May 15th, 2022
This is the final installment of my condensed version of Lynn Nicholas’ 1994 book The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and The Second World War. I have included facts and stories from the 2006 documentary, “The Rape of Europa,” which can be seen on Amazon.
The story does not end here. Wars continue today and the destruction and plundering of personal and national treasures goes on and on.
— Eileen Treasure, Manager at Gallery MAR
“The honor and rights of families, the lives and private property of citizens, as well as religious convictions and practices will be respected. Private property will not be confiscated.” – Article 46 – Rules of Land Warfare, The Hague Convention, 1907
Pillage and looting during warfare did not, of course, originate with World War II. Human history has recorded the time-honored tradition of victors seizing plunder from the vanquished. But the massive scale, the unprecedented bureaucratic organization and the legalistic rationalizations offered by the Nazis set their accomplishments apart. Not hundreds or thousands, but millions of visual objects were bought and sold, confiscated, stolen, destroyed and transported around the continent of Europe.
The Nazis sought to impose their race-based morality onto the diverse population of Europe. In the upheavals of war, the Nazi leaders devoted precious time and energy to the gathering of artwork. They carried out multiple operations with cross purposes—buy or steal artworks that would buttress the Party’s racist ideology, eliminate what they considered offensive and un-German and pilfer the great Jewish collections of Europe. They wanted to completely demoralize and dehumanize their victims: the Poles, all Slavic cultures and the Jews. All artwork deemed “degenerate” was sold or destroyed and those artists were essentially cancelled.
After the war, the work of returning collections was greater than any other time in history. Since February of this year, Ukraine has lost two museums. The Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol and the Ivankiv Historical Museum in Ivankiv have been destroyed.
Today, stories continue to shed light on the frustrations of families seeking restitution, lost collections discovered, and of course the tragedies of war being played out on a regular basis.
In Valor There Is Hope
American curators and art historians felt this potential devastation before Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and gathered to discuss what could be done. Knowing their expertise was needed but useless without the participation of the Allied generals, they secured the confidence of the U.S. government in 1943 with the Roberts Commission, which was established to respond to the need to protect cultural resources in Europe.
The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas was to provide the armed forces with maps of important buildings and monuments to avoid bombing them as well as discovering and recording inventories of Nazi-appropriated items. Art experts (not trained soldiers) accepted the overwhelming task of rescuing and preserving artwork at risk—they became known as The Monuments Men. They numbered less than 200 men with only 12 at the front lines. One of the group, Kenneth Lindsay said, “Finally we could do something positive.” In reality, they had no Jeeps and little support from those in command. In all fairness, command considered the lives of their men and the success of their mission as more important than buildings.
Fighting in Italy
Established in 529 A.D., the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino sits on a rocky hill 81 miles south of Rome. Though rebuilt over the centuries, it remained a center for religious scholarship and preservation of ancient texts.
As the Allies moved up the boot of Italy in 1944, they became stalled at the base of Monte Cassino. Fighting was intense, and there were many Allied casualties. Convinced the Germans were using the Abbey as their base of operations, the order was finally given to bomb it, and on February 15, 1944 it was destroyed. No Germans were found to be hiding there and many (numbers from 130-250) civilians were killed. After the war, it was determined the Germans had stolen 120 truckloads of manuscripts and artwork months before the bombing. Much of the haul went to the Vatican, but reportedly 15 cases went to Hermann Goerring for his birthday.
The world press had eyes on any missteps by the Allies regarding monuments, and the bombing of Monte Cassino was the first major disaster of the advancing army. The Germans accused the Allied forces of careless destruction of cultural objects–pure sophistry considering the destruction they had already inflicted across Poland and Northern Europe. Families of fallen soldiers blamed their deaths on wasted time trying to save a building. After the bombing, the Germans used the pile of rubble to take cover and continue bombing from the high-ground. The effort proved a total failure until Polish troops claimed victory over it May 18, 1944.
Deane Keller was 42 when he returned to Italy as one of The Monuments Men. He was an art professor at Yale and had lived in Italy in the 1920s. His passion and leadership saved countless buildings and inspired the success of this endeavor. Much of Deane Keller’s time was spent surveying hundreds of towns in Italy in the path of destruction. Pisa was the ultimate challenge and while the Leaning Tower and the Basilica were spared major damage, the targeted bombing near the Camposanto Monumentale in July, 1944, the medieval cemetery and glory of Pisa, melted the lead roof and brought destruction to the sculptures, sarcophagus’ and most of the 14th century frescoes (2600 meters of frescoes—more than the Sistine Chapel).
Keller organized as many soldiers and locals as he could to collect minute pieces of the walls. He designed and oversaw the building of a new roof to protect what remained so restoration could begin immediately. Though he never saw the completion of the restoration in 2005-2018, he was memorialized with a bronze plaque there.
The Nazis Weren’t Good Sports About Losing the War
Lynn Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa, commented that, “The Germans weren’t good sports about losing the war.” Florence was one of the worst examples of this. Two days before the Germans retreated from Florence, August 3, 1944, they detonated bombs that destroyed the central bridges and buildings along the banks of the Arno (with one exception, the Ponte Vecchio survived). The Ponte Trinita with arches designed by Michelangelo was destroyed. Nearly half the art of Florence had already been stolen or destroyed. It was said, “Florence as the world knew it, is no more.”
On August 23, 1944, Hitler gave the order to destroy Paris: “Paris must not pass into the enemies hands, except as a field of ruins.” Explosives were laid at various bridges and monuments, but the German officer in command, General von Choltitz, saw the futility of the order with the Allies drawing near and the Resistance closing in, not to mention his troops who would be killed. He paid lip service to the order so he would not be removed by Hitler, but never intended to follow through with it.
The German retreat from Russia left palaces destroyed, the Amber Room in St. Petersburg looted (and never found), the gilded fountains of Peter the Great destroyed and Tchaikovsky’s original scores burned. Stalin’s Red Army returned the favor and more as they pushed the Germans back West.
The Victory of Beauty Over Horror
In March, 1945, the Allies arrived in Germany, and there was little architecture left to save, so the Monuments Men shifted their emphasis to ‘movable art.’ Their mission was to search, find and save what they could.
It took a year to empty the Nazi loot hidden in Neuschwanstein Castle. The quiet, secret spy Rose Valland, who kept records of Nazi treasures that went from Paris to the castle, was a hero to the salvation efforts, enabling the return of thousands of pieces of artwork to rightful owners. Valland was the curator at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, where Hitler’s best French pieces were stored, catalogued and shipped out to Germany and Austria. She kept double records of everything and took the negatives of artwork home each night for a friend to develop. Throughout the war she met frequently with Jacques Jaujard, senior civil servant of French Fine Art Collections, 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.
Dr. Leonard Malamut, 11th Armoured Division, descended into the salt mines holding Hitler’s stash of some of the most precious pieces including The Ghent Altarpiece and Vermeer’s Astronomer. They retrieved 6,500 paintings, 300 drawings and prints and hundreds of pieces of sculpture, tapestries, books and furniture. He said, “How could these murderous, evil men be appreciators of art?”
Official victory came May 8, 1945. Deane Keller retrieved stolen Italian art treasures in a small town jail in the Alps and personally escorted the work back to Florence, where the locals cheered the return of their culture. A young woman in the crowd that day remembered (in the documentary “The Rape of Europa,” 2006), “It was a great moment. To be honest, it wasn’t just about the beauty of the art… but that the return gave the Italians and the Allies a sense of victory. It was the victory of beauty over horror, over disaster. We had won.”
Today: Still Searching for a Civilized Solution
By the mid-fifties the initial restitution effort by the Allies had lost its priority and momentum to the pressures of the Cold War. Hundreds of works of art, their owners unidentified, still lay in government storerooms across Europe or remained in the hands of unscrupulous dealers who waited for years before disguising their origins and feeding them slowly into the market at high prices.
Many Jewish treasures still wait with no surviving claimants. The documentary “The Rape of Europa” presents us with more recent stories of restitution including a Christian, German man who is dedicated to reuniting confiscated sterling silver Torah ornaments to the descendants of the original owners. When he returns the Rimonim, the bell-festooned “hats” that bedeck the holy scrolls, to a congregation, “Their music rings down the century, rings the sound of freedom, rings the triumph of life over death. There is a real difference between looking at stolen religious objects as artwork, versus returning these objects to their religious use.”
Throughout the film, the question of whether saving a work of art is as important as saving a human life is studied. It is not answered and perhaps ultimately, it is not unanswerable. Yet “Europa” movingly shows how for many, art and artifacts are living things that are inseparable from their identity and culture.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, tens of thousands of pieces of German ‘trophy art’ were discovered in storage in the basement of the Pushkin Museum. Germans called for their return. Russians declared it their property. The Russian Minister of Culture from 2002-04 stated, “We need a civilized solution. Knowing that a German painting is hanging on the wall of the Pushkin Museum… that can’t heal the pain of my father coming home from Stalingrad without his fingers. We should find a reasonable way out of this.”
In May, 2006, sixty years after the war, a panel of 3 Austrian mediators awarded to Maria Altmann, niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, five Gustav Klimpt paintings including the famous portrait of Adele, her aunt, known in Austria as The Woman in Gold or Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. This heroic story was retold in the 2015 movie, “Woman in Gold,” and is factually quite accurate. This became the most famous story of restitution to date and the most expensive painting ever sold (by 2006) when Maria sold it to Ronald Lauder (heir to Estee Lauder fortune) for $135 million.
In 2004, staff at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., were searching for the missing pieces from Hermann Goerring’s collection. They identified a Francois Boucher painting that was part of the collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. It had been stolen, along with many other pieces from the Jewish dealer Andre Seligmann from his gallery in Paris. Goerring visited this gallery trying to buy (at low prices) several pieces from the collection. Seligmann threw him out. Seligmann’s daughter, Claude Delibes, said that Hermann Goering had confiscated the painting and the rest of the collection for his own art collection. He attempted to send the collection by train to Bavaria towards the end of World War II, but the train was robbed and the painting went missing. It resurfaced in a New York gallery in 1967 and was purchased in 1972, in good faith, by Utah businessman Val Browning. He donated it to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in 1993.
When presented with the evidence, the UMFA graciously accepted the evidence and ”Les Jeunes Amoureux” was returned to Seligmann’s daughter. It is estimated that of the 400 paintings that had been looted from Mr. Seligmann’s gallery, only 25 percent have been returned.
A Choir of Voices
What can you or I do to further the righteous cause of restitution of stolen Jewish artwork? It is a hard thing for a museum to give back a piece they have purchased in good faith and is part of their celebrated collection, but as a patron of the arts or even a member or docent of a museum we can voice our support of this endeavor. A choir of voices urging the board of directors to actively pursue restitution is always heard. Volunteer to assist with the research at your local museum.
Educate yourself about organizations working to facilitate restitution. I discovered the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO). Their mission is “to remind the world that the time has come to redress the enormous material wrongs caused to European Jewry during the Holocaust.” Besides encouraging restitution, they actively work to clarify and improve provenance research and streamline the process of identification and return.
In 1998, the United States convened an important conference on Holocaust-era assets that was attended by 44 countries and resulted in a resolution known as the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art (the “Washington Conference Principles”). The purpose of the Washington Conference Principles was to “assist in resolving issues relating to Nazi-confiscated art.” They stated that pre-Holocaust art owners and their heirs “should be encouraged to come forward and make known their claims to art that was confiscated by the Nazis.” The principles emphasize the need to take steps necessary and implement processes “expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution” to ownership claims brought by Nazi victims and their heirs.
Unfortunately, several top museums in the country have been asserting strong defenses to defeat claims of restitution. Ask your museum what their position is and how they handle these cases.
The American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the body that develops standards and best practices for the U.S. museum community, has in the opinion of the WJRO, “declined to take steps to ensure that museums live up to the standards it has set that member institutions should respond to claims openly, seriously, responsively, and with respect for the dignity of all parties involved.”
Article 46 of The Hague Conference of 1907 spoke truth, “The honor and rights of families, the lives and private property of citizens, as well as religious convictions and practices will be respected. Private property will not be confiscated.”
If we cannot honor these words, we are not worthy of the great art we possess. The masterpiece on the museum wall does not heal the wounds of Nazi theft, murder and destruction.