Nazi Looted Art: What Happened Next?

Last time we talked about how the Nazi regime Aryanized property of Jewish citizens, stole art from museums, personal collections and art dealers. Now, what did they do with it? Some of it ended up in the collections of the Nazi elite such as Hitler’s at his Berghof retreat in Berchtesgaden, Goering’s at his Carinhall mansion in the forest northeast of Berlin and Eichmann’s at his personal home in Berlin.

It is hard to convey how much stolen art the Nazi regime possessed. One of the best examples would be that of Hermann Goering. Carinhall was named after his first wife, Carin, who was deceased and buried in the forest surrounding the estate. Goering, who was in command of the Luftwaffe, concerned himself mostly with his precious art collection and much less with the loss of eastern Germany to the Soviet Red Army. He returned to Carinhall in February 1945, just after the Soviet Red Army crossed the Oder River into Germany, to personally select what pieces of art would be saved and which would be left behind. What he chose to take filled his two personal trains and an extra eleven boxcars! Items that were to heavy to be moved, such as statuary were buried on the grounds of Carinhall, and on his orders rigged with explosives. He would rather blow up Carinhall and the remaining art, than allow it to fall into the hands of the Soviet Red Army.

Monuments Men

New Players in the Game

In 1943 Allied forces founded the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives program, commonly known as the MFAA. However, we mostly know them by the shortened name of Monuments Men. This was a group of 345 men and women from thirteen different countries, mostly volunteers, whose mission was to save and protect as many monuments, art works, statues and libraries as possible during a war. They came from some of the world’s most prestigious museums and universities, and they came to save the culture of Europe from being destroyed.

Monte Cassino Monastery before and after bombing.

During the winter of 1943-1944 there was a stale mate between the Allied forces and German army in the town of Monte Cassino in southern Italy. The battle circled around the mountain that the city and the monastery sat upon. The Germans held the higher ground and each Allied advance, cost more and more lives of Allied soldiers. The soldiers wanted to destroy Monte Cassino, the people back home wanted it destroyed, but Allied commanders were hesitant, they weren’t sure that the Germans were actually entrenched in the monastery. The Australian, New Zealand, British and Indian commanders eventually won out and on February 15, 1944 Monte Cassino was under aerial bombardment. What made Monte Cassino special was its monastery. It was founded in 529 AD at the end of the Roman Empire by Saint Benedictine. It contained a library and abbey, along with the monastery, and it was all now rubble. As Allied troops and war correspondents cheered, German and Italian forces and press turned the tables. They said that if this was what could be expected of Allied forces, they were nothing less than barbarians, as was discovered a few days later with a massive Allied assault, the German army had respected the cultural heritage of the monastery and were never entrenched in it. A few days later, the first Monuments Man arrives at Monte Cassino to survey the damage.

Rose Valland

Monuments Men were sent to various European countries, they went in to talk with locals, with art historians, museum employees and local civil servants, to find out where the Germans were taking the art. The person who proved to be most invaluable was Rose Valland. Rose had worked at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris while the Nazi’s were “shopping”, while unaware to them, she cataloged the art, where it was taken and who it was taken from. It was her work that helped the Monuments Men locate Neuschwanstein Castle.

Racks of paintings in Altaussee.

Where Was the Art?

The Nazi’s hid the artwork, what was not in Nazi Elite collections, in many places through out the Reich. Neuschwanstein Castle itself contained one of the world’s largest privately-owned collections, that of the Rothschild family. The Rothschild Family were bankers, very wealthy bankers. The family had started banking in the 18-19th centuries, through Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812). A legacy that would be carried on by his five sons and their descendants, who established homes in Vienna, London, Paris, Naples and Frankfurt. Theirs was not only a collection of art, but of gold and silver. All found in Neuschwanstein Castle by the Monuments Men.

The Alps mountain range rise a mile above sea level along the German-Austrian border. High up in the Alps, is the small town of Altaussee, Austria, surrounded by rugged mountain peaks and crystal clear blue alpine lakes. And deep inside the mountain, is the Altaussee salt mine. The first ones to hide their art work in the mine were Austrian museums, but as the war drew closer into Germany and the Allied forces got ever closer to Berlin, Hitler decided to hide his collection (destined for his museum in Linz) there. The salt mine was safe from aerial bombardment because it was dug so deep in, horizontally, into the mountain. It also offered the best temperature control to keep the paintings from growing mold on them and armor could be protected with a thin coat of oil or gelatin.

Schloss Immendorf Castle located high in the mountains northwest of Vienna was owned by Baron Rudolf Freudenthal, an officer in the Wehrmacht. In the spring of 1943, Nazi looted art arrived. Johannes, the Baron’s youngest son watched as men in black suits arrived and their workmen hauled crates up the spiral stairs into the attic. Some of the crates were so heavy that the workman had to create a pulley system to get the crates up the stairs. The young boy watched in amazement as the workmen struggled with a large rolled tapestry up the spiral staircase. As the boy and his siblings played among the art, his father told him that it was not a toy. The boy had been playing next to Gustav Klimt’s Golden Apple Tree.

There were many other places the Nazi’s hid the art, including the monastery in Gaming, the Schoenborn Castle and the Weinern Castle.

Nero Decree

March 19, 1945 from his bunker in Berlin Adolf Hitler issued his “Nero Decree”. In this order he directs that ALL military transportation, communication, industrial and food-supply facilities are to be destroyed. He orders the military, Gauleiters, and defense commissioners to carry out these orders at once. And any contrary orders are invalid.

His most fervent followers believe that this includes the art hidden throughout Germany and Austria. Historians have been debating on whether or not the Nero Decree included the troves of art that had been amassed in Germany and Austria. The last document Hitler signed, his will as dictated to his private secretary Traudl Jung just hours before his suicide, the amassed art was left to the German state. So, that does allow the argument that Hitler never meant to destroy the art.

The Race is on!

Once the Nero Decree went out and was found by the Allied forces, it was a race to find the stashes of art across Germany and Austria. The Monuments Men, who did not have their own assigned vehicles, radios, or cameras issued by the military, became creative in commandeering left over German vehicles and supplies. They were aware that Altaussee and Neuschwanstein Castle held an almost immeasurable amount of Europe’s culture in them, but they had to get to them first for two reasons: 1. They didn’t want the Soviet army to get there first as the Soviet army was keeping anything they found as reparations for what the German military had enacted upon on the Eastern Front and at Stalingrad, 2. They were afraid that Hitler’s last fervent followers would destroy the art work by blowing up the mines and castles.

Sadly, though they did not get to the Schloss Immendorf in time.   April 29, 1945 Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. As word spread throughout Germany and Austria of his death, SS soldiers became nervous. Their superiors had either fled or surrendered, and they were left to wonder what would happen to them once their crimes for their Furhrer came to the light of day. Inside the Schloss Immendorf, SS units began an all-night party/orgy. Police reports show that the cook had run screaming from the castle, the Baron himself had fled and taken his children, leaving his beloved ancestral home to the SS units inside. In the early morning hours, the SS units began to leave the castle, however one SS office returned on a bicycle. He went inside the castle, came back outside, mounted the bicycle and rode away. As he departed locals reported hearing massive explosions. The townspeople tried, in vain, to save the castle. However, fire quickly ate through it and explosions caused a rain of massive stone boulders upon the onlookers. All they could do was watch it turn to rubble.

Immendorf had contained a large collection of Gustav Klimt paintings (fifteen), such as the Faculty Paintings that had gotten him expelled from school for showing pregnant women, his painting depicting Schubert at the piano, his portrait of Valerie Neuzil who died of scarlet fever in WWI as a nurse, Girl Friends– his painting showing two women in love and Music II– his painting of a lute strumming maiden, were all gone. Now, nothing but ash, along with countless untold pieces of sculpture and art.

In Altaussee it was a different story. When the Allied troops arrived, along with them the Monuments Men, they found the salt mine already caved in. The big surprise came when they discovered it was the miners who blew the entrance and not the Germans! Augustus Eigruber was an ardent supporter of Hitler and he was determined to carry out the Nero Decree on the Altaussee salt mine. However, he worked with a Dr. Emmerich Pochmuller, who was determined to save it. Pochmuller raced between Altaussee and Linz trying to find anyone who could override the Nero Decree, he knew that Eigruber was such a fervent follower that it would have to be someone above him who issued the order. When Pochmuller saw Martin Bormann, Martin confirmed that Hitler was adamant that the art collection should not fall into enemy hands. Blocked everywhere he turned, Pochmuller reached out to Otto Hogler, the mines engineer. They both knew that Eigruber had hidden crates of explosives in the cave marked as “marble”, and that it would not take much for the Wehrmacht to set the timers for the explosives. So, Pochmuller and Hogler contacted some of the miners and they determined to set charges that would block the entrance but not cave in the mine! Genius! When the Allies dug out the rubble, they found that the tunnels were still in perfect order and that they could save the treasures stored within.

I hope you enjoyed learning more about Nazi Looted art and I look forward to meeting with you once more on Nazi Looted art. In the next blog, we will discover what happened to the art the Allies found. And we will look at some of the cases of art restitution that have made the headlines over the years. See you next week!

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