How the Nazi Elite Plundered Europe's Art

Bloomberg 20 November 2008

Review by Manuela Hoelterhoff

``The Rape of Europa,'' which airs on PBS on Nov. 24 at 9 p.m. New York time, has a number of heroes and heroines. My favorite is Maria Altmann.

It took a lifetime, but finally in 2006 the Austrian government -- with much lack of grace -- returned a few nice paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele that the Nazis had pilfered from her uncle's Viennese mansion during World War II.

Altogether, Nazi elites stole an estimated million-plus artworks in the strangest melding of extermination and aesthetics the world has ever seen.

``The Rape of Europa'' documents how the lurid appetite for art coexisted with an equally powerful urge to torment and destroy.

Klimt's glittering 1907 portrait of Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, spent the postwar years thrilling crowds at the Austrian State Gallery in the Belvedere. The Austrians sure didn't want to see her go.

Altmann, born in 1916 and even in her ninth decade a glorious vision in lavender cashmere and pearls, speaks eloquently of their perfidy and her triumph.

Supposedly, her aunt willed her pictures to the Austrian state, a very ambiguous reading of the text and one that ignores the fact that when she wrote her will in 1923, she hardly expected her beloved country to turn into a happy outpost for murderers and thieves.

Hitler's Pretensions

The identity of Altmann's determined lawyer makes her victory even more satisfying: E. Randol Schoenberg, the grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg, another Jew who fled Austria and ended up in Hollywood, near Altmann.

Narrated by actress Joan Allen, ``The Rape of Europa'' is based on the remarkable book by Lynn H. Nicholas, who provides learned, lightly caustic commentary, especially about the Nazi elite.

Hitler, for all his cultural pretensions, made his first visit to Italy at the invitation of Mussolini. He spent only a few hours driving around that other art capital, Paris, after his 1940 summer victory.

Soon enough, the city's Jewish dealers were disappeared along with their treasures. The Jeu de Paume became the holding pen for loot and the setting for another heroine, art historian Rose Valland. Hiding behind her bun and glasses, Valland secretly recorded the destination of thousands of art works in a diary that proved immensely useful after the war.

Pianos, Linens

Even modest Jewish families were stripped of everything from pianos to linens in an effort to wipe out their memory and improve the lifestyle in the Heimat. The stuff would be trucked to a depot near the Austerlitz train station, sorted and cleaned.

A heartbroken Parisian forced to work there as a child remembers finding a suitcase filled with photos of his doomed family.

Hitler wanted his hometown of Linz to be as fabulous as Paris. There's a famous model he kept until the very end with an acropolis-like grouping of temples devoted to books, opera and art.

All little Linz ended up with was the Hermann Goering Gas Works (renamed) and a concentration camp down the road.

Not all art was deemed worthy of a new life in the new Reich. Hitler personally ordered the shelling of Warsaw's castle, since he considered the Poles as subhuman as Jews, and enjoyed seeing the city in flames. Krakow was spared because it was deemed Germanic, though the looting was major.

Hitler's curators had priority, leaving Goering, his fat No. 2, sniffing eagerly in the wings. ``Rape'' includes archival photos of his country estate of Carinhall, every square meter festooned with stuffed animals and Old Masters.

Even when he knew the war was over, the field marshal sent long trains filled with ``his'' art south to subterranean vaults. At least he didn't blow everything up.

Bad Sports

``The Germans weren't good sports about losing the war,'' says historian Nicholas. In Florence, the onetime pals of the Duce destroyed historic bridges just because they felt like it on their way out.

In Russia, the Germans burned Tchaikovsky's manuscripts after turning his country home into a motorcycle-repair shop. The scenes from the Siege of Leningrad are among the most harrowing. Devoted museum employees packed up about a million artworks before the Germans starved the city for three years. After the first winter's thaw, 46 corpses were removed from the cellars of the Hermitage.

The irony not lost on anyone is that in defeating the Nazis and saving Europe, the Allies destroyed a good deal of Europe's cultural heritage. ``Rape'' tells the complex story of Monte Cassino's bombing and the ongoing attempts at repair.

At the end, the American army's ``Monuments Men'' roll into view, struggling to safeguard fragile landmarks and artworks in the chaotic aftermath of the Reich's collapse. They began the process of restitution and nursing back to health lovely buildings that had had no say at all in the carnage.

``The Rape of Europe'' is a production of Actual Films in Association with Agon Arts & Entertainment and Oregon Public Broadcasting. It was written, directed and produced by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham. The co-producer was Robert Edsel, a Texas oil and gas man turned author whose splendidly illustrated ``Rescuing Da Vinci'' is an important addition to the literature of loot. Information:

A Collector's Edition with seven additional hours of interviews and more footage will be released on Dec. 10. There is also an educational program featuring the film, for which the title has been changed to ``The Greatest Theft in History.''

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg's leisure and arts section. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at
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