The Rape of Europa

Mon, 11/24/2008 - 9:00pm

At Schloss Neuschwanstein in southern Bavaria, Captain James Rorimer, who later became the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, supervises the safeguarding of art stolen from French Jews and stored during the war at the castle (April-May, 1945).

National Archives and Records Administration

The Rape of Europa, airing Monday, November 24 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1), tells the epic story of the systematic theft, deliberate destruction and miraculous survival of Europe’s art treasures during the Third Reich and World War II. In a journey through seven countries, the film takes the audience into the violent whirlwind of fanaticism, greed and warfare that threatened to wipe out the artistic heritage of Europe. For 12 long years, the Nazis looted and destroyed art on a scale unprecedented in history, but heroic young art historians and curators from America and across Europe fought back with an extraordinary campaign to rescue and return the millions of lost, hidden and stolen treasures.

The Rape of Europa,
which was part of the 2007 Rochester Jewish Film Festival at the Little Theater, begins and ends with the story of artist Gustav Klimt’s famed Gold Portrait, stolen from Viennese Jews in 1938 and to date the most expensive painting ever sold. Three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen narrates this breathtaking chronicle of the battle over the very survival of centuries of western culture.

Today, more than 60 years later, the legacy of this tragic history continues to play out as families of looted collectors recover major works of art, conservators repair battle damage and nations fight over the fate of ill-gotten spoils of war. According to U.S. estimates, the Nazis stole one-fifth of all the known art works in Europe. While the Allies returned most of the displaced art in the decade following the war, much is still missing. Many masterpieces were destroyed or lost forever. Other works survived, but remain unidentified, traceable only with costly and difficult investigation.

By the mid-1950s, the initial, massive restitution effort by the Allies had lost its momentum to the pressures of the Cold War. Hundreds of works of art, their owners unidentified, still lay in storerooms across Europe or remained in the hands of unscrupulous dealers who waited patiently before feeding them back into the market.

The end of the Cold War and the opening of the archives of Eastern Europe revealed that many works believed lost had indeed survived. Scholarship led to the re-examination and declassification of forgotten records, inspiring those who had long since despaired of finding their lost possessions to search again. Instrumental in bringing worldwide attention to this long-neglected story was the 1995 publication of The Rape of Europa, Lynn H. Nicholas’ landmark book on which this film is based.

The revival of interest in the subject has had dramatic results. American museums from Seattle to Raleigh have had to explain how stolen paintings wound up in their collections after the war. In France, a catalogue of unclaimed art held by the national museums and ignored for years is now available online. Other nations, feeling the pressure, also have revisited the often unjust decisions made by their governments concerning ownership of looted art. Perhaps most notable is the case of the five paintings by Gustav Klimt, long held by the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, that were awarded in 2006 by a panel of Austrian judges to Maria Altmann, the 90-year-old Los Angeles niece of the Viennese Jew from whom the paintings were stolen in 1938. She subsequently sold the pictures, one of them — the famed Gold Portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer — for a record $135 million.

Pillage and looting during warfare are not, of course, activities that originated with World War II. But the massive scale, the unprecedented bureaucratic organization and the legalistic rationalizations offered by the Nazis set their exploits apart. Not hundreds or thousands, but millions of objects were bought and sold, confiscated and transported around the continent of Europe.

Just as the Nazis sought to impose their race-based morality onto the diverse population of Europe, they also sought to redraw the cultural face of Europe by rearranging or destroying its great art. Even in the upheavals of war, the Nazi leaders devoted precious time and energy to the gathering of works of art. While Alfred Rosenberg’s propaganda unit appropriated art works that would buttress the party’s racist ideology and pilfered the great Jewish collections of Europe, Hitler employed distinguished art historians and corrupt dealers to steal masterpieces that would confer prestige and symbolic legitimacy on the German nation.

In contrast to the wholesale looting by Hitler and the Nazis, the western Allies worked diligently to mitigate the inevitable toll exacted on art and historic cities during their invasions of Italy, France and Germany. Central to this history is the unprecedented mission of the Monuments Men, mostly American art historians and museum curators who, drafted into military service, mounted a miraculous effort to protect monuments and recover millions of pieces of displaced art.

Moving back and forth in time, The Rape of Europa links investigations into looted art back to their wartime origins, tracing the remarkable journeys of individual masterpieces from wartime confiscation to present-day recovery by the families of the original owners. The film is an emotional witness to the destruction wrought on culture and art by fanaticism, greed and warfare, but it also is a hopeful film that demonstrates how it is possible for humanity to protect the integrity of cultural property during armed conflicts.