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Loot

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subject of Lynn Nicholas’s book, and she tells it with a mastery that is based on very extensive reading, research in unpublished materials in dozens of public and private collections in this country and in France, and more than thirty interviews and conversations.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 expelled 16,000 paintings and sculptures from German public galleries. A good part of these works were subsequently burned, while the rest were sold at ridiculously low prices for hard currency, Kandinsky’s Ruhe, for example, for $100 and Kirchner’s Strassenszene for $160, both paintings finding new homes in New York, as was true of many of the others. The Anschluss was accompanied by wholesale confiscation of Jewish property, including the great art collections of Barons Louis and Alphonse de Rothschild, the paintings and library of Baron Gutmann, and many more, while the invasion of Czechoslovakia in May 1939 involved the seizure not only of Jewish property but also, to cite only a few examples, the library of Prague University, the holdings of the Czech National Museum, the palaces of the Schwarzenbergs and Colloredos, and the Lobkowicz collections, which included Breughel’s Hay Harvest. The best of this booty was soon on its way to Germany, as were the Habsburg crown regalia from Vienna and the Bohemian crown jewels from Prague.

In many cases, the recipients were German museums and galleries, but there were two insatiable collectors who always got first choice. Adolf Hitler had been inspired by his triumph in Austria to promise the city of Linz, where he had gone to school, an art collection of world class, and he had authorized Hans Posse, the director of the Dresden Museum, to act as his curator, inspecting all accumulations of confiscated art and setting aside those items that would be suitable for the Linz center. Posse proved to be indefatigable, and by the end of his first year had collected an impressive number of 475 paintings, snatching some of them out of the greedy fingers of Hermann Goering. Goering was also a collector on the grand scale, who used his authority as director of the Four-Year Plan to claim art objects in the national economic interest, many of which ended up in his private collection at Carinhall, fifty miles from Berlin.

The Polish campaign of 1939 illustrates the degree to which lust for artistic acquisition had become a factor in German military planning. Hilter was resolved to exterminate the Polish people and their culture (Otto Abetz recalled later that the Führer read a book about Genghis Khan during the fighting), and observers were astonished by the ferocity with which Polish monuments, like the monastery that contained the miraculous picture of Our Lady of Czestochova, were bombed. But SS units accompanying the invading troops were supplied with detailed information about the location of works of art, and, if they narrowly missed capturing the Jagellonian tapestries, this was not true of the famous altar by Veit Stoss in Cracow, which was shipped off to Berlin, and the marvelous Czartoryski collections at Sienawa, whose coins and relics, Limoges enamels, and engravings by Dürer and Lucas van Leyden, suffered a similar fate. The same system was employed during the invasion of the Soviet Union, where the famous Amber Room panels of Catherine the Great’s palace at Pushkin were seized and sent to Königsberg (and have never been recovered). Kharkov and Kiev lost their rarest collections, and the pillaging went on even during the retreat of 1944–1945.

During their occupation of the Low Countries and France, the Germans did not feel compelled to repeat the kind of exploitation practiced in the east. It was felt that in time, Holland, Flanders, and Luxemburg could be integrated in a Nordic Reich, but that France should be allowed to maintain the distinctive aspects of its own culture, which, after all, its invaders could enjoy. Nicholas writes:

There was no need for the conqueror to take away the national collections of these new “provinces”; the Thousand-Year Reich now owned them. Come the peace treaty the government-run museums would automatically fall under the control of the German Ministry of Culture, and their collections could be redistributed as indicated by the researches of German art historians. In the meantime, it was in the interest of the Reich to monitor and help preserve these collections. The newly established Nazi museums would continue to be augmented by confiscations of the property of “enemy aliens” (who eventually included all Jews no matter what their nationality) and by a purchasing program of gigantic proportions, fueled by the unlimited funds now available to the Germans from the economies of their victims.

There was, Nicholas adds, a certain mad grandeur about this scheme, and, of course, it was a long time before it became clear that it wasn’t going to work. Meanwhile, occupied France became the center of unprecedented speculation in art, in which a new generation of French dealers, replacing the Jewish ones, whose holdings were confiscated, collaborated happily with their new masters. As the confiscated works poured in, the question of how they were to be controlled and by whom caused acrimonious disputes between the Wehrmacht, the German embassy, and other agencies, but in the end authority was vested by Hitler in the ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, whose Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), was entitled to “transport to Germany cultural goods which appear valuable to him and safeguard them there.” Until such time as that happened, they piled up in the small museum called the Jeu de Paumes, whose curator, Rose Valland, it was later discovered, was a member of the French resistance and kept a record of all transactions there, particularly where the shipments to Germany were going.

Periodically, Posse’s agents would arrive to see that the Führer’s plans for Linz were being protected, and Goering was a frequent visitor, on one occasion carting away twenty-seven paintings, including Rembrandt’s Boy With a Red Beret and a Van Dyck Portrait of a Lady as well as other masterpieces from the collections of Edouard de Rothschild and Georges Wildenstein. Money was no object, and as this became obvious the Germans were besieged by members of the French upper classes, eager to get rid of family heirlooms for cash. Meanwhile, objects of art continued to travel as never before. Hans Frank, the brutal governor general of Poland, ordered carloads of them from Paris for refurbishing his castle in Cracow, and French dealers opened a lively market in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Havana for artifacts rejected by the ERR.

These boom times were not, of course, to last. The tide of war shifted against the Germans at the end of 1942, and pretty soon they began to be concerned about the security of their own treasures and those that they had stolen. The ERR hoard went off to Neuschwanstein, Ludwig of Bavaria’s elaborate castle outside Munich; the curators of the Linz collection began to look for a dry cave with even temperature; and Hermann Goering found it necessary to consider which of the treasures of Carinhall should be buried and which taken to a new refuge in southern Germany.

Meanwhile, in the United States, once it became clear that its armies would sooner or later invade Europe, academics and museum directors and technicians began to raise questions about what responsibility they should assume for the protection of objects of art in their operational areas. In June 1942, when the Army decided to set up a small military government division in the office of the provost marshal general and a school of military government in Charlottesville, Virginia, the academicians immediately pròposed that the curriculum include instruction in the safeguarding of monuments and works of art. Out of this proposal came, after much delay and hesitation and many false turns, the institution of the Monuments officer, whose duty it was to accompany frontline units as they entered Europe and do what he could to protect things of beauty and historical importance from the casual violence of war.

The Monuments officers are clearly Nicholas’s favorite characters in this long book, and she describes their achievements with warmth and admiration. To have expected them to accomplish much seemed unreasonable, for their very existence flew in the face of Anglo-American military tradition, which was opposed to having civilians interfering in operations. Yet it was clear enough after the landings in Sicily and Naples that there was need of them, if only because of the natural exuberance of troops fresh from the front, who, entering a town museum and finding a valuable collection of stuffed birds, were likely to use them to decorate their jeeps. One such soldier in France explained, “If right after the battle you came into a beautiful room in a château, you had to shoot the chandeliers.” The Monuments officers had a chance of controlling such situations because they knew what things should immediately be put out of bounds to troops. James Rorimer, on leave from New York’s Metropolitan Museum, was able to prove this in August 1944, when, shortly after the breakout in Normandy, he discovered that Mont-Saint-Michel, that unique monument to medieval Christian culture, was filled with drunk American soldiers driving jeeps down the narrow and steeply stepped streets. With the aid of the mayor, Rorimer was able—Nicholas writes—“to secure the abbey, post guards on its battlements, ban the jeeps, and forbid the sale of liquor in the town.”

Nor were their services limited to this kind of policing. During the Italian campaign, an Italo-American team led by Monuments officer Deane Keller came to Pisa, the target of a heavy bombardment centered on the Leaning Tower, which the Allied Command had probably thought was being used as a German observation point. The Tower had survived, but the Campo Santo, the ancient cemetery built, according to tradition, on earth brought from the Holy Land in the thirteenth century and surrounded by delicate Gothic galleries decorated with frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli and other artists, lay in a twisted, fire-blackened heap. To save the Campo seemed wholly impossible, but Keller and General Hume, the highest-ranking civil affairs officer, mobilized fresco specialists from Florence, Italian soldiers directed by American engineers to lift sheets of lead that had fallen from the walls and to raise a shelter, and teams to collect fragments. In the end the effort succeeded and the Campo can be visited today.

There were always too few Monuments officers for the tasks that needed their expert knowledge, and their efforts were not always understood or appreciated by the Army bureaucracy. Before American troops entered Germany, the Monuments officers had been accumulating information—from the reports, for example, of Rose Valland—about where the great repositories of looted art might lie. Yet as Patton’s Third Army headed toward the greatest concentration of these, in southern Germany, headquarters staff suggested that Monuments officer Robert Pusey’s presence was unnecessary and that he be relieved. Later, when Calvin Hathaway followed a tip and discovered that an important part of the collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna was hidden at Sankt Johann in the Tirol, and when he sought assistance in retrieving it from the American Forty-Second Division’s intelligence officer in Kitzbühel, he had first to listen to a little “lecture on the triviality and unimportance of works of art” from the commanding officer.

Despite this obstructionism, the work of the Monuments officers was invaluable. They led the way to Neuschwanstein, stuffed to the roof with plunder from France, and opened the cave at Alt Aussee in the mountains southeast of Salzburg, where the Ghent altarpiece and the Bruges Madonna and other treasures that Hilter and Posse had designated for Linz had ended up. Apart from these great moments, Nicholas writes:

They travelled incessantly and usually alone. In the course of these peregrinations they gradually discovered more than two thousand caches in everything from castles to cowsheds, in which were hidden, often with great ingenuity, not only superb works of art but the records and artifacts of the maddest Nazi undertakings and most hideous experiments.

Their opposite numbers in the Red Army were no less industrious and discovered hiding places on a trail that ran from the Baltic states and Poland to Berlin and Dresden. “Their initial impetus,” Nicholas writes, “had been to retrieve their own things, but the extraordinarily nasty and thorough destruction the Germans had left behind encouraged the removal of whatever came to hand.” Thus Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, Titian’s Lady in White, and other treasures of the Dresden Museum, which were found in a quarry tunnel in the Saxon village of Grosscotta, found their way to Moscow, where the Pergamon Altar had preceded them, and were not, as Nicholas notes, seen by anyone in the West “for quite a while.”

In 1955, two years after Stalin died, the Soviet leaders decided to return the Dresden paintings to Germany, “for the purpose of strengthening and furthering the progress of friendship between the Soviet and German peoples” and to indicate Soviet satisfaction with the policies of the government of the GDR; and in 1957, following the GDR’s collaboration in the suppression of the Hungarian revolt, the Pergamon Altar and other antique sculptures were returned to Berlin. 1 But this was done reluctantly, and there was strong resistance among Soviet art historians and museum directors to a continuation of the policy of restitution, many arguing that confiscation of art objects was just reparation for destruction caused by the war.

No attempt was made by the Soviets to return private collections that had been seized, about which an official silence was maintained, leading to the assumption abroad that many well-known masterpieces had been destroyed during the course of the war. Thus there was a sensation this October when the director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg announced that the museum was holding more than seventy works of such artists as Cézanne, Daumier, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and van Gogh, all seized from private collections in Germany and taken to the Soviet Union after the war.2 These works were to be shown in the Hermitage in March 1995, but the question of returning them to Germany was, the director said, “a legal [one] to be debated in court,” and permission for any art treasures to leave the country would have to come from the Russian government.

During the last years of the war, the Russian teams would probably have found many other repositories of art in the salt-mine region of Thuringia, which was part of the Soviet zone of occupation but had been penetrated by US troops. Western Monuments officers, however, got there first and, backed by an Eisenhower order, arranged for the removal of the treasures as the American forces withdrew to their own zone.

Perhaps the Monuments officers’ finest hour came after the war was over. At that time, the United States was the custodian of millions of works of art, a responsibility that weighed heavily upon the shoulders of General Lucius D. Clay, the commander of the the American zone in Germany, and of which he wished prayerfully to be relieved. Clay proposed that all art that had been taken from countries overrun by Germany or from private individuals in those countries should be returned to their sources of origin as quickly as possible. As for works of art that had been placed in the United States zone by Germany for safekeeping and that were the bona fide property of the German nation, Clay suggested that they might be sent to the United States to be “inventoried, identified and cared for by our leading museums.” They might also, he added, be “placed on exhibit in the United States, but…an announcement [should] be made to the public, to include the German people, that these works of art will be held in trusteeship for return to the German nation when it has re-earned its right to be considered as a nation.”

This idea won approval at the highest levels of the United States government, but as it made its way from agency to agency the idea of trusteeship became more indistinct than it was even in Clay’s memorandum, and the idea surfaced that not all of the items might be returned, since it would be legitimate to consider art an appropriate object of reparations. This proposal commended itself particularly to Edwin Pauley, a member of the Allied Commission on Reparations, who may have been influenced by the views of its Soviet members, and William Clayton, assistant secretary of state for Economic Affairs, as well as to several eminent museum directors in the United States.

These ideas, coming at the end of a period in which, in Nicholas’s words, “works of art had been moved about on such a large scale, pawns in the cynical and desperate games of ideology, greed, and survival,” appalled the Monuments officers when they heard about them. Several of them submitted their resignations forthwith. James Plaut of the OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit wrote that the planned action differed in no significant way from the behavior of the Nazis and cited ERR reports that justified their “safeguarding” activities in language almost identical to that being used in Washington. Twenty-five officers signed an eloquent protest that came to be called the Wiesbaden Manifesto, which declared in part:

We wish to state that from our own knowledge, no historical grievance will rankle so long, or be the cause of so much justified bitterness, as the removal, for any reason, of a part of the heritage of any nation, even if that heritage may be interpreted as a prize of war.

The manifesto was meant as an internal protest and was not circulated. But the officers made no attempt to conceal their unhappiness, and it wasn’t long before Janet Flanner, in an article on the ERR in The New Yorker, wrote that people in liberated Europe were shocked by the callousness of the American project. This and other leaks caused a considerable amount of public discussion and much backing and filling in Washington, and the reparations idea was quietly dropped. In the end, 202 paintings, all but two from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, including five van Eycks, five Botticellis, four Dürers, a Bosch, several Breughels, two Vermeers, a Giorgione, eight Masaccios, three Memlings, fifteen Rembrandts, four Titians, a Velázquez, a Georges de la Tour, and two van der Weydens, traveled to the United States and were displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington to enthusiastic and oversized crowds, after which the more delicate works were sent back to Germany, while a selection of the others made a stately procession around the United States, stopping in all the major cities, except those of the Deep South, where climatic conditions were adverse to their health. They were all safely back in Germany by May 1949, although it was not for another five years that they returned home to Berlin.

There has always been a certain tolerance for the propensity of combat soldiers to relieve the rigors of war by looking for souvenirs, very loosely defined. Rudyard Kipling once wrote some verses on the subject, the point of which was that there was a profound difference between civilian and frontline morals on the question of loot. On this question, Kenneth Alford is concerned less about the conduct of combat soldiers than he is about that of the Army of occupation in Germany after the war, and he finds no palliation for its behavior. He writes at the outset:

After thirteen years of meticulous research, I have uncovered the truth that the US Army, after defeating the German Army, proceeded to pillage the German nation. Enlisted men, officers, WAACs, and nurses united in a festive treasure hunt that began in the ruined, deserted city of Aachen and ranged across Germany into Austria and Czechoslovakia. Looting was so widespread that it was regarded as soldierly sport…. The army made it easy…[It] permitted personnel to send home captured enemy equipment provided that there was no “military need” for it. Technically, soldiers were forbidden to mail home items taken from German homes and public buildings. The ruling was admirable but rarely enforced…. Enlisted men, officers and nurses mailed home complete sets of silver and china, vases, linen, paintings, ornaments, jewelry, clocks and watches, crystalware, bedding, toys, books, and an incredible assortment of household bric-a-brac.

In seeking to elaborate on these blanket charges and to give examples of how the system worked, Alford is handicapped by an awkward style, a failure to organize his book in a way that will help his readers to follow his argument, and an unfortunate tendency to resort, when his argument fails, to innuendo and loaded questions (“Who got to C.J. Merrill in covering Robinson’s backside?” “Who was…responsible in 1965 for the destruction of the 110,000 investigative files of the CID?”). He also piles up facts until they destroy the momentum of his story, and it is difficult to understand his footnotes, or sometimes to find one when one needs it.

Even so, Alford succeeds in demonstrating three things beyond any reasonable doubt. First, there was an extraordinary amount of petty thievery by otherwise respectable people who seemed to believe that their service abroad released them from normal legal restraints. Moreover, in the question of protecting recovered works of art, Juvenal’s question, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” was never more relevant. Soldiers posted outside repositories were not averse to letting friends “look around” provided they shared in the profits of such expeditions. Second, there seems to have been a remarkable degree of complacency about questionable behavior, no one really objecting when it was said, for example, of the 42nd (Rainbow) Division that its strategy was “one man fighting, two men looting, and three men painting rainbows,” but regarding this rather as a form of praise and covering up for the looters if they were caught and brought to trial. Third, cases of grand theft were by no means unusual.

Among the examples discussed by Alford is the case of the Hesse jewels, which were the property of Princess Margaret of Hesse, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and sister of Emperor William II, and her family. These had been placed in a sealed box and hidden in the sub-basement of Kronberg Castle near Frankfurt. When Patton’s Third Army reached the castle in April 1945, it was requisitioned as a headquarters and subsequently turned into an officers’ club and rest home. The jewels were found by a sergeant and were taken to the director of the rest home, an Army officer named Katherine Nash, who promised to turn them over to the proper authorities. She never did so and informed the Hesse family, when they inquired after them, that they had been stolen. Captain Nash returned to the United States before she could be examined by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, which had been apprised of the case, as did her lover and later husband, Colonel Durant, who was clearly involved. The CID blocked their demobilization, traced them to Chicago, where they were arrested and the jewels found in a locker in the railroad station. The Durants were then sent back to Germany, tried and found guilty, and sent to prison.

Trying to put the best face on things, the Army announced that the Hesse affair was “the greatest theft of modern times.” It does not, however, compare with another case described by Lynn Nicholas—the theft of the so-called Quedlinburg treasures from the church in which King Henry I of Saxony, sometimes called the founder of Germany, and his wife were supposedly buried. The treasures, which Nicholas describes as including reliquaries of rock crystal on gold stands, a silver casket set with ivory reliefs and precious stones, and the fabulous Samuhel Gospels, written in gold ink and bound in a gold cover set with jewels, were stolen by a lieutenant of the American 87th Field Artillery named Joe Tom Meador, who mailed them in small boxes to his home in Whitewright, Texas.

After his return home, Meador never tried to sell anything, but when he died in 1980 his brother and sister became interested in doing so, and their lawyer, having the Samuhel Gospels appraised in New York, was flabbergasted to learn that they might bring over $2 million. Normally, the fact that they were stolen would have prevented a sale, but the Germans were only too ready to be forgiving. In 1990, through a Bavarian agent, the German Cultural Foundation of the States bought the Gospel for $3 million, two thirds of which was paid to the Meadors on delivery, and subsequently, in collaboration with the German Ministry of the Interior, the foundation negotiated a settlement with them that brought them an additional $2,750,000 for the other objects in their possession.

The treasures then returned to the Quedlinburg Church, having demonstrated that their appraised value was greater than that of the Hesse jewels and that they had traveled even farther than the Jagellonian tapestries.

Sadly, not all of these wandering treasures have homes to return to. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris has just announced an exhibition of works by artists including Monet, Renoir, and Gauguin that were returned to France from East Germany after German reunification. In exhibiting them, the museum is hoping to discover their original owners.3

  1. 1

    Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov, “Spoils of War: the Soviet Union’s Hidden Art Treasures,” ART-news, Volume 90, No. 4 (April 1991). 

  2. 2

    John Russell, “Hermitage Reveals It Hid Troves of Impressionist Art,” The New York Times, October 4, 1994, p. 1. 

  3. 3

    Financial Times, October 17, 1994, p. 34.