Now available from Netflix, “The Rape of Europa” is an outstanding documentary on the theft or outright destruction of some of Europe’s greatest art during World War Two. Based on the 1995 book of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas, who is one of the film’s many interesting interviewees, it focuses most of its understandable outrage against the Nazis but the allies are by no means angels in the 20th century’s greatest calamities. Notwithstanding the film’s penetrating and scholarly examination of the topic, you are left with the feeling that taking the spoils of war is deeply embedded in “civilized” behavior, a perspective that the film flirts with but never adopts.
The movie begins with the struggle of Jewish survivors to reclaim art that had been stolen by the Nazis, or in the case of Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting taken “legally” by the Austrian fascist government. Despite its illegal seizure by the fascists, the gold-leaf portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was only turned over to the Bloch-Bauer family after an intense legal and political campaign was mounted.
Klimt was a typical “decadent” artist despised by the Nazis but they were not above hoarding their masterpieces in cellars as booty. Two top leaders of the Nazi party, Adolph Hitler and Herman Goering, amassed enormous collections of stolen art in their respective castles, including works by decadent artists, but their preference was for Aryan art or pre-modern masterpieces. This was a particular obsession for Hitler who started out as an aspiring artist but whose career came to a crashing end when an Austrian art school decided he was too mediocre to accept. One of the interviewees speculates that WWII and the Judeocide could have been prevented if Hitler was a somewhat better artist but it is more likely that the capitalist economic collapse would have precipitated some other madman’s rise to power.
Once the war begins, the Nazis make a point of seizing art in the conquered territories including Poland and France. Just before the siege of Leningrad begins, Russian museum workers in that city make a heroic effort to relocate the work away from the fighting.
When art was not stolen, it often went up in flames as bombs and artillery shells had their sickening effect. Throughout Europe, some of the most beautiful and irreplaceable architecture found itself inconveniently in the path of advancing armies and became “collateral damage”. One of the most egregious examples of such destruction came at the hands of the allies in the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, an episode that looms large as example of allied malfeasance in the Ken Burns PBS series on WWII.
On the top of Monte Cassino was a monastery that had been created in 524 by St. Benedict and that was filled with priceless religious art. Just beneath the monastery were heavily dug-in Nazi troops who were blocking an allied advance. Despite pleas to spare the monastery, allied bombs virtually destroyed the building and everything within it. It was subsequently learned that the Nazis were not even inside the monastery and that the destruction was totally unnecessary.
Unlike the dastardly Nazis, the allies are depicted as being far more civilized than the Nazis, despite such collateral damage. The documentary dwells at length on the work of a branch of the American military that was tasked with the mission of accounting for and returning stolen art. The film’s website points out:
In early 1943 a group, known as the American Council of Learned Societies, appointed a committee to address protection of Europe’s art by identifying civilian experts who could liaise with the military. They also prepared pamphlets that detailed known German looting. Theirs and several other similar groups’ entreaties to government officials coalesced at about the same time. On June 23, 1943, FDR approved the formation of the “American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas” widely known as “The Roberts Commission,” after its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. Thus was born the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (“MFAA”) section under the auspices of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied Armies.
The “Venus Fixers” as they were sometimes called by fellow troops-”Monuments Men” by most others-were mostly young museum directors and curators, art professors and architects who volunteered for service. After the war, many would become leaders of the most prominent museums in the United States. Virtually every major American museum had one or more employee who served as an MFAA officer during World War II. Still, their numbers were ridiculously few when compared to the overwhelming task they confronted. In as much as the MFAA program was an untested concept, the Monuments Men had minimal resources to accomplish their job and little direction other than to inspect, repair, and report on monuments needing protection, and to prevent improper billeting by Allied troops in historic or culturally important buildings. This last task was a constant challenge. There was no handbook to follow. Those with skill or knowledge were given authority to act.
While the film understandably is focused on the depravity of the Nazis and the somewhat mixed record of the allies in relationship to European art, a broader survey of the issues posed by the film might lead one to the conclusion that the “civilized” Anglo-American imperialists might actually be responsible for more destruction and theft in the grander historical scheme of things.
To start with, what exactly is the difference between Hitler and Goering filling their mountaintop chalets with stolen art and the same behavior carried out on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the British Museum?
Just as the Austrians received “approval” from the Nazis to put the Klimt masterpiece on display, so did Lord Elgin get permission from the Ottoman court to remove the Parthenon marbles from Greece and put them on display in London. Sculptures were stripped from the face of the Parthenon in utter disregard for their historical and esthetic context and put on display for the benefit of the British Empire, over the protests of many truly civilized people including Lord Byron. Unlike the case of the Klimt painting which was returned to the rightful owner, the so-called Elgin Marbles remain in London, thus prompting Merlina Mercouri to say:
And the Parthenon Marbles they are. There are no such things as the Elgin Marbles.
There is a Michael Angelo David.
There is a Da Vinci Venus.
There is a Praxitelles Hermes.
There is a Turner ‘Fishermen at Sea’.
There are no Elgin Marbles!
You know, it is said that we Greeks are a fervent and warm blooded breed. Well, let me tell you something – it is true. And I am not known for being an exception. Knowing what these sculptures mean to the Greek people, it is not easy to address their having been taken from Greece dispassionately, but I shall try. I promise.
I have been advised by one of your eminent professors that I must tell the history of how the Marbles were taken from Athens and brought to British shores. I protested that this was too well known but was told that even if there were a single person in this audience who might be vague about the facts, the story must be told. So, as briefly as I can, here goes.
We are at the end of the 19th Century. Napoleon is pondering the risk of invading England. He decides that it is not a very good idea. Instead he invades Egypt, wresting it from Turkish authority. The Turks don’t appreciate this at all. They break off diplomatic relations with France. They also declare war. Britain decides that this is a dandy time to appoint an Ambassador to Turkey.
Enter Lord Elgin. It is he who gets the job. He has just married pretty Mary Nisbett and is finishing his fine country house. Its architect tells him of the wonders of Greek architecture and sculptures, and suggests it would be a marvellous idea to make plaster casts of the actual objects in Athens. ‘Marvellous, indeed,’ says Elgin. He sets about organising a group of people who could make architectural drawings, headed by a worthy painter, who turns out to be Giovanni Lusieri, an Italian painter.
I can’t resist stealing a moment for an anecdote. Elgin had previously approached Turner. Yes, the Turner. The young painter was interested. Lord Elgin sets down the conditions: every drawing and sketch that Turner made was to become his Lordship’s possession. In his spare time he would give Lady Elgin drawing lessons. ‘Okay,’ says Turner ‘but then I would want £400 a year.’ No, no says Elgin, too much, much too much. So, no Turner. End of anecdote.