“I’m going to drink coffee while we talk,” Jonathan Petropoulos, Ph.D. said, with his silvery blond hair flopping over a bit. His eyes wrinkled with joy behind the kind of tortoise shell glasses you’d only ever see a history professor wear.
I laughed and said that was not a problem, especially after how long it took us to get set up.
You’d think someone like myself, a tech-savvy college student who spends hours on Zoom, and a Harvard-educated, internationally recognized expert on Nazi art looting and professor at Claremont Mckenna College could quickly figure out why we weren’t hearing each other. But, after some mouthing, head-shaking, a bit of silent laughter and a switch over to GoogleMeet, we were finally good to go.
I first asked him, as you would with someone in such a seemingly random and hyper-focused career, “How’d you get into all of this in the first place?”
He laughed and went on to say how he stumbled into it. He was a masters student, focused on French history, when a kind professor gave all of his students a project to focus on something other than their specialization. This was an opportunity to take a break from what they would spend the rest of their lives studying.
Petropoulos was inspired to pick Germany for its connection to World War II, to the world of art. He was inspired by his father’s experience growing up in Athens in the 1930s.
“He was eleven years old when the Germans rolled in,” Petropoulos tells me. “Born right below the Acropolis.”
He chose a topic focused on the art collections of the Nazi leaders, and used their collections to illustrate what we could learn about the regime. He didn’t yet know this would be the catalyst for the rest of his career, the rest of his life. But his professor at the time, who, mind you, believed culture was simply the “dessert” of history, with economics and politics being the “bread and butter,” wrote: “This would make an interesting dissertation,” on Petropoulos’ essay.
Not only did he say it’d be interesting, but he also told Petropoulos that nearly no academic study had been done on it. There were a few articles here and there, but no substantial books had been written about the subject. Nonetheless, he started studying it, but still didn’t know he would become “Mr. Nazi Art Man,” as he jokingly called himself.
He was particularly interested in the conflict between the idea of all of this wonderful culture and art these men were collecting, and the “barbarism” they showed.
“How these Nazi leaders, the most malevolent, barbarist people in history,” Petropolos said, releasing a deep sigh before continuing, “perceived themselves as men of culture.”
He was so interested in all of this, that he’s spent his career studying it, writing four books, with a fifth coming out in January, entitled “Hermann Göring’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and His World.” He’s also got enough exciting information to come to Fairfield and talk virtually to students about his book and the life of Bruno Lohse Ph.D., on Tuesday, Nov. 10.
Petropoulos was particularly excited about this newest book because of the quality of the material and the story; it’s nearly like a movie. In fact, a documentary is currently in production telling its story in video form. He excitedly tells me that his documentary is directed by the same man who directs the many documentaries of famed art historian Simon Schama.
Now, that name outside of the art history, history or just documentary lovers circle might mean absolutely nothing. I could tell you he was a racecar driver, or some kid in my first grade class; however, to me and many, Simon Schama is like the Bradley Cooper of the art world. His documentaries are phenomenal, they make art history as dramatic and lively as it should be, and that’s why he’s set the bar. So, for Petropoulos to score that same director, it should make us all very excited for what’s to come.
But, that’s a long time away, and we’re lucky enough to have Petropoulos coming to campus in less than a week. When I asked him what college students can take away from this story, he started with the career development piece. He said that it doesn’t matter what path you’ll take, there are lessons in ethics and “how one conducts oneself in these times of crisis” to be learned from studying how someone with a Ph.D. in art history interacted with Nazi Germany.
He mentioned a particular poignant note in today’s world: “Your college education shouldn’t be teaching you to find more ways of cheating.”
He said it should be about finding your moral compass, so that eventually, you can go against your boss or these “larger forces.”
Petropoulos went on to say he doesn’t want students to hear this story and connect with the Nazis in any way, but to connect with the people they interacted with, the outside bystanders, in hopes that they’d find a lesson in ethics somewhere along the way. But, as he summarized, he wants them all to see that history truly matters and it’s applicable to modern times.
Jonathan Petropoulos, Ph.D. will be at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts on Tuesday Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased via this link: http://quickcenter.fairfield.edu/fall-2020-season-calendar/lectures/Jonathan-petropoulos.html