Human history for the artsy crowd

Monday Book Review

October 10, 1994|By Geoffrey W. Fielding

THE RAPE OF EUROPA. By Lynn H. Nicholas. Alfred A. Knopf. 498 pages. Illustrated. Index. $27.50.

NEVER IN human history was a country as rapacious as Nazi Germany in looting works of art.

As it moved into surrounding countries, under one pretext or another -- Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland, Belgium, France and eventually Italy, the Germans systematically combed through the great art collections, both public and private.

From them they looted thousands of paintings, prints, master drawings, sculptures, jewels, pieces of furniture, tapestries -- anything that would foster the myth of the master race. They had copious records of collections and also kept copious records of their spoils which, after the Nazi defeat helped return most of the stolen goods back to their rightful owners.

"Never had works of art been so important to a political movement," writes Lynn H. Nicholas, in "The Rape of Europa," her comprehensive account of the rise and fall of the Nazi art rapacity, "and never had they been moved about on such a vast scale."

As each country fell to the Nazi onslaught, German experts moved in to cull the collections.

First dibs went to Adolf Hitler and his agent, Hans Posse, whom Ms. Nicholas calls Hitler's grand acquisitor. He collected for the Fuhrer's personal hoard, which eventually was to become a grand museum in the Austrian city of Linz, Hitler's birthplace. This city on the Danube, once rebuilt when the war ended, would be one of four "ceremonial cities" of Germany.

Next in line was Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. Long before war started, the fat former fighter pilot had indulged his taste for the ostentatious in his country house, Carinhall. This was gradually enlarged from a hunting lodge to "Versailles-like proportions" to accommodate trainload after trainload of Rubens, Rembrandts, Cranachs and others, plus tapestries, furniture, jewelry, you name it, shipped in.

"It would be difficult to find an uglier building or one more intrinsically vulgar in its ostentatious display," wrote Sumner Welles, special envoy to President Roosevelt, who visited Germany early in 1940.

In third place was Heinrich Himmler, head of the S.S., which had an art branch, the Ahnenerbe (ancestral heritage), to sponsor archeological research which aimed to confirm early and glorious German cultures. It looked for art which, in a latter-day phrase, was "politically correct." It also condemned "false art" and what Hitler called "unfinished works," and often ordered them destroyed.

The loot was stashed all over Germany, in salt mines, walled up in castles, in stables and barns. The real story Ms. Nicholas tells ,, is how these treasures were tracked down by the Allied Commission on Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives. Members of this group, the Monuments men, stayed close behind the front lines, and sometimes ahead of them, to find and guard the hoards from looting, among other things, as they were liberated.

Prominent among the Monuments men were Charles (Chuck) Parkhurst, later director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Marvin C. Ross, curator of Medieval and Subsequent Decorative Art at the Walters Art Gallery and author of "The West of Alfred Jacob Miller." Marvin C. Ross was noted for speaking French to confuse a particularly obnoxious colleague.

Even today much is still missing, though some of it, for instance the gold "Treasure of Priam," unearthed in Troy by Heinrich Schliemann, is known to be in Russia. Much else is thought to be there.

This is a book for every lover of art or anyone who enjoys visiting museums. It enables one to more fully understand the utter depravity of the Nazi regime.

A correction: While it sounds dramatic, the passenger ship Simon Bolivar was not torpedoed "in the cold North Atlantic" with complete loss of life. She hit a mine in the North Sea and 260 of 400 passengers and crew were saved, including my schoolmate's family.

Geoffrey W. Fielding writes from Baltimore.

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