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

August 3, 2009

My interest in Nazi art looting was piqued by the book I had recently read about Han van Meegeren, the Vermeer forger whose work fooled the world (and Hermann Goering)  in the 1930s and ’40s (see my review here).  I had already done some follow up by visiting the Jewish Museum’s exhibit of the art reclaimed by Jacques Goudstikker’s descendents (post about the exhibit here), but the exhibit just revealed how much more there was to know about the wide-scale looting and complicated repatriation process after the war.  This meticulously researched book was the answer to all my questions. I felt like I was back in school again because the level of detail provided was suitable for reference in an art history paper! Although  it was a bit dense and academic (hard to get through at times because of the amount of research), it was also very eye opening, and the amazing photographs really help illustrate the lengths the Nazis went to to hide the stolen works of art and just the sheer amount of art, antiques, furniture… even church bells (!) that were looted.

The author, Lynn H. Nicholas, worked for several years at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and spent ten years researching this book. Rather than only focus on the sensationalist issues surrounding the Nazi looting (the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, the Vermeer forgeries, the still missing Amber Room at Tsarskoye Selo), the author reveals lesser known stories about Torah scrolls, furniture and “degenerate” art . She also follows the epic work of the “monuments men” from the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program established in 1943 to assist in finding the art and then protecting and returning it.

A priest sorts through looted Torah scrolls.

The massive effort that was required from this small group of men and women is something you don’t typically hear about when you read about WWII. With very little support from the military (and sometimes outright defiance of their orders by military personnel), the monuments men traveled to distant villages all over Eastern Europe following even the tiniest of rumors to reveal the hiding places of the Nazis. Train tunnels, hidden vaults in castles even salt mines were used to store thousands of works of art, books, statues, church altars and the list goes on… With very little help they had to transport these priceless artifacts to a holding area (hard enough to find the art, but finding a central holding area in the post-war chaos for thousands of objects proved an even harder task!) and then work to properly identify and return the objects to their home country.

Before reading this book I had no idea of the scale of the looting or really that any of it had happened. But now that I’ve read this book, it almost seems like WWII was waged so that Hitler could establish his cherished museum to top all museums in his home town and stamp out all art that he deemed unworthy. It is mind boggling to realize that the Nazi effort extended far beyond ethnic cleansing to amassing the world’s largest collection of Western art — which makes me wonder how much art is being looted/destroyed today in the name of war that we don’t hear about (in that vein, there is a really good exhibit on treasures of Afghanistan from the National Museum in Kabul at the Metropolitan right now… but I’ll save that for another post).

Apparently, there is also a documentary based on the book that is very good. I would love to see it.

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