Adolf Hitler aspired to be a painter, and he became a tyrant. As a painter he was mediocre, but his understanding of art’s power was second to none. Hitler knew that conquering Europe would require more than war; it would call for a complete domination of the culture, especially its art and architecture.
The new documentary The Rape of Europa, based on the book by Lynn H. Nicholas and debuting next Monday on PBS, tells the story of one aspect of that domination: the systematic plunder of artwork from museums and galleries across Europe (but especially from the Jews). The remarkable achievement of this film is that it tells a story of mass theft that leaves you nearly as stunned and outraged as the well-known accounts of mass murder.
One human life, it is said, is more important than the Mona Lisa, but after seeing The Rape of Europa, you won’t lightly back into that dialectical corner. The two hours of footage and narration testify to the myriad ways that art and humanity are intertwined — that our identity, values, and historical memory are stored in the works of art we esteem and protect.
The French so loved the works in the Louvre that they completely emptied it in advance of the German occupation in May 1940. Thirty-seven convoys of eight trucks each took the entire collection to castles and estates all over France. Paintings were moved from place to place to avoid detection. Individual paintings like the Mona Lisa, as well as complete art collections, were assigned curators for the duration of the war. The art of the Louvre survived intact.
The great Hermitage museum in Leningrad sent one million of its treasures to Siberia, and the staff lived in its cellars during the long German siege of the city, prepared to fight hand-to-hand to defend the remaining collection.
Long before coming to Paris for his first visit, Hitler and the Gestapo, especially Hermann Goering, had been stealing whatever art they wanted from Jews in Germany and Austria. Every Nazi leader had an art collection. Some of the modern art was burned for being "decadent"; some went into Hitler’s and Goering’s vast private collections; others went to the new House of German Art built in Munich to the Fuhrer’s own specifications.
When Hitler wanted to decimate a people, he not only killed all he could, he also destroyed their museums and libraries. The video footage of Hitler’s blitzkrieg of Poland shows the deliberate razing and torching of Poland’s cultural treasures. Warsaw’s Royal Castle, the symbol of Polish identity, was plundered but not initially destroyed (the Italian allies protested): It was drilled with holes throughout, where sticks of dynamite were inserted and used to intimidate the populace into submission.
It didn’t work, and when the Poles attacked the German occupiers during the Warsaw Uprising, Hitler’s original order to destroy the castle was carried out. It took 30 years for the Poles to rebuild the structure out of the powdered rubble that remained after the war.
In Krakow, great care was taken to protect the famous altar at St. Mary’s Church, built over 19 years by sculptor Veit Stoss. When it was dismantled and shipped to Berlin, the Poles of Krakow complained that they "could not pray without it." But the Germans considered the altarpiece "German," and "all German art should be brought back to Germany."
Only one-tenth of what was taken from Poland was ever recovered.
More stolen property was returned to the Jews in France because of the heroism of Rose Valland. The Nazis housed their looted paintings at the Jeu de Palme, where Valland worked as a secretary. Not disclosing her knowledge of the German language, she secretly kept a diary cataloguing 16,000 paintings, their owners, and their original homes.
When they started losing the war, what the Nazis could not haul away they simply destroyed. Before leaving Florence, they blew up all the magnificent medieval bridges except the Ponte Vecchio. The bridge across the Arno where Dante first saw Beatrice, Ponte Santa Trinita, was reduced to a pile of stones. In their retreat out of the Soviet Union, German soldiers stripped and vandalized the country estates of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and even the Russian national poet Pushkin.
"I lost all my family memories," said one Jewish man who was detailed to the warehouse where he helped pack the 22,000 items, stolen from French Jews, for shipment to Germany from Paris. The only member of his family not sent to the camps, he saw his own family’s possessions arrive in the warehouse one day for transfer out of the country. Hoping not to be noticed, he grabbed a suitcase and filled it with photos only to leave it all behind when he escaped to freedom.
The great works of art, as well as the other property stolen by the Nazis, are still being returned to the descendants of their original owners. And as these grandchildren receive once-lost paintings into their hands, "life is created from art again."