The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War 
by Lynn Nicholas.
Macmillan, 498 pp., £20, September 1994, 0 333 62652 4
Show More
Show More

Three episodes, three wars:

The Allied armies took possession of Tientsin and Peking and the adjoining districts. At first many of the soldiers of the composite body acted in a brutal and licentious way. Men, women and children were outraged and murdered and cities looted ... Some foreigners came to the captured districts for loot: a most disgraceful episode.

Samuel Cooling, Encyclopedia Sinica

Between their nocturnal duties as devils on the riverbank, the Japanese soldiers were employed by day for looting. According to sociologist Lewis Smythe, one of the American professors in Nanking, the pillage began as private enterprise. ‘Japanese soldiers,’ he wrote, ‘needed private carriers to help them struggle along under great loads.’

David Bergamini, Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy

We almost collided with some SS officers who were carting up silver and other loot from the basement. One had a gold-framed picture under his arm. One was the commandant. His arms were loaded with silver knives and forks, but he was not embarrassed.

William Shirer, Berlin Diary

The first episode, in 1901, concerns the behaviour of British, Russian, German and other allied troops, after the defeat of the Boxer rebellion in China. The second took place during the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1937. And the third, described by William Shirer, and quoted by Lynn Nicholas, is about the Germans in Vienna after the Anschluss in 1938.

It is probably right to conclude from these and many other examples that looting is as natural to human beings as raping and killing. In the state of nature, people show their strength by murdering, humiliating and defiling their enemies. Looting is not quite the same as stealing, for thieves prefer not to be noticed while they are at it. Looting is done openly, with the maximum amount of bluster – hence the SS man’s lack of embarrassment. Desire for the stolen goods is secondary: a show of force is what it is all about. You want to degrade the people you are stripping of their assets. In this sense, looting is like rape, and the two often go together, as the title of Lynn Nicholas’s book indicates. Atrocious behaviour can itself be the revenge of the humiliated, which is why of all wars ethnic and communal conflicts are the cruellest. The hatred of the rural Serb for the citizens of Sarajevo is well-known, as is the tension in American slums between African-Americans and Koreans.

Looting is often associated with anarchy. But since ancient times, when Roman generals would display their loot, as well as their conquered slaves, in victory parades, men have tried to justify their violent impulses by investing them with ceremony. Napoleon went further. ‘The unquestioned record-holder in the field of carrying off confiscated art’, as Lynn Nicholas points out, he not only showed off his loot to the public, but made the defeated sign treaties in which they agreed to their own despoliation. And so plunder appeared to have become a legal enterprise, precisely the opposite of the state of nature.

In her dense – sometimes exhaustingly dense – but always fascinating narrative Nicholas describes how the Nazis took a leaf from Napoleon’s book. In Holland and France, for example, they not only kept careful records of their dubious transactions, but often paid for the things they wanted. Sometimes, as in the case of fake Vermeers sold to Goering, they paid too much. Jewish property, however, was another matter, for Jews were outside the law and could be plundered without scruples. But even Germans could not turn straight robbery into an entirely neat and efficient enterprise. As Nicholas observes, ‘several non-Jewish collections belonging to people with suspicious names had to be returned with sheepish letters of apology.’

The American art historian Lane Faison, who served as an officer in the OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit, described Nazi looting as unique because of the peculiar ideology the Germans used to justify their plunder. It was, he wrote, ‘officially planned and expertly carried out ... to enhance the cultural prestige of the Master Race’. Not only did Hitler, Goering et al build up enormous private collections, but they planned for a complete re-ordering of patrimonies (as well as peoples) in Europe. Berlin, Nuremberg, Munich and Linz were to become ‘ceremonial cities’. Linz, where Hitler grew up, was to be a ‘German Budapest’, with a new museum that would be a showcase for German and other (racially kosher) European art.

Works deemed (not always without reason) to be part of the German patrimony, including pieces taken by Napoleon, were to be repatriated. In the case of Jewish property, the justification for taking it ‘back’ to Germany was unsurprisingly vicious. Nicholas quotes a document written by Gerhard Utikal, the chief of Alfred Rosenberg’s organisation for plunder, ERR. According to Utikal, the greedy Jews had prevented the Germans from ‘having their proper share of the economic and cultural goods of the Universe’. And it was only right that the Reich should ‘safeguard’ those goods, in compensation for its heroic battle against Jewry on Europe’s behalf. Besides, most of the Jews in France had come from Germany in the first place.

Alfred Rosenberg probably believed this. He was obsessed with roots. The ERR was to serve his anti-semitic research project. Himmler had similar intellectual interests, and officers of his pet institution SS Ahneerbe, or Ancestral Heritage, went digging for Germanic roots in collections and libraries all over Europe. In their zeal to ‘Germanise’ Poland they called any fine works of art that were neither ‘degenerate’ nor Jewish ‘Germanic’, and shipped them to German museums. The same happened later in the Soviet Union. One of Himmler’s Heritage officers, named Kraut, wanted the 12th-century bronze doors of a cathedral in Novgorod transferred to Germany, because they might have been made by an artist from Magdeburg. As it happened, the Red Army got there first. The magnificent walls of the Amber Room, in the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, were dismantled and sent to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, whence they disappeared at the end of the war, never to be seen again).

The crudeness of German methods in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was remarkable compared to their apparent fastidiousness in Western European countries. And I’m only talking about Kultur here, not mass murder. The self-appointed members of the master race made themselves at home by turning Polish palaces into beer halls – often after stuffing their pockets with treasure. Governor-General Hans Frank toured the ruins of the Royal Palace in Warsaw and casually tore silver eagles off the canopy over a throne. Meanwhile Frau Frank went slumming in the Warsaw ghetto to pick up furs and other nicknacks.

Even though Hans Frank is said to have played Chopin like an angel, one would expect crude behaviour from one of Hitler’s top henchmen. More disgusting, in a way, was the role played by German art historians, who took the opportunity to indulge in some asset-stripping of their own. In the name of Ostforschung, research into the Germanic roots of Eastern European cultures, German scholars not only offered intellectual justification for confiscating Polish and Russian property: they had libraries, research notes and art works transferred to their own universities and institutes. Their behaviour resulted from the same ethical blindness as that of medical doctors who used concentration camps as their private labs. There was no need for scruples when science, or more often pseudo-science, was involved.

If the search for roots was one justification for re-ordering the patrimonies of Europe, concern for preservation was another. Here we come to an argument which still has a familiar ring, especially in a country that once owned half the world. After the panels of the Amber Room had been sent off to Königsberg, the Frankfurter Zeitung announced that this priceless acquisition ‘saved by German soldiers from the destroyed palace of Catherine the Great is now on exhibition’. The despoliation of Poland and Russia by the Nazis is not comparable to Lord Elgin’s endeavours in Athens. But the reason Elgin gave for removing chunks of the Parthenon (with Turkish permission) was similar to the one quoted above: he wanted to save the marbles from being destroyed by Turkish and Greek soldiers. The Germans were saving the panels from their own soldiers.

In the event, an astonishing amount of art was saved. Lynn Nicholas does not labour this point, but her descriptions of the va-et-vient of European art show that human lives were a great deal cheaper than paintings. In brutal market terms this was of course a fact: few people are ‘worth’ a single Rembrandt. More effort went into preserving artistic patrimonies than people. Some of the most moving passages in Nicholas’s book concern the heroic deeds of curators, volunteers, even soldiers, who tried to avoid the worst. During the Spanish Civil War, the Prado collection was evacuated by an international committee, co-operating with the League of Nations, and backed by private money raised from collectors in Europe and America. Surrounded by German troops and subjected to constant bombardment, the staff of the Hermitage in Leningrad worked day and night to send almost half the museum’s collection by train to Siberia. The director wept as he saw it go. Fantastic efforts were made by both Germans and Allies to save Italian art collections during the fierce military campaigns in 1944. It is well to remember that the RAF thought it was too much trouble to bomb the railway line to Auschwitz.

The Rape of Europa, then, is a story of barbarism, opportunism, fanaticism and heroism. The opportunists were not just the German scholars, digging for roots, but also the dealers in Germany, the occupied countries and the United States. The first years of the German occupation of Holland and France were boom times for art. The Germans were rich and rapacious and the market was flooded by works that had to be sold in a hurry, had been left behind, or stolen. The Hôtel Drouot in Paris sold more than a million objects in the 1941-2 season. Black marketeers, dealers of all nationalities, anonymous French collectors, all wanted a piece of the action. Goering came to Paris and bought truck loads of paintings and sculpture. So did Hans Frank, Albert Speer and Hitler himself. The art market in New York, too, was boosted by European exiles. Nicholas writes that in 1941 Parke-Bernet announced ‘the best season in 12 years, up 54 per cent over the year before’.

Not all those who sold art to the Nazis were simply venal or opportunistic. There were Jewish dealers, such as the Dutchman Nathan Katz, who secured visas to Spain for himself and his family in exchange for selling paintings to Hans Posse, the buyer for the new museum in Linz. But many dealers in Paris and Amsterdam did very well indeed out of the war. The worst of them were not so much looters, as fences. Few, if any, were inspired by Nazi ideology. After all, the idea of patrimony does not fit in easily with the interests of dealers: a Dürer or a Cranach does not belong to Germany, it belongs to the highest bidder – and the highest bidders, between 1940 and 1945, happened to be Germans.

The art business in Europe continued to do well after the war. Nicholas writes that the director of the Tate, John Rothenstein, rushed to Paris with Kenneth Clark in 1944, expecting to find impoverished French collectors and dealers eager to sell pictures at bargain prices. Instead they found (in Clark’s words) ‘a sense of prosperity and social gaiety, which made London seem very drab ... The Germans were the best customers the dealers had ever had. When I visited the dealers I knew, including the Jews, I was laughed at.’

None of this is surprising. Soldiers loot, fanatics do immeasurable harm, the persecuted try to survive and businessmen seek to make a profit. But this is only half the story of Nicholas’s book. The other half is about the way the Allies, especially the Americans, tried to clean up the mess the Germans left behind. This is where the heroes come in. Nicholas ends her book with a tribute to the ‘Monument men’ of many nations, who managed, ‘against overwhelming odds’, to track down and save from harm much of the art that was looted, sold, hidden or damaged in the course of the war. Men such as George Stout and James Rorimer had to deal not only with the indifference to art of the Allied officers, and the antagonism and bloody-mindedness of the Germans: there were the practical and logistical problems of working in the heat and chaos of battle.

There were heroes on the German side too. If General Dietrich von Choltitz had not defied his Führer’s orders, Paris would have been blown to pieces. And the Kunstschutz, a German army organisation for the protection of art and monuments, tried until the end to control ‘the destructive and acquisitive instincts of troops made vicious by the new experience of defeat’. Germans soldiers had already shown how much damage they could do during their Blitzkrieg in Eastern Europe. In retreat, they could be even worse. In the autumn of 1943, German soldiers were so enraged by Partisan resistance in Italy that they deliberately torched libraries and museums.

The Allied troops weren’t angels. One US soldier, who took part in the Battle of the Bulge, is quoted as saying: ‘If right after the battle you came into a beautiful room in a château, you had to shoot the chandeliers.’ In Naples, Allied troops looted the zoology section of the university, and drove around the city in jeeps ‘decorated with hundreds of fabulously coloured stuffed toucans, parrots, eagles and even ostriches’. In Aachen, Allied soldiers picked up property that spilled out of bombed houses. One GI galloped by on a horse, ‘bedecked with the complete feathered regalia of an Indian chief’.

German propaganda made the most of such episodes. Goebbels shrieked about ‘the enemy looting our stores of gold’ when General Patton’s troops were approaching a hiding-place in Thuringia. ‘Our stores of gold’ included fillings wrenched from the teeth of Jews. Even if they were not quite so perverse as Goebbels, other Germans, who spent a profitable war stripping people of their property, had excuses ready: they were ‘protecting’ Polish art; they were trying to keep collections together, and so on. The problem for the allied Monument men, was that it wasn’t always clear where the border lay between plunder and the market place. It was decided that all property ‘taken to Germany during the occupation would be presumed to have been transferred under duress and accordingly treated as looted property’.

And yet, as Nicholas shows, there were plenty of grey areas. Take, for example, the Lvov Dürers. As a rule, looted art works whose original owners were no longer alive to claim them, were returned to the countries of origin. In 1941, 27 drawings by Dürer were confiscated from the Lvov Museum and given to Hitler, who kept them by his side. Hitler thought this was only right, since Dürer’s work belonged to Germany, and these drawings had been taken from Vienna in the early 1800s by Napoleon’s chief confiscator. The problem was, however, that Lvov was no longer in Poland, after the Soviets replaced the Germans, but in the Soviet Union. Not only that: they were also being claimed by Prince Georg Lubomirski, who said they belonged to his family. He promised to donate them to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In fact, the Lubomirskis had given the Dürers to the Lvov Museum before the Nazis even turned up. Despite his economy with the truth, the Prince got his drawings; he sold them in New York, and lived well ever after.

The case of the failed Dutch painter, Hans van Meegeren, was even more bizarre. Van Meegeren was questioned after the war about the sale to Goering of a Vermeer, which Van Meegeren had owned. He refused to reveal the painting’s provenance, and was arrested for economic collaboration. He then claimed to have painted the Vermeer himself, a claim he proved by painting a brand-new Vermeer for the court. Acquitted of collaboration charges, he was tried for the lesser offence of forgery. The real victim here was, of course, Goering, who was no longer around to see how he had been duped. Van Meegeren became a legendary figure in Holland.

Given all the difficulties, and no doubt temptations, faced by the Allies and their Monument men, one might wonder why they behaved so well. Why didn’t they do what is more natural: humiliate the enemy and take what they wanted? One obvious answer is that they did not have an ideology to justify looting in the name of patrimony, patriotism or racial superiority. There was one exception: the Soviet Union. Having suffered more than any occupied country, apart from Poland, the Soviets exacted a ‘patriotic’ revenge on Germany by looting as avidly as the Nazis had done. Some Americans were not immune to temptation either. But one of the best anecdotes in Nicholas’s book shows how, on the whole, the temptation was resisted.

In 1945, the Deputy Military Governor of Germany, General Lucius Clay, recommended that works of art belonging to the German nation, but placed in the US Zone for ‘safekeeping’, be returned to the US ‘to be inventoried, identified and cared for by our leading museums’. The pictures would also be exhibited in the US, and only sent back when Germany had ‘re-earned its right to be considered as a nation’. The familiar weasel word was ‘safekeeping’. The Monument men, such as John Nicholas Brown and Mason Hammond, were outraged. But Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum, thought that ‘the American people had earned the right in this war to such compensation if they chose to take it.’

Twenty-five officers of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Commission signed a manifesto, protesting the move. They had ‘obligations to the nation to which we owe allegiance’, but also to ‘common justice, decency, and the establishment of the power of right, not of expediency or might, among the civilised nations’. Janet Flanner wrote about the affair in the New Yorker. The Washington Times Herald noted that ‘the preservation of German art treasures is considered more important than the fate of German women and children and the repatriation of war-weary GIs.’ Other newspapers, such as the New York Times, reported, incorrectly as it happens, that the US Army was shipping home ‘Nazi loot’. As a result of all the publicity, and the principled stand of the Monument men, the US Government climbed down. The works were transferred to America and exhibited there, but not before it was announced that the collection would be shipped back to Germany forthwith, and that there would be no more shipments to the US of works belonging to German museums.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences