Artists Scrutinize Nazi Family Past of Julia Stoschek

DÜSSELDORF, Germany – In early June, the Julia Stoschek Collection, one of the world’s pre-eminent private institutions for media art, premiered an ambitious new show here to celebrate its 15th anniversary: “Worldbuilding,” an exhibition focused on the intersection between art and video gaming that features works exploring issues like transphobia, gun violence and environmental degradation.

Stoschek, 47, a billionaire heiress to a German car-parts fortune, owns the collection – one of the world’s largest holdings of “time-based art,” a term encompassing performance, film, video and digital works. “The young generation of gamers are raising awareness about serious subjects, like refugees, racism, the treatment of women,” Stoschek said of the “Worldbuilding” show, which runs through Dec. 10, 2023. The works were “made to engage with current topics,” she added. “It’s very of-the-moment and often political.”

Aside from overseeing two popular exhibition spaces in Düsseldorf and Berlin, Stoschek has been on boards and committees at MoMA PS1 and the Whitney Museum in New York, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; she currently sits on the board of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. She has financially supported numerous art projects, including several German entries at the Venice Biennale.

Yet as arts funders have come under scrutiny in recent years – including calls for museums to distance themselves from donors such as the Sackler family and the oil giant BP – observers in Germany have raised questions about Stoschek. Some have argued that there is a contrast between the politics of her collection and the origins of the money that sustains it.

Stoschek’s great-grandfather, the German industrialist Max Brose, was a member of the Nazi Party. During World War II, his automotive company manufactured gasoline canisters and armaments for the German military, partly using forced labor. While numerous German companies, including Hugo Boss and Bertelsmann, have openly grappled with their involvement with the Nazi regime, the Stoschek family has been accused of sweeping its history under the rug.

The family has long said that Brose was a nonideological member of the Nazi Party who treated his company forced laborers, largely Soviet prisoners of war, well. This account is supported by a 2008 book the company commissioned from the historian Gregor Schöllgen. Titled “Brose: A German Family Company,”It has drawn pushback from some scholars and journalists for its largely rosy portrayal of Brose, and because the published work contains no footnotes, which has made it difficult to verify its claims. The New York Times learned that footnotes have been available upon request for a few years, but a Brose historian said that no such requests had been received.

As word of Brose’s connection to forced labor and the Nazi Party circulated in the German art world, it led to a debate among artists on the ethics of working with Stoschek.

In 2020, the artist Leon Kahane showed an animated video as part of an installation that obliquely addressed the link between the Stoschek fortune and forced labor in a pop-up display next to Stoschek’s Berlin exhibition space, as a part of the city’s Art Week. The work prompted heated discussion in the Berlin art scene.

Given that Stoschek’s collection “includes artists who deal with colonialism and slavery, and German history,” Kahane said in a phone interview, “it made some people who had signed onto the Stoschek project nervous.” He emphasized that he had not been trying to “cancel” the collector, but rather push her to transparently examine her family history. As an artist, he said, he would not consider working with her unless that occurred.

In an interview in Berlin, Stoschek said that she embraced any scrutiny of her family fortune. “It’s very important that the art scene, as has been the case recently, looks at where money is coming from,” she said.

But she argued that the money funding her collection did not stem from the Nazi era and that it was built up by her grandfather and father in the decades after the war. “Our business was in economic ruin after World War II,” she said. She added that the company had paid into a fund compensating forced laborers. In 2000, Brose paid around $ 734,000 to the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation, according to Uwe Balder, a company historian. About 6,500 German companies contributed approximately 5.2 billion euros, or $ 5.4 billion, to the fund, according to the foundation’s website.

Stoschek said she stood by Schöllgen’s book, which she added had been written without any pressure from her family. “We have had our company history worked through,” she said, adding that footnotes were available upon request from Brose’s company historian, but that it was “interesting that nobody is going into our archive.”

Tim Schanetzky, a historian at the University of Bayreuth, said in a phone interview that most comparable reports investigating companies’ activities during the Third Reich include published footnotes, in part to avoid accusations of relying on flawed evidence, including from so-called denazification trials , proceedings held after the war to ascertain the degree of participation by Germans in the regime. According to the Bavarian State Archive, Brose was ultimately classified as a “follower,” the second-lowest of five levels of complicity. A “follower” was generally defined as a nominal member of the Nazi Party, who took part in only basic or mandatory party activities.

Schanetzky said that witness statements during these proceedings often favored defenders because of Germans’ resentment of the Allied victors, or because employees wanted to maintain good relations with their employers.

At the request of The Times, the Brose archive provided a list of footnotes showing that some exonerating sections of the book portrayed statements from Brose’s defense lawyers and supporting witnesses during his denazification trial as essentially fact, including the claim that he took a leadership position in a regional business association primarily to limit the Nazis’ “influence on local economic administration.”

“If you quote denazification documents, you need to reflect that it is subjective,” Schanetzky said. A book like Schöllgen’s, he added, needs to give weight to evidence from both sides of such a trial to be convincing.

Other sections describing the company generous treatment of forced laborers are sourced to statements made by Brose himself. The book makes little mention of a dozen claims by Brose workers contained in other trial documents that The Times viewed in the state archives of Bavaria. Those accounts describe the mistreatment of forced laborers, including, in some cases, daily beatings and chronic malnourishment.

In an email, Schöllgen, the book’s author, said that he had treated “both incriminating and exculpatory testimony” from denazification proceedings with skepticism, and that his portrayal was supported by the verdicts from the trial and subsequent appeals. He added that the Brose company contribution to the compensation fund for forced laborers was proof of its commitment to seriously working through its history.

Schanetzky said that if Schöllgen’s work had been done transparently, “nobody would be talking about this,” and he also challenged Stoschek’s claim that there was no through line between the money she invests in her collection and the work carried out by Brose’s company during the Third Reich. “The decisive point is that the business was still there” after the war, “including the property and machinery,” he said. “There were a lot of companies that failed, and those families don’t hire historians and collect art.”

Such baggage complicates the public image of Stoschek, a self-described “political person” who said she aimed to use her collection to support groups that are underrepresented in the art scene. Approximately half of the works in the “Worldbuilding” show are by women or nonbinary artists, Stoschek said, adding that her goal was to diversify her collection so that it includes more artists from outside Europe and North America.

After what she described as a “conservative” and “traditional” upbringing, Stoschek became a convert to video art in her 20s, after seeing Douglas Gordon’s “Play Dead; Real Time,” an influential video work in which a trained elephant feigns death inside a New York gallery. “It’s an absolute masterpiece,” Stoschek said, adding that her decision to collect media art had also come from her desire to “be in dialogue” with artists of her generation.

She has been aided by prominent connections within the art world, including an early friendship with Klaus Biesenbach, a former director of MoMA PS1 and MOCA, who now leads the Neue Nationalgalerie. “She has been one of her generation’s pioneers in showing you can successfully, and with influence and impact, collect and exhibit media and performance,” Biesenbach said in a phone interview. He described Stoschek as “utopian, meaning that you believe the world can get better.”

The relative lack of prominent private collectors focused on media art has made her especially influential in that segment of the art world. Stoschek has collected works by Hito Steyerl, Anne Imhof and Ryan Trecartin; as Hans Ulrich Obrist, who curated the “Worldbuilding” exhibition, explained in a video interview, Stoschek has made a strong impact by supporting artists early in their careers, including the video artist Ed Atkins. “She has, from the beginning, had a curiosity for artists before they are well known,” Obrist said.

But that role as a patron committed to supporting inclusive, political art is now increasingly under fire. Last year, an Instagram discussion between two cultural commentators – the artist Moshtari Hilal and the essayist Sinthujan Varatharajah – in which they called for more transparency about funds in the cultural scene connected to the Nazi era, attracted widespread German news media attention. In it, Hilal argued that Stoschek needed to more assertively distance herself from her great-grandfather. “I think it’s great when the great-grandchild promotes our politics, civil rights, intersectional feminism,” Hilal said, “but it’s weird when the other part isn’t mentioned.”

Stoschek said many such discussions were “led by emotions,” adding that she had repeatedly asked Hilal and Varatharajah for an in-person talk, but that her invitations had been ignored. (In an email, the two said they had never been contacted by Stoschek’s team.)

Stoschek added that no artists from her collection had voiced concerns to her about her family history. “They trust us – that we are looking into it,” she said.

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