World War II Looted Art: Turning History into Justice

U.S. National Archives

National Archives and Records Administration

Nazi Looted Art
The Third Reich’s Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or ERR, was the main agency involved in the systematic looting of cultural treasures in Nazi-occupied countries. Hitler ordered that all looted art be placed at his personal disposal.  These plundered treasures and gold were hidden in castles such as Neuschwanstein Castle in Hohenschwangau, Germany, and in salt mines such as those found in Altaussee, Austria and Merkers, Germany.

Among the items recovered were 39 photographic albums depicting cultural works that the ERR had seized. Discovered at Neuschwanstein Castle, these albums were transported to the U.S. Army-operated Munich Central Collecting Point to be used in identifying and restituting looted cultural property. The ERR prepared nearly 100 albums for Adolf Hitler to view in order to show him the extent of the ERR's work. These 39 volumes, in the holdings of the National Archives, served as evidence in the Nüremberg trials to document the massive Nazi art looting operations.

"Shortly we will be fighting our way across the Continent of Europe in Battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve."
-Dwight D. Eisenhower, General, U.S. Army

"Treasure found in an old salt mine reported approximately 2000 feet deep."
-Cable from General Eisenhower to General Marshall

The Monuments Men
The Monuments Men were members of a special unit of Allied soldiers during World War II. Officially, this unit was called the Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives (MFA&A) section, but unofficially, they were the Monuments Men. The mission of the Monuments Men: Protect cultural property from destruction and damage by Allied forces and to find and save works of art and other cultural artifacts that the Nazis had seized.
Unlikely Heroes
Perhaps the most unlikely heroes to emerge from World War II, the Monuments Men (and women) were a multinational group of curators, art historians, and museum directors who saved artistic and cultural treasures from destruction. Trading hushed galleries and libraries for besieged European cities, the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives Program risked their lives to protect museums, churches, and monuments from combat. They also tracked down and recovered thousands of priceless artworks stolen by the Nazis—much of it from Jewish families.

"MISSION OF THE MFA&A BRANCH...To protect monuments, objects, and institutions in Germany which are of permanent importance in the cultural heritage of mankind."
-From Annex XX (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) to Basic Preliminary Plan, Allied Control and Occupation of Germany

Panels of the Ghent altarpiece in the mine in Altaussee, Austria.

This painting was taken from Monte Cassino by the Hermann Göring Division and moved to the principal depository for looted art at Altaussee. Note the poor condition of the painting and the numerous blisters and flaking areas caused by the the journey and changes of temperature and humidity. Many paintings stolen by the Germans were damaged in this way.

Master Sergeant Harold Maus of Scranton, PA is pictured with the Dürer engraving, found among other art treasures at Merkers.

Report of Military Governor of Germany, Dwight D. Eisenhower, on Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives. September, 1945.

An American soldier holds the painting "Cat and Mirror" painted by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin in 1749, one of the many valuable works of art found in the Neuschwanstein Castle at Füssen in Bavaria. Many paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Da Vinci, Titian, Van Dyck, Raphael, Goya, and Michelangelo were among the masterpieces, together with the Rothschild collections, the famous Ghent altarpiece, Renaissance jewelry and silver collections, and illuminated manuscripts. Tapestries and rugs were piled one-third of a meter high over the entire floor of a room of about 25 meters in length inside the castle.

Lt. Dale Ford and Sgt. Harry Ettlinger inspect Rembrandt's self-portrait, found in one of the salt mines where the Nazis hid their looted artworks.

Harry Ettlinger is one of the surviving “Monuments Men,” whose art-saving exploits were recently featured in the film of the same title. Ettlinger is in the black and white photo, too: he’s the a 19-year-old GI (right) who, as a native German speaker, had been assigned to the Monuments Men. The Rembrandt self-portrait was taken from Ettlinger's hometown of Karlsruhe, Germany. Ettlinger had never seen it when he lived there as a child—Jews were forbidden to enter the museum. Ettlinger, along with author Robert Edsel, was a guest at the National Archives in 2014 to mark the donation of Hitler album number 6 to the National Archives.

President George W. Bush presented the 2007 National Humanities Medal for the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art to Robert Edsel and World War II veterans Jim Reeds, Seymore Pomrenze, Harry Ettlinger, Horace Apgar.

Recovery and Restitution
The logistics of recovering and restituting artwork also became the task of regular U.S. Army units, such as the 101st Airborne Division. This unit was tasked with accounting for and moving the personal looted art collection of Hermann Göring, leading member of the Nazi Party, who focused on the acquisition of property and artwork in the later years of World War II.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, accompanied by General Omar N. Bradley, and Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr., inspects art treasures hidden by Germans in a salt mine in Germany.

A large oil painting of "Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden" is loaded on a truck by American soldiers. The art treasure is being removed from Göring's cave to the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division, 7th U.S. Army, to be placed on exhibition.

Officers inspecting the Imperial Regalia.

In the cellar of the Race Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, Chaplain Samuel Blinder examines one of hundreds of "Saphor Torahs" (Sacred Scrolls), among the books stolen from every occupied country in Europe.

In the wake of advancing Allied armies in Southern and Western Europe, specialist officers provided by Allied civil affairs commissions assist and advise local authorities on the repair and preservation of historical monuments, fine arts, and archival treasures that have suffered damage in war action. Belgian workers repair damage to the choir entrance of the church of Notre Dame in Namur, Belgium, while Lieutenant Daniel J. Kern, U.S. Army fine arts specialist, supervises the work from a ladder.

German loot stored in church at Ellingen, Germany found by troops of the U.S. Third Army.

Two finely wrought swords of Frederick the Great found in the Bernterode Mine. The swords were among treasures from the Hohenzollern Museum in Berlin, including items used at the 1701 coronation of King Frederick I and Queen Sophie. U.S. troops found the two swords with gold and silver scabbards, a jeweled scepter and orb, and two crowns.

Map of Mantua, Italy from a folder containing copies of photographs showing the location of monuments of historical, cultural, and religious importance in Italy. Copies of these folders were given to the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces with a preface giving instructions to crews when bombing targets in the vicinity of these monuments.

Six trucks with part of the half billion dollars worth of Florentine art treasure, which was taken to Bolsano by retreating Germans, arrives at Piazzo Dei Signoria, Florence, Italy and passes by reviewing stand of American, English and Italian officials.

An unknown Rembrandt recovered safe in Munich.

Turning History into Justice
Records in the National Archives and Records Administration have been used to determine the extent of Nazi looting and the extent to which these looted treasures were recovered by the Allies and restituted. Our holdings of archival records relating to Holocaust-Era assets have been used by United States government historians, journalists, private and academic historians, foreign historical commissions, parties involved in litigation, US Congressional staff members, and a variety of others attempting to discover the depth of Nazi thievery.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Credits: Story

National Archives and Records Administration

Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist, NARA
Dr. Sylvia Naylor, Archivist, NARA

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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