October 10th, 2021
“Period of Adjustment: The Nazi Collectors Organize, Austria Provides, Europe Hides”
To art professionals outside Germany, the advent of Nazism and the bizarre goings-on of its art establishment were regarded as a passing phenomenon requiring minor adjustments. In Lynn Nicholas’ 1994 book, The Rape of Europa, she documents how the fate of Europe’s art treasures were intertwined with Hitler’s vision of a New World Order and the Second World War. She tells the stories of unnamed and courageous civilians who were willing to die to save their country’s art collections from theft or destruction. Ask yourself, “Would I do the same?”
Planning for the 1937 World Exposition in Paris was not interrupted. Until now, German museums went on lending generously to shows, but by 1938 there was a reluctance to loan Old Masters. Requests went unanswered. Each case was decided by Hitler. Besides what he labeled degenerate art, some religious themed work was lent — Hitler disliked it almost as much as modernism.
Some ‘degenerate’ pieces came to the ‘uncultured’ United States for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. The rest of the world sent over 500 pieces of the greatest value and importance to the show. As it turned out, this show collection would spend the next several years of World War II in the U.S. and was an unexpected windfall for visitors of American art museums. Referring to the purged German art, President Roosevelt declared at the opening of the MOMA’s new building in 1939, “The Arts cannot thrive except when men are free to be themselves.”
In Germany, Aryanization had begun. Jewish dealers left or sold to gentiles. A flood of artworks moved into the market in order to pay debts, exit fees and bans on exportation of cash. High-ranking Nazis began collecting at low prices. The way to Herman Goering’s heart was through his collections. He had an insatiable appetite for collecting. He remained popular with the German public who regarded him as manly, honest (?) and more accessible than the Fuhrer. He hosted elaborate feasts, state hunts and loved dressing up in costumes, but it was Goering who fined the German Jewish community a billion marks, ordered the elimination of Jews from the German economy and the seizure of their property and businesses and their exclusion from schools, resorts, parks, forests, etc. (It is worth noting that his grandfather was a wealthy Jew.)
By 1936, Goering was Prime Minister of Prussia, head of the Luftwaffe, Director of the 4-Year Plan and successor to Hitler. He grew very rich. Carinhall (begun in 1934) was his country estate 50 miles outside Berlin and named for his first wife, Carin. The estate grew into a Disneyland-style fantasy land where Goering indulged in everything he fancied. He justified it all by promising it to the German nation. He was grotesquely fat and addicted to morphine (stemming from a WWI injury). Exotic animals roamed the grounds and his toy train display filled the 75′ attic. Goering prepared a ‘wish-list’ for better host gift giving, and by 1938 his collections exceeded the Fuhrer’s, but this did not escape notice and would soon change.
March 12, 1938, German troops entered Austria; Hitler followed a few hours later. This was Hitler’s fondest dream — unite Germany and Austria and eliminate any trace of the Hapsburg empire and Slavic influence. The SS followed and while they imprisoned thousands, they also murdered and blatantly looted the homes and businesses of Jewish people. This went far beyond anything in Germany. Magnificent collections of the brother’s Rothschild were confiscated, and they were imprisoned. Neighbors joined the SS to strip homes of anything valuable. No one could be trusted and theft was rampant.
In the next 18 months, 80,000 Jews were allowed to leave Austria if they could pay for it. Few entrance visas from other countries were available. The Nazis were fixated on legalities and mountains of paperwork, notarizations and visits to agencies. Possessions were sold to satisfy tax claims.
As Germany conquered much of Europe in the years 1939–1941, the SS (Nazi elite guard in charge of concentration camps) established a number of new concentration camps to incarcerate increased numbers of political prisoners, resistance groups, and groups deemed racially inferior, such as Jews and Gypsies. After the beginning of the war, the concentration camps also became sites for the mass murder of small targeted groups deemed dangerous for political or racial reasons by the Nazi authorities.
The Germans enjoyed a high level of celebration for the Anschluss. The mayor of Nuremburg wanted the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire kept there for 400 years before being taken to Vienna in 1794 to save them from the French returned. There they remained since the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. There were no bounds to the treasure-grab, and it was all justified by the greater good of the perfect society. Hitler wanted everything that had ever been taken out of Germany (and that he wanted and valued) to be returned no matter if it had been 10 years, 100 years or 2,000 years.
Next, Hitler wanted to transform Linz into a grand city — his perfect city. Confiscated art would begin to fill his visionary art palaces. His collection increased with the taking of Czechoslovakia. Slavs were not deemed worthy and their libraries, museums and palaces were raided. In order to better organize his collections, Hitler appointed Hans Posse his Grand Acquisitor in the summer of 1939. The initial budget was RM 10 million, but by December 1944, it totaled 70 million. Hitler’s collection and the Linz Museum were now one collection called Fuhrer Reserve. Plans for the museum grew from one building to several — one for each discipline. Control of the confiscated items was not easy and all departments enjoyed carting things off.
Posse made a thorough wish-list of targeted high value items. He knew where they were and stopped at nothing to get them. The Czernin Vermeer (The Art of Painting) was one item on the list. Purchases were made all over Europe and if one did not agree to sell, “pressure of an unpleasant nature” could be applied.
It is rare for a museum to acquire more than 2 or 3 major works in a year. Posse bought 475 paintings in his first year on the job. By 1945, the collection (for Linz) was over 8,000.
With war on the horizon, museums started making plans to protect their collections. The British made plans to evacuate collections by rail to Wales.
The French began in 1938, and the Louvre collections were moved more than once. The “Mona Lisa” was first rushed to the Chateau Chambord. The Dutch could only move pieces to the safest place in each building. The Prado collection was moved several times to avoid bombing raids. They were stalled near the French border and urgent messages were sent to London and Paris and to General Franco through the Duke of Alba in London, imploring him to halt bombing so the paintings could be moved. Franco agreed and in an extraordinary international effort with hastily raised private money, a truck convoy moved the collection into France where they were loaded onto a special 22 car train to Geneva. 174 paintings survived and were put on display.
One of the visitors to the Prado collection, Paris art dealer Rene Gimpel, wrote in his diary, “The conflagration is not far from bursting upon us. We have been here for 48 hours to see the Prado Exhibition. Death hangs over our heads, and if it must take us, this last vision of Velazquez, Greco, Goya and Roger van de Weyden will have made a fine curtain.” One year later, Gimpel, a Resistance fighter, would die in a concentration camp. In 2020, the French government was ordered to return 3 Derain paintings to the descendants of Gimpel because, they claimed, he was forced to sell them at the time.
Museums worked at a furious pace during the summer of 1939. The breaking point was reached August 22 with the announcement of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. The National Gallery of London closed on the 23rd, the Dutch museums followed and Paris museums on the 25th. A formal declaration of war came September 3, 1939.
The stained glass in France’s cathedrals were ordered removed for safekeeping August 27. In 10 days, Sainte-Chapelle, Bourge, Amiens, Metz and Chartres were secured. Workers from local galleries and department stores held a sleepover in the Louvre September 1 and 2. On September 3, with war announced, “Winged Victory” descended the long staircase on a wooden ramp. 2 groups of men, terrified, worked in total silence, her stone wings trembling slightly.
Gericault’s enormous “Raft of the Medusa” was too fragile to roll up. It traveled upright on a truck out of Paris. Careful measurements were taken except for the trolley wires in Versailles. The painting was hopelessly ensnared, and Magdeleine Hours ran off in darkness to wake her colleagues at the Palace of Versailles. She desperately searched for the doorbell. Could the “Raft” be kept there temporarily? Yes, in the Orangerie, until the chief curator enlisted a team of post office employees who carried long insulated poles to raise any threatening wires.
Through the night trucks drove to Chambord. Many drivers had never driven outside Paris or at night and the blackout forbade headlights. The roads were jammed with everyone seeking refuge beyond the Loire. Thick fog made everything worse when a truck was lost in the caravan. The driver had followed a bicycle light accidentally and came to a terrifying halt only a few feet from the river bank. The exodus continued into October. The French thought everything was safe, but soon realized it was only a dress rehearsal. Artwork was moved multiple times over the next few years.
October 6, 1939, Hitler promised peace if the Allies surrendered Poland. Secretly he ordered plans for the invasion of France, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. The Germans crossed the Dutch border May 10, 1940 and Brussels fell on May 18, but the Belgian Army held out for another week, allowing nearly 400,000 French and British troops to be rescued off the beaches of Dunkirk and for 3 truckloads of Belgium’s most precious, movable paintings including the Ghent Altarpiece, to be sent off on a 1,000 mile journey to Rome where they were to be entrusted to the Vatican, but the convoy ran head-on into the lines of the German Panzer Divisions. The treasures were detoured to shelter in the Chateau of Pau at the foot of the Pyrenees.
France was in chaos, but life in Paris was only slightly affected. The art scene thrived though the museums were closed. The French collections were in a dozen different locations. In Paris, cellars of the Pantheon and Saint-Sulpice were filled with sculpture and stained glass.
Jacques Jaujard, director of France’s National Museums, cleverly thwarted Hitler’s scheme to acquire France’s greatest treasures. He kept the Louvre’s contents, including the Mona Lisa, safe for the duration of the war. On August 25, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union announced their Nonaggression Pact and Jaujard made his move. That day, he closed the Louvre for three days (ostensibly “for repairs”) and his meticulous plan went into action. The Louvre staff, students from the École du Louvre, and workers from the Grands Magasins du Louvre department store took paintings out of their frames (when possible) and moved statues and other objects from their displays into wooden crates. All works were labeled with marks indicating their evacuation priority — yellow dots for most of the collection, green dots for the works of major significance, and red dots for the greatest treasures of global patrimony. The “Mona Lisa” was placed in a custom poplar case cushioned with red velvet. The box was crated up and the crate marked with three red dots, the only work in the entire collection with that rating. In just three days, 200 people packed 3600 paintings—plus many more drawings, sculptures, objets d’art, and antiquities — into crates. The “Mona Lisa” was transported in an ambulance, on a stretcher with elastic suspension to keep it as safe as possible from jostling.
The last convoy crossed the Loire June 17, only hours before the bridges were blown up. South of the Loire, the road conditions were terrible. One driver had only passed her driver’s test the day before, and she wrote:
“Cars were going in every direction. I hooked my bumper over the car in front of me and would have been crushed by the flood of cars being driven by dazed drivers who seemed not to see any obstacles, when a strong youth unhooked us. This act of kindness helped us bear the rest, and the rest was difficult… German aircraft constantly flew up and down the roads. If they had wanted to attack, the exodus would have been a carnage.”
For the convoy from the Louvre, they were relieved to find that mentioning the Louvre was enough to get them the gasoline they needed to continue.
German forces advanced relentlessly into France in June, 1940 and millions from Belgium and northern France and Paris fled in a tidal wave of exhausted, filthy people and their children, cats and dogs, mattresses and baskets jammed into cars and loaded bicycles as they marched into the parks of Chambord and Valencay. Train stations were overflowing, and into this river of despair were launched, once again, the greatest treasures of France.
Thousands of privately owned collections were on the move as well. French museums had taken in a large number of private holdings including many belonging to Jewish collectors and dealers, although the Louvre refused Peggy Guggenheim’s modern collection and she frantically removed them from stretcher bars and packed them in 3 large crates which she managed to send to Vichy where they were hidden in a friend’s barn. The vast collection of Paul Rosenberg was left in a bank in Libourne — 5 Degas’, 5 Monets, 7 Bonnards, 21 Matisses, 14 Braques, 33 Picasso plus Corot, Ingres, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Renoir and Gaugin. One hundred more paintings went to a rented chateau.
Matisse was so horrified at the masses in flight, he changed his mind about leaving and wrote to his son in New York, “It seemed to me I would be deserting. If everyone who has any values leaves France, what remains?” George Braque was on the road and entrusted his collection to the same bank as Rosenberg, including a Cranach portrait. Miriam de Rothschild was known for her vagueness and lost much of her collection because she buried it in an unmarked sand dune near Dieppe.
The largest collection moved was the recently purchased Vollard group by Martin Fabiani. 429 Renoirs, 68 Cezannes, 57 Roualts, 13 Gaugins and totally 635 pieces made it to Lisbon and sailed for Bermuda. By the time they arrived, continental France was an enemy to Germany and valuables were confiscated. The collection was whisked off to Canada where it remained in storage until the end of the war. These types of arrangements became illegal and were frozen from transport or sale. This kept many collections safe from German hands.
With Germany flying over the Welsh coast, quarries and mines in Wales were explored to house the British collections. Mine openings were greatly enlarged to handle the large pieces. One mine removed 5,000 tons of slate rock and installed light and humidity controls over half a square mile of space — all for art. It was ready for art in August, 1941. Nearly 700 paintings a week made their way where the crates were inched down into the mine, without cranes, onto little motorized trolleys. Inside, there was enough wall space to hang most of the collections — and the bombs did drop. The National Gallery of London was hit 9 times. The Tate was repeatedly bombed. The British Museum was bombed through the dome of the main reading room and the roof of the Parthenon Gallery was destroyed.
By June 21, 1941, Hitler controlled most of Europe. Holland, Flanders and Luxembourg were to become part of a “Nordic Reich.” France would be allowed to be, well, elegant France. In Hitler’s New Order, all would be perfect and homogeneous — organized, efficient, and clean in the gleaming new cities.
December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed and the U.S. Congress voted to go to war with Japan. Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. as well and a few days later we were committed to World War II. Earlier that year, the American art establishment came face to face with the realities of protection long since forced upon its European colleagues and plans to evacuate the collections were already underway. It seemed quite possible the Japanese or the Germans could attack San Francisco or New York, and so the directors of the nation’s principal museums gathered in New York to coordinate their response to the advent of war. Earlier in 1941, Roosevelt had set up a Committee on the Conservation of Cultural Resources. The National Gallery of Art moved 75 of their most precious paintings to Biltmore because it was fireproof, remote and close to a railroad. Listed at over $26 million in value, they arrived in Asheville on January 12, 1941. The Gallery was quickly rehung with other works and remained open to the public.
At the Museum of Modern Art, the major paintings on the third floor were taken down every night, put in a sandbagged storeroom in the center of the floor, and rehung every morning before the public arrived. By February, 1941, the Metropolitan had stashed away some fifteen thousand items, having transported them in more than ninety truckloads to suburban Philadelphia.
Curators at Boston’s Museum of Art feared both air raids and possible attacks from submarines. True sons of Paul Revere, they kept lookouts on the roof and moved the best objects into three buildings at Williams College in western Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, in the summer of 1940, the Germans realized they needed to organize the collections of France and store them there until Hitler gave orders for their transport to Germany or Linz. In October, the head of the German acquisitions, Count Metternich, and Jacque Jaujard chose Jeu de Paume, the small museum used at the time by the Louvre for temporary exhibitions. It was agreed that French curators, working alongside the Germans, would be allowed to inventory whatever arrived at the new depot. To carry out the duties five Louvre employees were sent to the Jeu de Paume to help Mlle Rose Valland, the curator who had been left in charge of the empty building.
Mlle Valland determinely set to work recording the vast collections arriving daily. One of Metternich’s assistants found her at work and closed her notebook: there was to be no French record. The five other employees were sent away. Valland could stay. Her dowdy looks did not invite advances from the Germans, and she was regarded by all as an insignificant administrative functionary. The Germans seemed to overlook the fact that she was French and forbade any access to the building by the French because it would be vulnerable to espionage.
This was exactly what Mlle Valland was doing! Throughout the war she met frequently with Jacques Jaujard and his assistants, many of whom were working closely with the Resistance and through whom the Free French government was kept informed of the whereabouts of the national treasures. The museum people, like everyone else, listened late into the night to the BBC, whose programs were laced with cryptic messages to underground activities all over Europe. Thus they knew that information on the relocation of the collections to Loc-Dieu and later to other refuges had been received in London when the message “la Joconde a le sourire (The Mona Lisa is smiling)” came crackling through the night.
Mlle Valland’s main objective was to find out where the ERR takings were being stored in Germany. At night she took home the negatives of the archival photographs being taken by the Nazis, and had them printed by a friend. In the morning they would be back in place. She managed to record the numbers of the freight cars which carried degenerate artwork and in August, 1944, informed Jaujard, who contacted the Resistance elements in the French railways, and these train cars developed “mechanical problems” necessitating their delay and layover in a Paris suburb. The commanding French officer was none other than Alexandre Rosenberg, Paul’s son, who liberated dozens of pieces last seen in his own house.
Between April 1941 and July 1944, 138 train cars containing over 22,000 pieces were shipped out to the Reich. Most went to the Castle of Neuschwanstein. There was a hasty retreat of the Germans as the Allied forces approached Paris in the summer of 1944. Hitler ordered Paris to be destroyed. The bridges were laced with mines. The Luftwaffe was ordered to prepare for house-to-house fighting and bombing. Two days before the Allies arrived on August 24-25, the Grand Palais was blown up. Explosives were placed in Notre Dame, the Madeleine, Les Invalides, the Luxembourg and Palais Garnier (Opera). The German Commandant of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, after a career of total loyalty, chose not to carry out Hitler’s explicit orders and procrastinated. He even convinced the SS to leave the Bayeaux tapestry behind. He enlisted help where he could with power outages, disconnecting detonators, etc. When he surrendered August 25, all bridges and monuments were intact.
My next and last installment will highlight the launching of the Allied Protection Plan (Monuments Men) and the heroic efforts to rescue the hidden art treasures of Europe and the ongoing and contentious process of restitution.
Never had works of art been so important to a political movement, pawns in the cynical and desperate games of ideology, greed and survival. Many were lost and many are still hiding, but the miracle of it all is the fact that infinitely more are safe, thanks to so many heroes, named and unnamed, who sacrificed and persevered against all odds.
Most images and captions were found online as well as details regarding the Mona Lisa. Sources available upon request.