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Monuments Men – Protection of artworks during wartime

As “art historians in uniform”, the so-called Monuments Men were concerned with the protection of cultural objects during the Second World War. Starting point of this military unit was a civilian initiative to protect the cultural heritage of the art institutions and universities of the US East Coast. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, not only an American entry into the war become more likely, also it become possible that the war might be carried out on American soil. Therefore, in December 1941, museum administrators and university members came together at the New York Metropolitan Museum to discuss safeguarding procedures for American art collections. Valuable input in this question was provided by Paul Sachs, who had established an education program of museum works at Harvard University. In addition to inventories and curatorial knowledge, methods of conservation and restoration were also taught, a practice-oriented basis for the protection of artworks in wartimes.

One result of this initiative was the founding of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, Roberts Commission, which acted as civilian consultants for the protection of the cultural heritage. At their instigation, lists of particularly protective architecture in Europe were created, among others, by immigrated art historians about their countries of origin. The sites were marked on maps and should be taken into account during bomb attacks by US troops.

However, for one person these reflections did not reach far enough. According to restorer George Stout it was not enough to just act from the United States. In his opinion a team had to be on hand to negotiate with the commanders, to mark the protective monuments, to document damages and to take first-aid measures where necessary and possible. George Stout request US-President Roosevelt to establish such a military group, the birth of the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section, or MFA & A for short.

First Finds

Terribly subdued at first, with conceivably poor resources and less handling against the military commander, these art protection officers followed the front line. However, the idea of the concept of culture was increasingly entered in the military mindset, as the memorandum of General Eisenhower of May 26, 1944 shows. The search for Nazi looted art, robbed by the Nazis in their occupied territories, was added to the protection of the site-specific cultural property as the war drew to a close. These looted artworks were presumed to be hidden in salt mines, castles, bunkers and similar depots, where they had been brought for safekeeping in order to protect them from war damage in the bombed German cities. One of the most important finds was the salt mine in Austrian Altaussee as well as the Neuschwanstein Castle, both storage sites for works of art that had been brought together for the planned “Führermuseum” in Linz.

Nazi Gold in a Salt Mine  

Another important repository was in the salt mine at Merkers in Thuringia. Many works of art from the Berlin museums had been transferred to this mine shortly before the end of the war, together with the gold and foreign exchange of the Berlin Reichsbank. And so General Patton found a real treasure in April 1945, which was quickly recovered by the troops. Gold and works of art were immediately taken from the mine to Frankfurt into the Reichsbank building, which though proved to be unsuitable for storing of art objects. At this time, a young soldier from Ohio came into play: Walter I. Farmer had volunteered for the MFA & A in the early summer of 1945 – his military service had already ended. He was a trained architect and was the first to commission a central collection point for the discovered works of art in nearby Wiesbaden.

Central Collecting Points

The building of today’s Landesmuseum Wiesbaden became home to the scattered art objects during the occupation period. Other Central Collecting Points (CCPs) were established in Munich, Marburg and Frankfurt (later Offenbach). The Monuments Men brought the works of art discovered in the surrounding repositories to carefully inventory them and examine them for damage. The incoming pieces were recorded on so-called Property Cards. Among the most famous works temporarily stored in Wiesbaden – and also exhibited – were the bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. In addition to these museum collections, however, works of art which can be seen as robbery and booty were also present. To Munich, for example, the holdings of Altaussee and Neuschwanstein came, mostly the collections of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering. Wiesbaden was home of the collection of the NS art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. In Wiesbaden, above all, CCP director Farmer advocated that the artworks were not permanently transported to the USA. After receiving the order for the removal of 200 works to Washington in November 1945, he mobilized his colleagues in the defense of art to write and sign a protest note known as Wiesbaden Manifesto. It triggered a wave of protests in the USA, so that the artworks were returned and further deportations were prevented.

Restitutions

One of the essential tasks of Monuments Men in the post-war period was the return of the art objects stored in the CCPs to their legal owners. Parts of the CCP stock had originally been the legitimate possession of German museums and could be returned. Works of art taken by the National Socialists in the occupied territories were returned not to the owner, but to the country of origin, which sent representatives to identify and claim the artworks in the CCPs (so-called external restitution). Within Germany as well, works of art were restored to the victims or their heirs as internal restitution. Since many documents had been lost during the war and the location of a sought-after work of art was not always easy to ascertain, not all the artworks and their owners could come together until the end of the occupation. The remaining objects of the CCPs were handed over to the young German government for trusteeship administration and further property examinations.

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