection was set up, the Army has spent an average of $20,000 a year to maintain what it calls "German war art." According to Marylou Gjernes, curator of the Army Center of Military History in Alexandria, some of the items require restoration. Her office has photographs of all the items, catalogued by artist.
The items themselves are stored in various government buildings. The four watercolors by Hitler are kept in the vault of the U.S. Army Center of Military History here and are occasionally loaned, most recently to a University of Maryland exhibition in Towson.
Some of the collection's paintings hang in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, but most people are not aware of who painted them or what they represent, Gjernes said.
One work, depicting the Russian front, hangs in Whitehurst's congressional office. He says he resents the collection being called "Nazi art." He calls it "military art," argues that most of the items have no ideological content and thinks that all but 1,000 articles should be returned to be hung in German museums.
"We returned Japan's war mementos when we returned Okinawa," Whitehurst said. In 1978, he sponsored legislation to return to the German navy 10 paintings from the U.S. collection. The bill passed by a voice vote, and the paintings now hang in Bremerhaven's naval museum -- "an appropriate place," Whitehurst says.
Whitehurst, who was in the Navy during World War II and lost a brother fighting the Nazis, has seen what he calls a representative sample of the collection, shown to him by Army authorities. He was unaware that Four Hitler watercolors are included, and said he thought it unlikely that they would be returned to Germany because "they glorify the regim we all loathe."
The Hitler watercolors are conventional depictions of the Belgian countryside and old buildings in Munich and Vienna, painted during World War I or shortly thereafter.
Many of the German war paintings are pastoral landscapes; some show a lonely machine-gun emplacement or soldiers on the march. They majority are colorful and sometimes bucoli representations of Germany's conquests. German soliders are depicted as eminently human: thoughtful, tough, grim -- but never despairing. There are images of a regimental commander with well-chiseled features, a daring young mountain trooper, a radio operator absorbed in his craft, and an enlisted man throwing a hand grenade.
All the paintings fall within Hitler's prescribed style of realism, yet they are anything but dull. The earnest faces half-convince a viewer that theirs is a just war. Tangled rows of barbed-wire barriers, hordes of Frenchmen fleeing from German tanks and vivid colors of burning Ukrainian villages do offer fine art. There is a certain merit, if that is the proper word, to the oil painting titled "In the Beginning Was the Word," which shows Hitler addressing his followers.
"It's a collection you can make anything out of," said curator Gjernes, who is of several minds about the prospects of having to part with it.
"Some of the paintings we have are quite beautiful," she said. "They reflect someone else's belief. I cannot argue with the emotions of the painters. I wasn't there."