The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War

by Lynn H. Nicholas
Knopf, 498 pp., $27.50

Among the greatest treasures of the Polish nation are the Jagellonian tapestries, 136 magnificent hangings from Arras depicting animal and biblical scenes that were commissioned by King Sigismund Augustus in 1571. In September 1939, when German troops crossed the Polish borders, the tapestries were in Wawel Castle in Cracow. The curator had them packed in seventy tin boxes and bundles sewn in cloth and shipped down the Vistula on a barge to Kazimiersz near Lublin, where the barge was bombed. The cargo was transferred to trucks that were requisitioned in the neighborhood and driven all the way to Romania. From there the tapestries traveled by ship to Italy, and, when the Vatican declined for political reasons to give them shelter, went on to France, where they remained until the capitulation of 1940. That might have been the end of them, but Polish exiles helped load them on to a tramp steamer bound for England, where they were taken in charge by the Polish government in exile. Finally, in July 1940, they secured passage on the Polish ship Batory and escaped to Canada.

This perilous journey was by no means exceptional. The period that opened with the assault on Poland was one in which paintings and sculpture, jewelry and creations of glass and porcelain, royal regalia and ancient manuscripts, all representing the greatest achievements of European civilization, became mobile as never before in history. They were driven from their natural repositories by the threat or actuality of war, hidden in remote castles or deep mines, looted and carried off by undisciplined troops, confiscated by occupation authorities, or often, in the general breakdown of authority, stolen and sold by those charged with protecting them. And then, when the tide of battle turned, all these scattered treasures had to be traced—a generally painful and complicated process—and, when possible, returned to their starting points.

It is this story of dispersion and recovery that is the subject of Lynn Nicholas’s book, and she tells it with a mastery that is based on very extensive reading, research in unpublished materials in dozens of public and private collections in this country and in France, and more than thirty interviews and conversations. She brings to her task historical perspective, a remarkable command of the economics of the art business, and a feel for the appropriate and telling anecdote. Her readers may feel now and then that she has provided rather more detail than they can comfortably digest, but few of them will be bored. This is a book with heroes and villains, a strong narrative line, and a list of secondary characters that includes such people as Pablo Picasso, Wanda Landowska, Peggy Guggenheim, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Nicholas begins by pointing out that anything resembling stability in the art world began to disintegrate with Adolf Hitler’s assault on degenerate art in 1937 and that this process accelerated with the Nazi occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939. Hitler’s campaign against modern art…

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