In 1939,Nazi artist Josef Thorak created the two “Striding Horses” (“Schreitende Pferde” in German) for Adolf Hitler’s New Reich Chancellery in Berlin.
Now the controversial three-meter-high and two-ton bronze sculptures are presented together in Berlin again for the first time, on the occasion of Open Monument Day on September 10.
One of the horses has been on display there for some time, while the second one is now being exhibited for the first time in 77 years following restoration work.
The showcase is part of the “Unveiled. Berlin and its monuments” permanent exhibition at the Spandau Citadel in Berlin, which exhibits other problematic works of art.
Where were the Thorak horses?
The story of the stallions — also named the “Thorak” horses after their creator — and their disappearance already fills an entire book.
For a long time it was not clear what had happened to the Nazi sculptures.
It was initially assumed that they had been destroyed during attacks on Berlin towards the end of the Second World War. Later, they were discovered on a Soviet barracks site near Eberswalde, northeast of Berlin.
But they disappeared from there when the Berlin Wallfell in 1989.
It wasn’t until 2013 that the Berlin police received a photo that gave reason to suspect the horses might still exist. Along with the photograph was a tip-off that the horses were being offered on the secret art market for an amount in the millions.
That was the starting signal for Rene Allonge, an inspector at the Berlin State Criminal Police Office who specializes in art crime, to join forces with Dutchman Arthur Brand, perhaps Europe’s most famous private art detective, to investigate.
‘The best story of my life’
The duo were able to clarify that the horse sculptures being offered on the black market were the authentic Nazi bronzes.
“It was clear to me that if we got the horses back, it would be the best story of my life,” Brand told DW.
The story also involved Stasi agents — East Germany’s secret police — and the Soviet occupation forces. The horses were smuggled in pieces across what was then still a border between two occupied zones, presumably to be traded in the West for hard currency.
Then in 2015, a nationwide raid resulted in the horses being seized from an art collector in Bad Dürkheim, near the city of Mannheim in southwestern Germany. It was never clarified whether he had obtained them illegally, and investigations were dropped when the statute of limitations lapsed.
After a years-long legal battle, the collector was finally willing to hand over the horses in 2022.
Brand published a book about the art crime. The case has all the elements of a thriller, he says, including its secrecy, Nazi sympathizers and the raid. No wonder Hollywood has already secured the film rights to the material.
Designed as epic art for Hitler’s ‘Germania’
The horses once stood just a few kilometers away from their current location in the citadel, in the garden of Adolf Hitler’s New Reich Chancellery. The dictator’s idea was that the sculptures would decorate the “world capital Germania” he was planning.
Describing the ways the sculptures convey Nazi ideology, Urte Evert, head of the City History Museum of the Spandau Citadel, points out that the stallions embody a certain idea of masculinity.
“The neck is extremely large and powerful, the muscles are completely exaggerated. The whole thing radiates a certain violence,” the historian says.
Like Arno Breker (1900-1991), Josef Thorak was one of the most important propaganda artists of the Nazi regime and made the horses for Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.
There is another horse, but it was not given to Hitler. Today it stands on the site of a high school on Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria, having apparently landed there in the 1960s when the Thorak family used the sculpture to pay for a son’s school fees.
More toxic propaganda artworks in the citadel
While both horses are now on show at the Citadel Spandau, only one of them will be part of the permanent “Unveiled” exhibition, and another one will be kept in a display depot.
They stand next to other statues and busts that are considered problematic, and each tells its own story.
One stallion is now standing in close proximity to a recently discovered bust of Hitler, found in the summer during construction work in Berlin near the former Nazi Chancellery, and attributed to the artist Josef Limburg (1874-1955).
He is said to have made the work in his studio in the Berlin district of Lichterfelde in 1937. It is not known how the piece ended up on the city center. The nose could have been lost at the end of the Second World War, when many portraits of Hitler were destroyed.
Two marble heads from Arno Breker’s studio are also shown in the display depot, as well as a sculpture by Arminius Hasemann (1888-1979).
The story of his “Crouching N*,” as the 1925 statue of the stereotypically depicted African woman was originally called, could fill a book of its own, especially its ending: The sculpture was smeared with paint and beheaded in 2020 — presumably in the wake of the global protests following the police’s brutal killing of African-American George Floyd, according to museum director Evert.
But even before it was vandalized, it had already been decided that the statue would be removed from Berlin’s cityscape.
The works of art in the display depot of the Spandau Citadel can only be viewed during guided tours and special events.
This article was originally written in German.