Do Adolf Hitler's descendants get a cut of his painting profits?

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April 29 2009 6:25 PM

Ooh, Is That a Hitler?

Do Adolf Hitler's descendants get a cut of his painting profits?

A photograph of a landscape titled "Village scene" attributed to Adolf Hitler. Click image to expand.
Village Scene, attributed to Adolf Hitler

Thirteen paintings attributed to Adolf Hitler were put on sale at a British auction last Thursday. After their authenticity was certified by an Austrian expert, they sold for about $140,000. Do Hitler's living relatives get a cut?

No. Hitler did produce a last will and testament leaving his inheritance to his three siblings. But the German state of Bavaria seized all of Hitler's property after the Third Reich fell in 1945, and it currently owns the rights to his estate. Some historians have speculated that Hitler's living family members—there are more than a dozen residing in Germany, Austria, and Long Island—could sue the state of Bavaria and claim royalties for the Führer's literary and artistic work. But none has come forward to claim a cut from the auction. The odds of getting paid would be slim, and the potential fallout from trying to profit off the genocidal maniac's work is enormous.

In the past, Hitler's relatives haven't been so reticent. Before her death in 1960, Hitler's sister Paula attempted to lay claim to her brother's estate. But for legal reasons—there was no death certificate issued for Hitler, for example, and a Munich court declared his will "void"—she failed. Later, with the help of Hitler scholar Werner Maser, the son of Hitler's half-sister, Leo Raubal, pursued but never obtained the copyright to Mein Kampf. In 1962, three relatives did receive royalties for Hitler's "sequel" to Mein Kampf (Zweites Buch, literally "Second Book") but not for the original.

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If Hitler's relatives did control his estate, it's not certain that they would make much money. Mein Kampf, once a best-seller in Germany, is now banned there. And Hitler sold the American and British copyrights for Mein Kampf to two publishers in the 1930s, so those publishers wouldn't have to give his family a cent. Besides, the book is scheduled to enter the public domain soon—on Dec. 31, 2015, 70 years after its author's death. And even if the family could recoup some of the painting or book profits, they might have to split the cash among all the living relatives—or almost 20 ways.

There's much squeamishness surrounding efforts to profit from Hitler's work. Both the British and U.S. copyright owners of Mein Kampf, Curtis Brown literary agency and Houghton Mifflin, donate those profits to charity. Nor is the Bavarian government profiting off Hitler's estate. After the war, it stored all of his belongings in a vault in central Munich and decided against opening a museum. Plus the German government, as mentioned above, banned the sale of Mein Kampf, thereby cutting off what would have been a steady revenue stream.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Timothy Ryback of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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