Monday, November 28, 2011

The Rape of Europa II - Recovery

Continuing the review of "The Rape of Europa" by Lynn Nicholson, describing the plunder of the cultural heritage of Europe by the Nazis during WWII and the attempts by the Allies to recover most of the treasures after the war.

While WWII was still in progress, both the British and Americans took extensive steps to protect their own artistic heritage. In Britain, warned by the depredations of the art of France by the Germans and in order to avoid the blitz on London, the British moved much of their museum and art inventories to castles in Wales and the north. Meanwhile in the US, the holdings of the museums of NYC and Washington were en route to the hinterland, to large houses in western Pennsylvania and further afield. Luckily the vast bulk of this materiel was protected and saved and returned in due course undamaged.

The US, aware of the danger to the treasures of Europe from their bombing, after much discussion established a group of experts who were assigned to each Army group, who would move with them once the invasion of Europe began. Because of the desire to protect monuments, these men were called "the Monuments Men." Their first attempt to produce maps with monuments shown on them was a failure, they were shipped to Italy and captured by the Germans, who had no idea what they were for and dumped them. The first test of the Monuments Men was in the invasion of Sicily, but so much went wrong there that it could only be called a learning experience under fire. For the most part the Germans stole and removed all valuable objects and destroyed much else, while the Americans and allies had little idea what they were supposed to be doing.

The first real test came in Italy, as the Allies gradually fought their way north and the Germans slowly gave way. In the chaos that ensued the movement and re-movement of the treasures of Rome and Florence in particular was like a dance without a choreographer. Some Germans tried their best to keep the treasures of Italy in Italy, while some, including the SS, tried as hard as they could to find their hiding places and transport them north. Much of the art of Rome ended up in the Vatican that was officially neutral, and much of the art of Florence ended up in minor stately homes and even in garages. It was a very mixed picture, often priceless treasures were strewn around with garbage and used for tables, but after all was said and done some 98% of the art of Florence was found intact. Almost all of it was returned amid great pomp to its owners, for which the Italian people were very grateful to the Allied forces.

The Allied invasion of France resulted in an even more chaotic situation. As the German Army retreated in France they sometimes destroyed everything, including burning down Chateaux filled with artworks, sometimes looted, and sometimes left things untouched. Similarly the advancing Allied soldiers were not averse to pilfering valuable artworks, which they shipped back home. As well as the Nazis in France moving their art spoils to the Fatherland, as the Russians approached from the East and the Americans and British from the West, within Germany artworks were moved and moved again, both away from the Russians and from the Americans. Much of it, including stolen objects from Jewish and other sources mixed in amongst them, were hidden in the salt mines in southern Germany and Austria, where the conditions of humidity and temperature were right for their storage. In addition, most of the Castles (Schloss) were completely full of stolen art works.

Because of the meticulous notes kept by Madame Valland of the Jeux de Paume gallery in Paris, the Monument Men had a list of German sites to which most of the art works had been shipped. One of them was the Neuschwanstein Schloss hoard containing the cream of French art including the impressionists and thousands of other paintings. In a vault behind a hidden steel door were boxes containing the stolen Rothschild jewelry and thousands of pieces of silver stolen from French Jewish collectors. The Monuments Men were able to post guards there to make sure none of it disappeared. In an adjoining room was a master list containing 20,000 entries each representing a stolen item. In another hoard they found the original compositions of Beethoven's symphonies. Tons of gold bars from the German national gold reserves and 400 tons of art from the Berlin museums was stashed In a salt mine. This required a major military convoy to take to a safe location in the rear.

According to the laws of war all this "loot" became the property of the US Government and could only be returned to other sovereign Governments, not directly to individuals. During the chaos of war so much had been looted, stolen and lost that to recover anything was considered a success. One French Jewish collector who survived the war in the US recovered 400 paintings out of 14,000 items that he had had in his collection. The art and culture of Europe had been dispersed and intermingled, yet much that was most important had miraculously survived intact.


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