The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War
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subject of Lynn Nicholas’s book, and she tells it with a mastery that is based on very extensive reading, research in unpublished materials in dozens of public and private collections in this country and in France, and more than thirty interviews and conversations.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.”