During World War II, the Nazis executed the greatest art heist in history. It was left to a special Allied military unit to get Europe’s priceless cultural treasures back. Learn more about the unlikely war heroes who recovered thousands of looted artworks.
Decades before territorial ambitions and Aryan supremacy absorbed Adolf Hitler, a much different passion consumed the future German dictator—art. But after Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts rejected a teenaged Hitler for his “unfitness for painting,” his singular dream of becoming an artist was crushed. The hand that had gingerly painted watercolors would eventually be raised in a Nazi salute and rule Germany with an iron fist.
Hitler’s interest in art, however, never waned, and after launching World War II, he led the Nazis in the systematic looting of famous works of art that formed the cultural soul of Western civilization. It wasn’t enough for the Nazis to rob millions of people of their futures, they wanted to strip them of their past as well. Hitler’s forces plundered priceless paintings, sculptures, drawings, religious relics and cultural artifacts from Europe’s churches, universities and private collections, particularly those belonging to Jewish families. They heisted musical instruments, entire libraries, hundreds of ancient Torah scrolls, thousands of church bells and even the stained glass right out of Strasbourg Cathedral.
In the greatest theft in art history, Nazi leaders used the inventories of Europe’s elite museums as a veritable “shopping list” for items to add to their personal collections. They pilfered works by a palette of the world’s greatest masters such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Picasso and da Vinci. Hermann Goering, like Hitler an art enthusiast, visited the Jeu de Paume in Paris 20 times to browse its works. He seized hundreds of items for his own collection and needed to attach two railroad cars to his personal train to haul away his loot. In Berlin, Hitler leafed through photo albums filled with pictures of stolen artworks, and just as if he was flipping through a mail-order catalog, he selected those pieces he wanted for the world’s greatest art museum that he intended to build in his hometown of Linz, Austria—the Fuhrermuseum.
The systematic theft and destruction of the world’s cultural treasures was one of the concerns raised by art historians and museum directors from the war’s earliest days. They lobbied the Allies to create an organization affiliated with the military to identify and protect European monuments and art in danger of becoming casualties of war, and in 1943 the Allies established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section. Nearly 350 men and women from 13 countries joined the unit known as the “Monuments Men.” Mostly volunteers, they were hardly seasoned soldiers; instead, they were an unlikely platoon of museum curators, art scholars, architects, archivists, artists and historians with an average age of 40. Although most never expected to be called upon for duty when the war started, some of the Monuments Men were put right on the front lines. Two members lost their lives in combat.
Initially, the Monuments Men were tasked with assisting combat troops in protecting churches, museums and cultural artifacts from damage in Allied attacks. It was a mission echoed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in the lead up to D-Day in 1944 ordered his commanders to safeguard “historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve.” As the Allies advanced across Europe and the Third Reich crumbled, however, the Monuments Men increasingly focused on the rescue and recovery of the art and artifacts looted by the Nazis.
When the guns fell silent in Europe in May 1945, the work of the Monuments Men was only beginning. Europe may have been liberated, but its cultural treasures were still missing in action. Within weeks, the full extent of the Nazi plunder crystallized. Across the continent, the Monuments Men discovered loot hidden deep inside salt mines, packed inside crates in abandoned buildings and even secreted away in hilltop castles. They found 1,500 repositories of stolen goods in southern Germany alone. When the Monuments Men entered the Altaussee Salt Mine in Austria, they discovered hidden inside its 137 tunnels more than 6,000 paintings as well as masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s “Madonna of Bruges” and the “Ghent Altarpiece.” It took six weeks for them to empty Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, the fairy-tale structure that served as the model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland, of all its hidden treasures that had been plundered from France.
Like police detectives working a crime scene, the Monuments Men investigated the provenance of the pieces in order to return them to their proper owners. Their work continued through 1951, by which time they had rescued, preserved and returned five million pieces of art and other cultural artifacts to their rightful owners.
In spite of the painstaking work of the Monuments Men, their mission is still far from complete nearly 70 years after the fall of Nazi Germany. Hundreds of thousands of plundered documents and artworks—including pieces by Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Rodin and Botticelli—remain at large. The Monuments Men Foundation is continuing the search for the lost treasures in addition to its work in keeping alive the legacy of an unlikely band of war heroes.