Konrad Kramar's new book details the team of Austrian salt miners who bravely defied the Nazis to save much of Europe's cultural heritage
A new book published this week in Austria details how the finest art treasures in the world looted by the Nazis - worth an estimated £5billion at today's prices - were saved from destruction by a team of salt miners.
Although credit for their salvation has gone to the 'Monuments Men' of the Allies who took charge of the masterpieces following the collapse of the Third Reich, the real heroes were apparently a group of Austrian workers who refused to obey orders for their destruction.
George Clooney's movie 'The Monuments Men' which opens on new year's day only gives a sanitised Hollywood version of what took place in the dying days of the Second World War, one in which the Americans claim the glory for rescuing history's glittering prizes.
The new book 'Mission Michelangelo' tells the real story.
Written by Viennese journalist Konrad Kramar, it reveals how the miners were aided in their efforts to save the artworks by one of the most feared men in the whole of Nazi Germany.
He was Ernst Kaltenbrunner, an Austrian by birth who would be hanged by the Allies at Nuremberg for war crimes.
As head of the SD, the security service of the SS, he was second only to Heinrich Himmler in overseeing the Nazi network of terror, repression and murder in all conquered territories.
Kaltenbrunner returned to his homeland 11 days before Hitler killed himself in his Berlin bunker on April 30 1945.
Before his death the Fuehrer issued his infamous 'Nero Decree' - the order to destroy all infrastructure, power plants, roads, bridges, railways and mines to prevent them from falling into the hands of his enemies.
Included in this decree were the the 40,000 square metres of galleries in the Altaussee mine where the most wonderful paintings of history were stored.
Once planned to be displayed in the Fuehrer's planned 'Supermuseum' in Linz, he ordered them to be destroyed in an act of colossal spite.
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Michelangelo's statue 'The Bruges Madonna,' Jan Vermeer's 'Painter in his Studio' and 'The Astronomer,' Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece and works by such masters as Rembrandt and Rubens - 6,557 in all - were stored in the mine that was to be obliterated by huge TNT bombs.
Alois Raudaschl, the miner's foreman, was no resistance figure but a paid-up member of the Nazi party.
He was horrified when he learned that the local Nazi gauleiter, a violent drunkard called August Eigruber - he would also be hanged for war crimes in 1947 - intended to carry out Hitler's Nero Order and destroy the art treasures.
On May 3 1945, just days after Hitler's suicide, Raudaschl met secretly with Kaltenbrunner because he had heard he was sympathetic to saving the artworks.
'He believed Kaltenbrunner could stop the madness of the order to detonate the mine and everything in it,' wrote Kramar.
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Eigruber had already placed two 500kg bombs inside the mine codenamed 'Dora' by the Nazi high command and was waiting for explosives experts to arrive to arm them before he set them off.
Kramar went on; 'It wasn't resistance fighters, an Austrian agent of the British secret service who claimed the credit, nor the Monuments Men or the management of the mine who saved the paintings, but the miners themselves.'
Kaltenbrunner, like Albert Speer Hitler's court architect, realised the futility of the Nero Decree and gave his blessing to the miners to thwart it.
'Raudaschl and about a dozen miners went back to the mine the next day and removed the bombs and hid them in surrounding woodland,' said Kramar.
The miners blockaded parts of the mine leading to the rarest paintings and statues, all aware that they were committing high treason against the Nazi state even though Hitler was dead. Had the Nero Decree been enforced at the 11th hour, all would have been guillotined for their actions.
Eigruber got wind of Kaltenbrunner's patronage of the miners and sent two men to arrest him. 'But they were frightened off by the SS sentries guarding his door,' said Kramar. Later that night Eigruber called around to demand the return of the bombs to the mine.
The SD chief roared at him: 'As of this moment I am still head of the Security Service of the SS and those mines remain outside.'
By dawn the next day the miners had posted guards on the entrance to the mine and allowed no-one into them.
Thirteen days later the Monuments Men rolled into Altaussee and took the treasures to Munich.
George Stout, the American lieutenant in charge of the Monuments Men, tried to discover who had saved the treasures.
He was sickened by the claims of resistors who he called 'vain, creeping toads' because he knew they had done nothing to thwart the destruction plans.
'The real heroes were the miners,' said Kramar.