A Historical Dispute in Zurich: Bührle History is Whitewashed

The city and canton of Zurich wanted an independent reappraisal of the history of Emil Georg Bührle, a Nazi arms dealer, art collector and sponsor of the Kunsthaus Zürich. Then a researcher discovered instances of whitewashing in the text. A historical thriller about antisemitism, location marketing, and academic freedom.

Emil Georg Bührle, shortly before his death in 1956; the arms manufacturer supplied the Nazis with weapons and bought masterpieces of impressionist art. Foto: Dmitri Kessel, Getty

The commission awarded by Zurich’s Mayor Corine Mauch and Cantonal Councilor Jacqueline Fehr on 16 August 2017, was an ode to academic freedom. According to the tender, “participants have the opportunity to present a project of international caliber which addresses a politically ‘charged’ art collection.” In the investigation there should be “no taboos,” but rather a prevailing “spirit of self-assured openness.” The reappraisal was to be conducted independently, based on the most recent research.

The art collection, whose origins were to be rigorously investigated, is that of the arms manufacturer and dealer Emil Georg Bührle (1890–1956). It is considered to be politically contentious because Bührle earned his fortune by selling weapons, especially for the armament of Nazi Germany. From late 2021 the collection, which is owned by the Bührle Foundation, will be on permanent display in the new extension of the Kunsthaus Zürich.

The collection’s masterpieces of impressionism, including a water-lily pond by Claude Monet and a self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh, are intended to radiate far beyond the city, thereby helping to promote Zurich as a tourist destination. The city, canton, and private donors are spending 206 million francs on the new building, designed by star architect David Chipperfield. The city will also bear the operating costs of 17 million Swiss francs per year. The mighty cube on Zurich’s Heimplatz square has already been raised. All that is missing is the historical reappraisal, so that nothing stands in the way of a smooth opening.

The investigation is to be completed this September – and could very well cause an international sensation. Not as a model project, however, but as a negative example. WOZ newspaper uncovered a fierce debate raging behind the scenes about the report. The Zurich Cultural Affairs Office and the Bührle Foundation proposed numerous changes to the study. Matthieu Leimgruber, the project manager for the historical investigation, adopted some of the suggestions. They gloss over the image of Emil Georg Bührle in certain delicate matters. Those involved deny all allegations of censorship.

Erich Keller, the second historian working on the study, has drawn attention to the changes. Removing his name from the report in a letter, he stated, “I cannot and will not have my name support a study that is not the result of independent and open research, and which fundamentally disregards my rights as an author.”

What’s going on in Zurich? An investigation of this issue has revealed a historical thriller about art, power, and prestige. About forced labor, antisemitism, and nationalist Freikorps paramilitary units. Twenty years after a groundbreaking report by an Independent Commission of Experts (ICE) on Switzerland’s role in the Second World War, we must ask whether authorities today are hindering an investigation or supporting the search for the truth.

Zurich leadership on board

The steering committee for the Bührle research project is composed of some of Zurich’s most high-profile and powerful leaders. The Social Democrats are represented by Mayor Corine Mauch and Cantonal Councilor Jacqueline Fehr. Taking part on behalf of the FDP (Liberal Democrats) is Kunsthaus President Walter B. Kielholz, who long worked for the big bank Credit Suisse and is now Chairman of the Board of Directors of the reinsurance company Swiss Re. Finally, there is Christian Bührle, descendant of the family that was allowed to manufacture weapons more or less undisturbed for decades in the Oerlikon district of Zurich. What very few people know is that the family remains active in the weapons business to this day, holding a substantial share in the Pilatus Aircraft factory in Stans through its own private bank, IHAG.

The steering committee is responsible for ensuring that the research project is completed “to the required quality within the budget and time frame.” The cultural directors for the city and canton of Zurich, Peter Haerle and Madeleine Herzog, respectively, along with Kunsthaus Director Christoph Becker, and Lukas Gloor, Director of the Bührle Collection, have an advisory function in this respect. In 2018, when the Greens in the city parliament asked if there weren’t too many Bührle representatives on the committee – Kunsthaus director Becker is also a member of the Bührle Foundation board – the city council reiterated the independence of the research project: “The selection of independent historians is intended to ensure that no one side exerts any influence on the direction of the research.”

Compared to the high cost of the new museum building and the value of the collection, the budget for the research project is quite modest: an initial sum of 150,000 francs, which was later extended by an additional 30,000 francs. Matthieu Leimgruber was elected as an independent expert in 2017 by , who had been recently appointed as Professor of Economic and Social History at University of Zurich. His first hire was the historian Lea Haller, until she moved on to the editorial office of “NZZ Geschichte”, a history magazine published by “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. Then came the historian Erich Keller, whose research has focused on the politics of memory. Keller has also written articles on historical topics for popular media, such as WOZ and “NZZ Geschichte”; he has also written about Bührle for WOZ.

The revisions

Given the project’s much-heralded academic independence, what is happening this spring is quite irritating. Matthieu Leimgruber presented an interim version of the report, written by Keller and himself, to the members of the steering committee for review. Bührle Foundation Director, Lukas Gloor, and the city’s Director of Culture, Peter Haerle, then proposed numerous changes – some stylistic, others substantive in nature.

“Freikorps” was the first word Gloor did not want to see. Following his deployment in the First World War, Bührle participated in one of the Freikorps volunteer paramilitary units, which crushed Communist demonstrations and uprisings in German cities. “Freikorps is, as you know, a deeply loaded term,” wrote the Bührle Foundation director to the historian Leimgruber, noting that its use implied close ties between the young Bührle and the extreme right. Gloor asked that the term be omitted – knowing full well that he would be crossing a line: “Please forgive me if my remarks seem to interfere with your work in an improper manner.”

The next disturbing term was “antisemitism.” In the Swiss Social Archives the research team had discovered a letter that Bührle had written to the “Nebelspalter”, a Swiss satirical magazine. Among its contributors at the time were many Jewish artists, including the well-known caricaturist Gregor Rabinovich, who opposed fascism before and during the Second World War. In his letter, Bührle expresses outrage about the magazine’s depiction of him sleeping comfortably between bags of money. The drawing stems from the “junk closet of Marxism,” Bührle wrote, and the “Nebelspalter” would be better off paying a visit to Oerlikon: “Perhaps it will rid you of the grotesque Jewish notion you seem to have of industrialists.” The first version of the Bührle report notes that the association of Marxism with Judaism was a virulent topos of the time. Bührle’s formulation is accordingly referred to as an “antisemitic outburst.” Gloor wanted this description to be omitted.

Somewhat less directly, the city’s cultural director, Haerle, also questioned certain points of content. One example is Bührle’s profits from forced labor. Bührle had received 870,000 francs in royalties from the German company Ikaria for the production of Oerlikon-Bührle weapons. Women who had been deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp – Jews, Sinti, and Roma – were forced to produce them. A passage discussing what Bührle might have known about this forced labor was criticized by Haerle as being “extremely speculative!” accompanied by the comment, “Omit.”

According to the versions of the report made available to WOZ, Leimgruber adopted all these changes. The word “Freikorps” is missing in the second version, even though Bührle’s involvement with the volunteer unit is mentioned. The description of his “antisemitic outburst” is also missing, although the caricature is described. The passage on his awareness of forced labor was shortened. The remarks and requested edits by Gloor and Haerle concerning key issues are one thing; the thorough manner in which Leimgruber implemented them is another. Was it a case of censorship or self-censorship? The scandal lies in the combination of the two.

“The interventions by members of the steering committee and the project management intend to obscure historical facts,” criticized Erich Keller. Bührle’s membership in a paramilitary unit, namely the right-wing extremist and revanchist Freikorps Roeder, was substantiated by the research. “The overall aim of the revisions is to decouple the Bührle Art Collection from the conditions under which it was created, where the circumstances become controversial. What signals are sent out by such utterances, which cover up and whitewash these connections?”

“A common procedure”

Deleting “Freikorps” and “antisemitism,” shortening the passage about forced labor – the changes clearly try to avoid emotive terms that situate Bührle’s history in its actual context: among the murderous crimes of World War II. The terms would certainly be taken up by the media, including the international press, when the report was presented. But should the top priority be image polishing, to ensure a smooth opening of the new Bührle extension?

Lukas Gloor did not comment on his interventions in response to two requests by WOZ. Peter Haerle, however, was open to a conversation. He rejected the accusation of undue interference, stating, “It was always intended that members of the steering committee would provide their feedback on the draft report to the contractors.” He had merely pointed to passages in the text which he perceived as insufficiently substantiated. “The more explosive and sensitive a statement is, the better it must be justified,” he explained. This also applied to the passage on Bührle’s complicity in forced labor. The rest were merely suggestions. “Whether or not the authors accept them is always their decision.”

Mayor Corine Mauch supports her cultural director: “It is a common and by no means unusual procedure that the contractors of the report, who also provide the funding, are informed about the progress of the research work and also provide input on its current status. There is no ‘intervention’.” It was noted that the contractors expect the University of Zurich to submit a final report whose scientific quality they could attest to. Cantonal Councilor Jacqueline Fehr noted the city’s right to evaluate the report, having spearheaded the project.

History professor Matthieu Leimgruber, however, admitted that the contract from 2017 only refers to an “exchange” with the contractors, and that no revisions were agreed upon. “But this exchange also includes presentations we held before the steering committee. Even then, we took their feedback into account when it seemed justified.” It was therefore obvious for him to discuss the report itself with the contractors. “They weren’t the only ones who were allowed to express an opinion. I also consulted with various historian colleagues. In my opinion, that’s the way academic research works: as a discussion.”

Applause in Bern

Leimgruber finds the criticism of the changes far-fetched, maintaining that the profits from forced labor are common knowledge and mentioned in the text. As to whether Bührle’s remarks about the “Nebelspalter” are antisemitic per se, Leimgruber finds the evidence inconclusive. It may have been that, in his letter, Bührle was also referring to the widespread prejudice against Jewish industrialists. This was why he omitted the description, he says.

Simon Teuscher, who leads the History Department, supports his colleague. In principle he considers it to be fully acceptable that the contractors were able to review the report. “My consultations with several colleagues regarding contract research have shown that this is a standard practice undertaken with the respective stakeholders.” He also noted that ultimately, it is up to the individual researchers to decide which changes they integrate into their report.

The possibility of a different outcome for the research report was laid out last November at a conference held by Infoclio, a historical sciences portal, at the Progr cultural center in Bern; Leimgruber and Keller gave a lecture there on the project. The innovative approach taken by the two historians aroused the interest of the 150-strong audience. Not only were they telling the history of a company, but also showing that Bührle’s art purchases were inextricably linked to his dealings in the arms trade. On the one hand, business with the Nazis and later during the Korean War provided Bührle with the capital to invest in his art collection. On the other hand, the modern art market from which Bührle’s collection profited only exists in the first place, because during the Second World War – which Bührle supported with his cannons – countless paintings changed hands, either through looting or sales due to coercion or destitution.

Bührle’s activities as an art collector cannot be separated from those he made as an arms dealer, Leimgruber said in the lecture: “Whenever Bührle traveled to Washington to sell new rockets, he visited the galleries in New York before returning to Switzerland to acquire new paintings.” Keller, in turn, showed how Bührle influenced the development of the Kunsthaus, including its first extension in the 1950s: “Kunsthaus Zürich itself is closely interwoven with this history through the flow of financing and art as capital.”

The two historians’ concept for their study reflected these considerations. The first part of the study was to focus on Bührle’s business activities, the second on his networks, and the third on the involvement of the Kunsthaus as well as its provenance research to date. The historical circumstances were therefore to be deeply inscribed into the art museum as an institution and its planned extension. The wealthy city of Zurich would have to ask itself a rather uncomfortable question: What exactly is our Kunsthaus built on? The concept was approved by the steering committee in August 2019.

A growing conflict

As successful as their joint presentation of the concept before the steering committee, and as loud the applause for their presentation at the conference of historians in Bern, the collaboration between Matthieu Leimgruber and Erich Keller did not run entirely smoothly. A growing conflict emerged between the two historians. They had fundamentally different approaches: economic history vs. cultural history. What might be complementary in a better case can lead to misunderstandings in the worst case.

In part, their disagreements revolved around questions of content, says Keller: “Which topics are relevant to the research report, which should be addressed to a broad audience?” But there were also discussions about author’s rights and what he considered to be untenable working conditions. Keller therefore left the Bührle project in January – just a few days before the contract was officially extended. According to Leimgruber, the dispute was mainly about author’s rights: “Although the research contract was awarded to me, Keller wanted to be the main author of the study. I conceded that.” The collaboration itself also led to discord, such as adhering to the schedule. Keller’s abrupt departure from the project had meant a lot of extra work for him.

In addition to the changes made to the report, Keller also criticizes the fact that the third part of the report was not realized in its originally planned form. “The history of the collection can only be understood if we acknowledge a remarkable circularity, namely, that the money behind it stemmed from wars, and that many of these paintings only ended up on the art market in the first place as a result of the Second World War.” The Kunsthaus now expects its extension to represent a quantum leap in its international significance. “The history of the Bührle Collection,” says Keller, “is a history of our present.”

Leimgruber points out that he had to write the third part of the report on his own. This deals with the development of Bührle’s collection and with it, the simultaneity of his arms sales and art purchases. “The report is 95 percent complete, and I can assure you it brings some new insights.”

Investigation underway

The University of Zurich has meanwhile responded to Keller’s complaints. As a spokesperson confirmed upon request, an investigation has been launched to verify the quality of the Bührle research project. Professor Emeritus of History Jakob Tanner and Esther Tisa Francini, Director of Provenance Research at Museum Rietberg in Zurich, were appointed as experts. They both contributed to the ICE report on the Second World War. Their investigation should provide an assessment of whether the independence of the research was violated and whether the contractors and Leimgruber indeed acted according to standard practice.

This question is also important because acknowledging Switzerland’s history during the Second World War has always met with some resistance. It was not official authorities who questioned the country’s actions, but victims and their descendants who fought for a critical reappraisal. And it wasn’t the universities who examined the topic, but often journalists, starting with Alfred A. Häsler’s book, “Das Boot ist voll” (The Boat is Full, 1984), on the country’s refugee policy, and Niklaus Meienberg’s book, “Erschiessung des Landesverräters Ernst S.” (Execution of the Traitor Ernst S., 1976). It was not until the 1990s, when international pressure grew due to the dormant assets in Swiss bank accounts and a phase in which Swiss society opened up following the trench warfare of the Cold War, that the country’s role was examined in depth by the ICE.

In addition to these specific accusations, the issue also raises political questions. Over the years, Zurich’s political and cultural circles have obviously grossly underestimated the significance of Bührle’s history and have taken a rather provincial approach in addressing it. Around the time of the referendum in 2012 regarding the museum extension, for example, the historical shadow cast over the Bührle Collection was barely mentioned.

In fairness to the parties involved, it could be said that the project was in trouble right from the start – with a steering committee full of stakeholders, and a modestly financed research project with barely enough funds for two historians. The fact that the latter began to quarrel may have to do with their different research interests and personal characters. In view of the topic’s complexity, this is not surprising. But this does not excuse the trivializations that were added to the text.

Perhaps the history of Bührle, this world history of immoral enrichment, is simply a little too big for Zurich. Or, given the recurring disputes, does it stand for the history of Zurich itself?

Translated by Alisa Kotmair.

See also “Through the Gates of Hell into the Kunsthaus Zürich” , “Rectifying Emil G. Bührle’s complex legacy” and “A Cézanne in the Turmoil of the Second World War” .