Nazi Plunder

From 1933 until the end of the War the Nazis stole works of art in every country they captured. They took paintings, sculptures, gold, ceramics, religious objects, rare books and shipped them back to Germany. This systematic program of thievery is the subject of two films I've seen recently—The Monuments Men and The Rape of Europa.

The Monuments Men is George Clooney’s semi-fictional account of a group of men, an odd bunch at that, who recovered some of the most revered works of art stolen by the Nazis. We meet the men, are shown some of the art treasures they seek and eventually find, deep in a mine in Germany. We learn about the efforts of the museums in Paris, Italy, and Russia to remove the works from the museums and attempt to hide them in the countryside. And we meet Hitler, Goring and their henchmen who directed the Nazi looting organizations.

The Rape of Europa is a much more thorough documentary of the art works confiscated by the Germans. It’s a vast subject and the film attempts to sample a fair number of the them, including the conflict allied commanders faced in attacking a setting that was of artistic and historical significance, as well as the lengthy post war recovery efforts

One by one most of the treasures were found in over 1,000 places in Germany and Austria. Still an estimated to be 20% of the artworks stolen by the Germans have never been recovered, hidden away somewhere or destroyed by the Nazis.

From time to time we hear about a cache or a particular work that has finally been discovered. Recently hundreds of works, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse, confiscated by the Nazis were discovered in an apartment in Munich that belonged to an elderly German.

Earlier a museum in Salt Lake realized that a small, pastoral painting by the French artist Francois Boucher was part of a collection stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish art dealer. Once confirmed, the museum returned the painting to the dealer’s daughter without reservation. And so the trail to the stolen art goes on to this day. Doubtless some will never be found.

However, neither movie discusses the millions of books stolen or destroyed by the Nazis, largely books confiscated from Jewish libraries throughout Europe. Starting with the book burnings of May 1933, the Nazis knew well how critical books were to the Jews. While most of them were destroyed, many that were valuable in some way were saved and sent to libraries or private collections in Germany.

The scope of Nazi book looting was enormous and the Monuments Men were able to return the majority of the books to their owners. Still a great many of the estimated two and a half million books they found could not be returned to their owners either because there was no way to identify them or their owners were no longer alive.