The Rape of Europa, a companion piece to the book by Lynn Nicholas, is a fascinating look into the Nazis and their obsession with art and religious artifacts. Yes, it sounds like the terrain of Indiana Jones, but sometimes reality is even more jaw-dropping than the highest fiction.
More importantly, The Rape of Europa, at its core, serves as a valuable look at the evils of hate. Even with World War II in the rear view mirror and at a distance of more than 60 years, there are still wounds in need of healing and people in need of being made whole.
Raiders of the Lost Art
While contemporaries such as Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka made their mark in the art world, Adolf Hitler unsuccessfully applied to Austria’s top art academies.
Such a scenario leads to perhaps one of the greatest — and oddest-sounding — questions in history: What if Hitler had entered art school and was able to pursue a career as a bad painter?
There is no doubt it would be a totally different world. As it stands, faintly reminiscent of the final warehouse scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Center for Military History in Washington, D.C., eerily stores in its basement early watercolors by Hitler and other Nazi artwork deemed “too controversial for public display.”
Hitler, the failed artist, used proceeds from his infamous book, Mein Kampf, to purchase art. Following his lead, art collecting became a required pastime for the Nazi elite, including Heinrich Himmler, Albert Speer, and Hermann Goering. Hitler’s rules for what was acceptable and what was not seem less defined by the standards of the quintessential Aryan race than by purely arbitrary matters of taste. Other factors, like size and prestige, could trump ideological correctness.
Having deemed art by Matisse, Picasso, and Van Gogh as degenerate, Hitler essentially sold off or destroyed the art he hated and stole the art he liked. He also set out on a quest to return all Germanic works of art to the Fatherland.
Art on the Lam
The Rape of Europa begins with Gustav Klimt’s portrait of a woman in gold. It’s a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a Viennese Jew, and it’s regarded as the Viennese Mona Lisa. Adele’s niece has been contesting ownership of the painting with the Austrian government, which acquired the piece as a gift from the Nazis. The circumstances of that acquisition, coupled with differing interpretations of wording in Adele’s will, make the question of ownership peculiarly difficult to answer.
As historian Jonathan Petropoulos describes it, the Nazi regime was a “plundering bureaucracy” that split art among the Nazi leaders and gave the rest to national galleries.
Countering the Nazi forces, there were some remarkable individuals and groups spearheading efforts to save Europe’s great works of art.
Among them was Rose Valland, an unassuming, bespectacled French woman at the Jeu de Paume who kept a secret catalog of 16,000 paintings confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish Parisians. She noted who took them and where they went. Amidst the mass destruction of war, astonishing efforts to evacuate the Louvre and the Hermitage were also conducted, effectively sending Mona Lisa and other masterpieces on the lam. Even Viet Stoss’ altar at St. Mary’s in Cracow, Poland, was hidden in the countryside, only to be found by the invading Nazis.
The Rape of Europa travels to Austria, Poland, France, Russia, and Italy while focusing on these incredible stories, made all the more incredible by their reality.
Divide and Plunder
Which is more valuable, a work of art or a human life? That’s the question that crossed the minds of the soldiers in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section. Known as Monuments Men, they helped keep many of Europe’s great masterpieces safe and even stumbled on an entire salt mine full of fine art. It’s quite a sight to see the rough and tumble General Patton, ol’ Pearl Pistols himself, standing in the thick of an enormous collection in the Kaiseroda mine in Merkers, Germany.
Now, thanks in part to the Internet, some works of art are being properly repatriated and reunited with their rightful owners. Some, as with The Young Lovers by Francois Boucher, which was looted by Goering and eventually found its way into the “permanent collection” of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, was returned to its owner without hesitation once its true provenance was made known. As David Carroll at the museum put it, they can’t make amends for the millions of lives lost, but they can return something stolen in order to confer a little humanity back to us all.
Even with cases like that popping up, tens of thousands of items are still either missing altogether or are under dispute. Over time, more works will come to the surface as unknowing ancestors put them up for sale or display.
With the art world still sorting out “unfinished business of the greatest war in history,” The Rape of Europa serves as a great document on mistakes of the past. And it also serves as a warning about mistakes of the future.
It’s not a far stretch to move from the Nazis to the Taliban. And the Taliban has, in the new millennium, exhibited a similar penchant for destroying historic, long-standing masterpieces, as with their destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. It’s been reported Mullah Mohammad Omar simply stated, “We’re just crushing rocks.”
While watching The Rape of Europa, given the war’s widespread destruction of architectural masterpieces in addition to the looting and plundering of more portable works of art, there’s a sad sense of history lost for all eternity.
To paraphrase the philosopher George Santayana, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.