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America and the Return of Nazi Contraband:
The Recovery of Europe's Cultural Treasures
by Michael J. Kurtz
(In Hardcover from Amazon)
"The Rape of Europa"
One of the interesting ideas to take away from this chronicle of plunder during the second World War is that on whatever high-minded ideals Adolf Hitler, der fuhrer, inspired in his country and his troops, it may, besides the acquisition of power, get down to the criminal confiscation of art treasures for his and Hermann Goering's private collections. By the time the allies had a look, Goering's country estate housed 1,700 paints. After watching this account of that side of the war, one might go away thinking the war was a ruse for theft, used as a cover for the taking of art treasure with the currency of conquest.
It changes one's perspective to realize that the invasion and occupation of European countries were closely associated with the tyrant's cataloguing of the art contained within the country -- one of the details brought out in the film. Oh, what a joy for a collector! Just send in your army and then pick whatever you've set your mind to possess. What a confirmation of your superiority.
No place was immune from Hitler's evil plans. The best a museum could hope for was to anticipate the invasion by hiding its possessions ahead of time, such as the Louvre and other did. Museums in France, Russia, Italy and other countries crated and shipped their art work to a salt cave, country homes and palaces, hiding places wherever they could be found. A Herculean undertaking in the time required. It included canvases like the Mona Lisa (spirited away in a specially prepared ambuland), objects of porcelain, gold, silver and statues like Michelangelo's David in Florence and Winged Victory of Samothrace from the Louvre. All crated and, for the first time in their provenance, dispersed.
Private and dealer collections were less ahead of the curve, and we see them become free candy stores for the upper echelons of the Reich. Ultimately, Jewish apartment were targetted for looting.
An intriguing backstory about Hitler is made by an interviewed subject that suggests Hitler's antisemitism might have derived from his own less than successful art career. In an art contest sponsored by the Art Academy of Vienna during his student years, his watercolors were rejected by a panel that was partly made up of Jews. This may have been the rejection that changed the world. One can only imagine the hatred it fostered in the sick mind of a bigot given to self-aggrandizement. Shown in the documentary are several of these detailed works by the dictator, careful and muted renderings of buildings.
Narrated by Joan Allen and including more archival footage by Nazi as well as allied cameramen than may ever have been seen before, documentarians Richard Berge and Bonni Cohen make a straightforward narrative presentation with little attempt at dramatic heightening. The result is excellent as an academic treatise and, certainly informative, but not engaging enough to elevate the film to a cinema event for a wider audience. It is, however, event enough for art lovers, historians, survivors and their families.
The history of Hitlerian plunder comes full circle when, following his death, the allies, with American art experts in the lead, make a painstaking effort to return every piece to its rightful place, drawing tearful revelry from crowds of people in each country. It may have been the grandest hour for America, behind the Marshall Plan. As for the private collections, not inappropriately, the film begins and ends with a case that has become widely known for the pressured return of one of the more notorious artworks, those of Gustav Klimt. We witness his exquisite Gold Portrait, stolen from Viennese Jews in 1938 and now the most expensive painting ever sold, returned to its rightful owner, the niece of the woman in the remarkable portrait.
You don't have to be an art lover to shed a few tears over the excellent human spirit involved in protecting so huge a part of the world's art treasures from violent, despotic greed, and in the grand and loving restitution of them for, one can hope, posterity.
~~ Jules Brenner