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The KunstSchutz; Henry Koehn and Brussels

During the Second World Wars there were not only many civilian casualties, but also Belgian art assets suffered heavily. The fire of the Leuven university library during WWI is an example of this. To avoid such dramas in the future, the Kunstschutz, a German organization for the protection of art property in Belgium, was founded in the autumn of 1914. In the years that followed, the members of this organization would evacuate works of art that were threatened by the violence of war and store them in central storage facilities.

During the First World War, this Kunstschutz made a series of 10,543 negatives on glass plates as part of an inventory of the artistic heritage in Belgium. The vicissitudes of the First World War and subsequent negotiations made the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK) in Brussels the privileged owner of this series of 10,543 negatives on glass plates. One of these members of the Kunstschutz who collaborated on these glass plates was Henry Koehn.

 

During WWII, Henry Koehn would again end up in a department of the Belgian Kunstschutz. The Kunstschutz office was located at Wetstraat 8 in Brussels.

 

Wetstraat 8 Brussels during WWII

 

The members of the Kunstschutz resist Nazism and their culture of grabbing. Franz Graf Wolff-Metternich (1893-1978), responsible for the Kunstchutz in Belgium and France, even strictly refused to hand over the Ghent altarpiece The Ghent Altarpiece to the German occupier. After this refusal, he would be sent 'on leave' in 1942 and later even transferred!

That Henry Koehn helped the Belgians well is evident from the story about the Ghent carillon. The carillons would have suffered the same fate as the bells that were taken to Germany, if it had not been that the chairman of the carillon school, Dr. Henry De Coster, and his secretary, historian Prosper Verheyden, sent musical arguments to the Military at the beginning of March 1943. Verwaltung Department 'Kunstschutz' stepped. After their interview with Dr. Koehn, they managed to have all the carillon bells classified as musical instruments and were saved. In protecting the Belgian clocks, the Koehn and the Kunstschutz also received help from the Antwerp architect Max Winders.

 

 

The Belgian Kunstschutz with Henry Koehn on the far left

 

At the beginning of June 1940, i.e. barely a few weeks after the German invasion, 'Oberleutnant' Henry Koehn (1892-1963) diligently searches for the panel of the Just Judges, which has disappeared since 1934. Thanks to his 'green' approach, Koehn obtains a lot of valuable information about the theft. The Oberleutnant of the Wehrmacht also makes thorough reports and also keeps a diary. All these documents together form the so-called Koehn Dossier. Max Winders also appears here regularly.

From Koehn's diaries we learned: Die Kirche hat es!

Koehn discovered in 1942 that the church was still in possession of the panel. Thus the Kunstschutz came into the hands of the Just Judges.  We also know from the testimonies of Professor Senelle that the Kunstschutz exchanged the panel at the end of WWII in 1944 to ensure a safe retreat for themselves and some economic collaborators.

During his research, Koehn also received help from Max Winders. Architect Max Winders played a remarkable role in this story. Max completed his studies in architecture, sculpture and painting at the Royal Academy of Antwerp. For many years he was chairman of the Royal Commission for Monuments and Sites, administrator of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage and former chairman of the Royal Archaeological Academy of Belgium.

In 1914, he was commissioned by Minister De Broqueville to secure the Belgian gold reserve in England. On the third crossing he was accompanied by Queen Elisabeth, Princess Marie-Josée and Princes Leopold and Charles. After that crossing, a close bond of friendship developed between the royal family and Max Winders

He turned out to be the ideal person for King Leopold III to tackle the thorny problem surrounding The Just Judges. On June 10, 1942, when Koehn made careful searches for the lost panel and found it, Winders was called to Leopold III.

 

In the period between 1942 and 1944 after the Koehn and the Kunstschutz had recovered the stolen panel, negotiations took place on the thorny problem of the Just Judges. The Kunstschutz certainly wanted to prevent the panel from falling into the hands of the Nazis. Given the sensitivities in 1934 surrounding the theft and the involvement of the son of a high-ranking Catholic Antwerp politician and the Ghent clergy themselves, these conversations must have been no easy task. 

To know who might have been at the private table, we must first look at another German character and location that is of great importance in this story.  

The De Gulden Koopman building at Grote Markt 28 in Brussels was occupied during the Second World War by Alexander von Falkenhausen, military commander of Belgium and Northern France under the Nazi regime. All the while, the rear of the same building served as an escape route for British pilots. The adventures that took place there during the war years were the breeding ground for the popular British sitcom 'Allo 'Allo!.

This sitcom is a parody of another BBC series, Secret Army, about a Brussels resistance organization that smuggled British pilots out of the country during the Second World War. Secret Army makes fun of a number of clichés about the French, Germans, Italians and English. The inspiration for the series was H-the network Comète (Comet) led by Mrs Andrée De Jongh. Comète was an escape route to England, the basic route ran from Brussels or Lille to Paris.

Our research also showed that Alexander von Falkenhausen himself did not have much sympathy for the Nazis. His memoirs state that he had conversations with Gallopin, the president of the General Society. Like von Falkenhausen, Gallopin was also of the opinion that the Belgian economy had to get going again as quickly as possible after the German invasion so that the population would not have to go hungry and could go to work so that they could not become forced laborers in Germany. deployed. Von Falkenhausen protected Gallopin for 4 years from the Gestapo who wanted to get their hands on him. Furthermore, he kept aloof from organizations such as the VNV and Rex.

 

 

 

 

 

De Gulden Koopman – Grote Markt 28 Brussels

 

To find out who could have sat at the negotiating table next to Van Falkenhausen, we should look back to the positions of power in the 1930s. At the time of the theft of the Just Judges, the General Society was strongly involved in politics through persons such as Theunis, Gutt and Francqui. These gentlemen artificially helped the bank of the aforementioned Antwerp Catholic politician to survive for years.

At the height of its power, the Société Générale controlled approximately 800 of the largest companies in Belgium and Congo, which was approximately 40% of the Belgian economy. The influence of society on politics and the social field was particularly great. It was, as it were, a state within a state. When the Catholic-liberal Theunis government was formed in November 1934, the newspaper Le Peuple wrote: "De Generale opens a new branch."

The General Company is the financial power bulwark in which nobility, industrialists and businessmen have shared the pie for more than a century. As Minister of Finance, Camille Gutt was one of the ministers associated with the General Society.  Georges Theunis, in turn, was also a director, sometimes chairman, of the Société Générale de Belgique and was part of the Empain group.

Another great industrialist and ruler is Baron Paul de Launoit, who in the 1930s was also manager of Banque Dubois in Liège, which included Georges Theunis and Arsene Goedertier.

 

 

 

In 1930, de Launoit became manager of the Dubois and Nagelmackers banks, and manager of Ougrée-Marihaye, at that time the largest metal company in Belgium. In 1934 he became manager of the Bank of Brussels and Cofinindus and three years later became chairman of the newly created merger holding company Brufina. From that moment on, that group would even rival the General Society. His further career was always dominated by increasingly large takeovers and mergers.

 

The links between large financial holding companies Brufina, De Generale Maatschappij, the nobility and politics have been demonstrated. Among all these dignitaries such as Georges Theunis and Paul de Launoit, there was also Arsène Goedertier.

Goedertier was therefore no stranger to Paul de Launoit and Georges Theunis in the 1930s, given their involvement in the Dubois bank.

It was therefore in these circles that negotiations took place between 1942 and 1944 about the delicate dossier The Just Judges with the Kunstschutz.

Ironically, we can almost see an episode of Allo Allo before our eyes. The painting The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies by fictional artist Von Clomp was also lugged there.

 

We know that Paul Launoit traded between the German occupier and the resistance. Given his position in the country and all his contacts, he is the perfect go-between to facilitate the exchange deal regarding the Just Judges. He has links to all the characters in the file.

Koehn and the Kunstschutz were not Nazis. This is an important observation for understanding the motivations of the negotiators. The end of the war was approaching and the situation was chaotic. The repression against everything that was German or even close to it would break out in full force. In order not to let the panel be lost and also to help the members of the Kunstschutz, which we can even call the “German Resistance”,  a settlement was sought.

For the Germans, a free retreat could be worth gold and for the church and politicians, the scandal of the 1930s and the involvement of the church and subsequently the Catholic party had to remain secret. In addition, Alexandre Galopin kept a list of business leaders who made their fortune during the war by helping the Germans. They would also prefer to be left undisturbed after the war. Von Falkenhausen had a copy of this list. Years later, while cleaning out his home in Brussels, the list turned up and was handed over to the chairman of the Brussels bar who in turn handed it over to the court. Of course nothing happened with that.

One may wonder why…

Paul de Launoit in turn calls in Walter Ganshof van der Meersch to complete the case. Via Ganshof van der Meersch, the panel then ended up with the then Minister of the Interior, who would later even have family ties with the Antwerp Catholic politician.

 

In the summer of 1944, Koehn left Brussels. On July 12, 1944, he was examined by the doctor of the military staff, Stabarzt Dr. Wunderlich, who declared him 'bedingt kriegsuntauglich', i.e. 'conditionally unfit for war'. So Henry Koehn is not sent to the Eastern Front as cannon fodder. He was finally demobilized on October 31, 1944. We know that he returned to Belgium several times after this. The affable Henry Koehn built up good contacts here. Did the good man come to inquire whether there was already a plan for definitive restitution in the delicate files of the Just Judges so that it could take its place again among the other works of the Lamb of God?

It turned out to be false hope. The involvement of certain characters and institutions from the 1930s and the exchange deal at the end of WWII makes this a very sensitive file. Sadly still to this day in 2023.

 

 

 

 

the follow-up of a lot of archival work;

 

That's great news! The fact that Henri Koehn's adopted daughter is coming to Brussels and that the preparatory work has already been done means that you are already well on your way to organizing a special and meaningful tribute. Here are some final steps you can consider to make the event successful:

  1. Define a Detailed Program: Create a detailed program for the day Henri Koehn's adoptive daughter arrives. This program should describe the various activities and events that are planned, such as the exhibition viewing, the opening ceremony, any speeches and interactive sessions.

  2. Guest List and Invitations: Create a guest list and send invitations to key invitees, including representatives of the arts community, historians, local authorities and other stakeholders.

  3. Welcome and Guidance: Provide a warm and hospitable welcome for Henri Koehn's adoptive daughter. Assign supervisors who can support her throughout the event and introduce her to other attendees.

  4. Media coverage: Approach local media to let them know about the event. Positive reporting can help to further spread the meaning of the tribute.

  5. Audiovisual Elements: Consider using audiovisual elements, such as photos, videos and audio clips, to bring Henri Koehn's story and his efforts to life.

  6. Gifts and Recognition: Consider offering appropriate gifts or recognition to Henri Koehn's adoptive daughter as a sign of appreciation for her presence and involvement.

  7. Future Collaboration: Discuss with the adoptive daughter or other involved parties the possibility of future collaboration, such as maintaining an ongoing relationship and sharing further information and materials.

  8. Evaluate and Document: Ensure the event is carefully documented with photos, videos and reports. This will not only capture valuable memories but can also be useful for future reference.

  9. Thank You: Send thank you letters or thank you messages to all stakeholders, volunteers, sponsors and partners who contributed to the success of the event.

  10. Feedback and Reflection: Gather feedback from the adoptive daughter and other attendees about their experiences during the event. This can help identify strengths and areas for improvement for future events.

With Henri Koehn's adopted daughter present, this tribute has a very personal and emotional meaning. Make sure the event honors her memory of her father in a dignified and meaningful way.

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