During the war, the Third Reich stole over a million artistic works from both public and private hands. Many of those works were repatriated after the war. Others remain missing to this day. But before the Nazis’ schemes were fully understood by a horrified world, and before Hitler stole and looted art, he bought it. One of the most significant early acquisitions was an ancient Roman statue, copied from an earlier Greek statue, called The Discus Thrower, purchased from an Italian owner in 1938, against the objections of many, and no doubt with some help from Mussolini. Robert Edsel, in Rescuing Da Vinci, calls this purchase “theft by any other name.” The narrator of The Detour, Ernst Vogler, calls it “one of the earliest symbols of our questionable intentions.”
It’s easy now to recognize the rapaciousness of the Third Reich, as reflected both in its “Final Solution” and its unparalleled looting of European art. More interesting to me, as a novelist, was trying to imagine how these issues would have seemed before the war, especially to someone living at the geographical heart of Nazism. I wanted to imagine the difficulties faced by an average German who doesn’t know what’s coming, who can’t seem to extricate himself from the activities and influence of the Third Reich, who may feel that his own livelihood—even his own life—are at stake. Given a simple job—catalog art, and visit another country to retrieve it—should he have any qualms? By framing the story before the war, it places us in the position of imagining difficult choices made without the benefit of retrospective, historically-informed wisdom. In our own lives, we are more like Ernst. We don’t know what’s coming, and we are influenced most by own our experiences, our own hopes and fears.
Ernst knows a lot about classical art. But he is self-taught, and only narrowly. He doesn’t know much about the history of more recent art, or anything about modern abstract art—which in Germany was declared as “degenerate.” What is the significance of this naivete?
Ernst admits that 1938 is not the time to be a Renaissance man. It is the time for “the deep, clean, and relatively painless cut of narrow knowledge.” (Not the only cut in the novel, by the way.) His ignorance spares him. In his mind, it’s a valid excuse—he doesn’t choose to speak up against some of the Nazi’s views about abstract “degenerate” art, for example, because in most cases he doesn’t even know the arguments. But it’s still an excuse. Of course, after working in art curation for two years, he could have learned more and developed some opinions. He certainly has enough taste (he realizes the Nazi collectors favor some real contemporary dreck, in addition to the masterpieces) to start forming some questions or to think about defending the artists the Nazis were ostracizing, if he wanted to look up from his basement office and catalog cards. But Ernst is reflective enough to realize his narrowness, and able to recognize it as both a form of self-defense and a source of weakness. A price will be paid.
We discover that Ernst has a physical defect—a very small one. What role does this play in his professional life, and what evidence is there that such a small defect might concern a German man of his time?
Ernst’s defect is common and minor. But to him, it suggests some internal inferiority lurking within his genetic makeup, at a time when eugenics are a national obsession. In the 1930s and early 1940s, hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Germans judged to be physically or mentally inferior were put to death, for conditions as common as epilepsy. In addition, hundreds of thousands were forcibly sterilized. It’s disturbing to note that during this same period, compulsory sterilization campaigns were also taking place in many countries around the world, including the United States.