Who owns the prinzhorn collection?

There is still no memorial for the euthanasia victims of the Nazi era – a Berlin initiative wants to change that

For decades, the cellar vaults of the Heidelberg University Hospital held a special kind of art treasure: the so-called Prinzhorn Collection. It is named after the physician Hans Prinzhorn, who collected around 6,000 works of art from inmates in the Heidelberg hospital between 1919 and 1921. In the twenties, the collection caused a worldwide sensation. Famous artists such as Paul Klee, Picasso and Dali were inspired by the Prinzhorn collection in their work.

The Nazis exhibited some works of art from the collection in their notorious exhibition of degenerate art. There, they wanted to place the entire modernism under general suspicion. Of course, pictures of psychiatric patients were ideal for this purpose. A number of artists became victims of the euthanasia murders under the Nazis, while many more disappeared in the 1930s. During this period, the Heidelberg University Hospital, under the famous neurologist Carl Schneider, became the driving force behind euthanasia, the murder program of the so-called handicapped.

Who owns the prinzhorn collection?

Lamb of God by Johann Knopf (Knupfer)

After 1945, the hospital authorities in Heidelberg therefore had every reason to bury the Prinzhorn collection deep in the cellar. Only on the Internet for a few years you can see some of the artwork.

The exhibition is to be reopened to the public in a specially converted pavilion on the grounds of the Heidelberg University Hospital. A later act of rehabilitation could be thought. But it is not that simple. The Bundesverband der Psychiatrieerfahrenen (BPE) and the Freundeskreis Haus des Eigensinns object to the sponsors and the planned location of the exhibition.

"Prey art in the Horsaal of the Morder" he polemical inscription on one of their banners, with which they refer to the significant role of the Heidelberg clinic in the euthanasia program. The spokesman for the Freundeskreis Haus des Eigensinns, Rene Talbot, accuses those responsible in Heidelberg of continuing the pathologizing view of the patients to this day: "The responsible persons still consider the artwork as a patient file, which they do not want to give out. The clinic still does not want to accept that it acquired the artworks in bad faith and that the ownership rights did not pass to it."

Critics suggest a different location for the Prinzhorn collection. On the area of the Tiergartenstrabe, at the place where from 1939 to 1941 the Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft Heil- und Pflegeanstalten prepared the systematic registration and killing of mentally handicapped people – the so-called T4 action – according to their ideas a new museum building of 1100 square meters, combined with a memorial, is to be erected to commemorate the approximately 275,000 euthanasia victims of the Nazi era.

The Destroyed Horus by Paul Goesch, 1885-1940

The initiators of two exhibition projects, which include u.a. Bishop Wolfgang Huber of Berlin, author Walter Jens and former president of the Berlin Medical Association and former Green health politician Ellis Huber belong to the museum. An exhibition organized by the "Euthanasia Victims and Forced Sterilized Persons" The traveling exhibition conceived by the museum is to form the basis for the documentation of the crimes and the ideological background of the euthanasia murders and will take up about 40 percent of the planned museum space. The remaining space is reserved for the pictures of the Prinzhorn collection.

"With the presentation in the ‘House of Selfishness’, we want to give the artists back their lives", emphasizes Rene Talbot. In addition to the Holocaust memorial currently under construction and the planned memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis, the euthanasia victims are also to be commemorated in the center of Berlin. Furthermore, the exhibition in the Euthanasia Memorial aims to establish the context between Prinzhorn’s pathologization of psychiatric patients and their extermination in the Nazi euthanasia program.

The Heidelberg Initiative, on the other hand, wants to avoid such a connection under all circumstances. "The fact that the collection is housed in the Heidelberg clinic, which was involved in the euthanasia action, is seen as a reason to remove it from there. This linkage is not historically sound", it says in a paper of the Prinzhorn Foundation. For months the fronts between Berlin and Heidelberg have been hardened. The further the construction in Heidelberg has progressed, the lower the chances are to enforce the ideas of the Berlin initiatives.

Due to the upcoming Senate reshuffle, the chances for the realization of the project could increase again. Because so far, of all the parties represented in the Berlin House of Representatives, only the CDU has explicitly opposed the House of Stubbornness. The PDS and the Bundnisgrunen have signaled their agreement, while the SPD has so far kept a low profile on this ie.

However, once a definitive decision has been made in favor of the "House of obstinacy" Talbot is convinced that the Heidelberg initiative will no longer be able to refuse the images from the Prinzhorn collection.