THE GREAT TREASURE HUNT
The greatest art theft in human history was organized by the Nazis during World War II. The looting of occupied European countries by the Third Reich lasted until their defeat in 1945. Paintings, sculpture, jewelry, ceramics, and furniture were systematically seized and, in most cases, transported to Germany. Artistic creations were stolen from over 2,265 museums, libraries, and churches. About 20% of all of Europe’s fine art was looted by the Nazis. In Poland alone, the art stolen is estimated to have exceeded 20 billion dollars (and 40% of their total cultural art heritage).
During World War II, the Nazis set up special units organized for the “seizure and securing of objects of cultural value.” They operated primarily in Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Greece, and the Baltic region; but France and the Netherlands were also pillaged. Imperial residences, museums, churches, and private collections were plundered and their priceless art removed to be sent to Germany.
When the Allies started bombing German cities in 1943, the German government began to store the stolen art treasures in salt mines and caves in Bavaria (southern Germany) and Austria. These offered the necessary temperature and humidity for the art, as well as protection from the bombing.
The Nazi high command created a special task force called the “Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg” (designated as ERR) to document the system of looting in Europe by Adolf Hitler. The ERR was the primary agency employed in the theft of cultural treasures in Nazi-occupied countries. It was organized under Reich Leader Alfred Rosenberg and ordered by Hermann Goering to confiscate Jewish and Freemason art collections. This was later expanded to all important art. The ERR unit was of special interest to Hitler, who demanded that all confiscated works of art be brought to Germany and placed at his disposal.
The Nazis were meticulous record keepers. As the ERR staff supervised the looting, they photographed and cataloged every item. They created huge leather bound albums where which each page included the picture of a single significant stolen item. An inventory number was entered beneath each photo. It is believed that more than 100 albums were created. The albums served as a catalog from which Hitler could choose the art treasures he wanted for his grand museum, called the “Fuhrermuseum” in Linz, Austria. He planned for Linz to be his capital city for the arts. Rosenberg presented a few of the albums to Hitler on the Fuhrer’s birthday in 1943 to “send a ray of beauty and joy into his revered life.”
THE MONUMENTS MEN
In 1943, a group of cultural scholars, curators, and art historians from the U.S., France, Great Britain, and other Allied countries were organized to identify, rescue, and return the lost art masterpieces looted by the Nazi’s. They were called the “Monuments Men” and reported to the Strategic Services Art Looting Unit which was part of the Office of Military Government.
They wore their country’s military uniforms and arrived in France shortly after D-Day. There was no established precedent for what they were asked to do. While they were not trained for combat and were generally unarmed, they did face live fire. They also had to give orders to Allied combat troops in order to spare some treasures; such as where not to aim their artillery. The Monuments Men usually trailed behind the front line combat troops, but some teams actually worked behind enemy lines in a race against time to save priceless artwork. Other teams examined aerial surveillance photos and identified structures and monuments that should not be bombed.
Assisting the “Monuments Men” were members of the French resistance. One member, Rose Valland, volunteered at the French Musee Jeu de Paume in Paris. This was where the stolen art of France was consolidated for movement to Germany. Valland had ingratiated herself to the Nazis and unknown to them, she spied on their looting activities throughout the war. After the liberation of Paris, she shared her secret information with the Monuments Men.
Working with the U.S. Seventh Army in Bavaria, the Monuments Men teams were able to retrieve a huge cache of French artwork stored in tunnels under a castle at Neuschwanstein, Germany. They also discovered 39 of the original ERR Albums there. The ERR Albums had been stored there by the Germans along with records that documented their looting of tens of thousands of other items. The albums were used by the teams to assist in the restitution of the art treasures to their original owners.
In the closing days of the war, U.S. soldiers of the Seventh Army entered Hitler’s mountain home, the Berghof, in the Bavarian Alps. Over 1,000 painting and sculptures were found there. Many soldiers picked up items to prove that they had been inside the complex. Some experts think that missing ERR Albums may have found their way to America as souvenirs.
At the Nuremberg Trials, November 1945 to October 1946, the Allied victors decided to prosecute the Nazi defendants for the looting by using America’s “Lieber Code.” This code was part of an 1863 document prepared by Abraham Lincoln which dictated how Union Armies were to treat prisoners; it also insisted on humane treatment for populations in occupied areas. It is known as the first written code of law for times of war. Any excesses to the code were punishable by court martial.
The Allied Court used one provision that stated, “plunder of public or private property was a war crime.” The Nazi ERR Albums were used as evidence of the massive looting of occupied countries by Germany. The 39 known volumes of the ERR listed 21,903 looted works of art which included 5,281 paintings, 583 sculptures, 5,825 objects of decorative art, 259 art works of antiquity, and thousands of other pieces.
THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Today, the United States National Archives has custody of the original 39 ERR Albums. In 2007, two additional albums were found and donated to the Archives by the family of a soldier in the 989th Field Artillery Battalion who was temporarily assigned in the Berchtesgaden area near Berghof at the close of hostilities. He must have believed he was just picking up a souvenir, and his family had stored the albums away for 60 years without ever realizing their importance. A representative of the Archives said, “I hope discoveries such as these will encourage other veterans and their families to look in their attics and basements for any lost wartime items as they may hold clues to unravel this unsolved mystery.”
COMING UP NEXT
For those of you who think this little known story of the rescue of the masterpieces is as fascinating as we do, there is one more thing you should know. A short time ago, George Clooney announced that his next film will be based on the World War II search for these stolen art treasures. He will write, direct, and star in a big budget film about the “Monuments Men” and the French resistance. The film will be an adaptation of the 2009 book, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert Edsel. The film is in production now, and due to be released just before next Christmas.
Of the original 400 members of the Monuments Men, only 13 are still living.