Edgar Breitenbach (1903-1977)
Edgar Breitenbach was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1903. He studied art history and German and Scandinavian literature at the University of Munich before returning home to study at the University of Hamburg. He worked as a library assistant at the Warburg Library in Hamburg while completing his dissertation under the guidance of famed art historian Erwin Panofsky.
In 1933 Breitenbach, a Jew, was forced to resign from his position as a librarian at the Frankfurt Stadtbibliothek. In their aim to purify Germany of all “undesirables,” the Nazi Party passed The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which authorized the dismissal of all civil servants who were not of Aryan descent, in April 1933. Breitenbach quickly fled Germany to Basel, Switzerland, where he became an assistant to Paul Ganz, an expert on Hans Holbein, at the Institute of the History of Swiss Art and Heraldry.
In February 1937 Breitenbach boarded a German passenger freighter bound for San Francisco. Following his arrival, he was invited to teach art history at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he remained for four years. As he had not yet obtained his American citizenship, Breitenbach spent several years working odd jobs. He taught for one year at a junior college in Aberdeen, Washington, and then moved to Colorado Springs, where he worked at the Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Art Center writing a book on religious folk art of New Mexico. He also worked as a route man for Texaco, a postal clerk, and a fruit picker before he was granted citizenship in 1943.
From the fall of 1943 to June 1944, Breitenbach worked translating German radio broadcasts for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington, D.C. He spent the following year as Chief of Documentary Operations in the Office of War Information, where he worked under future Monuments Man Paul Vanderbilt, editing Roy Stryker’s socioeconomic photo documentary of depression-era America.
In October 1945 Breitenbach was assigned to the MFAA in Germany. Stationed in Frankfurt, he was given the task of returning books and archives to the Frankfurt Stadtbibliothek- the same library at which he had worked years before. In March 1946 he was transferred to the Munich Central Collecting Point as an art intelligence officer. In this role, he worked closely with Monument Officer Lt. Bernard Taper to recover so-called “second-generation loot.” This referred to art that was first stolen or removed for safekeeping by the Nazis and then looted again by German citizens desperate for a means of survival in the months following the Allied victory.
In the immediate aftermath of the Nazi defeat, German refugees ransacked the abandoned Nazi Party headquarters in Munich, removing everything from food and appliances to furniture and paintings. Among his many projects, Breitenbach investigated the missing Adolphe Schloss Collection, which had been stolen by the Nazis during the war and stored at Nazi headquarters for Hitler’s personal enjoyment. He also investigated the whereabouts of items stolen from a train outside of Berchtesgaden, which contained items from Hermann Goering’s personal collection. He briefly served as Acting Director of the Munich Central Collecting Point following the departure of its first Director, Monuments Man Lt. Craig H. Smyth.
From 1952 to 1955 Breitenbach served as an officer in the Cultural Relations Division. In this role, he supervised the construction and organization of the American Memorial Library in Berlin. He returned to Washington, D.C. in 1956 as chief of the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress, where he remained until his retirement in 1973. For his devoted restitution work in Germany, he was honored with a citation for meritorious service as well as the Commander’s Cross, Order of Merit from the German government.
Edgar Breitenbach died in Germany in 1977.