George Clooney shows us in “The Monuments Men” the story of American art protection officers – while the war is still in full swing – catching up with the advancing troops through Europe. Initially concerned about the European monuments and architecture they also searched for war-related mobile works of art suggested to be in repositories like mines and bunkers, primarily Nazi-looted art. By locating these repositories such as Neuschwanstein or Altaussee the Hollywood film comes to an end. But the real story of the Monuments Men is then only at the beginning. Other art protection officers came to Europe to collect these works of art discovered to inventory and return them to their rightful owner. This story is not told by Clooney. Largely unknown was until recently the existence of a Central Collecting Point in the small town of Wiesbaden (near Frankfurt). It was decided right there that German art works were not carried away as booty art in the United States, but could remain as the basis of today’s museum landscape in Germany.
Those German Paintings
The end of World War II meant a turning point for the field of visual arts. The much-discussed “zero hour” required a reconstruction of the infrastructure of the German museum landscape: Many buildings which have been shown artworks were damaged or destroyed, “National Socialist pre-loaded” staff had to be replaced, the collections will be restructured. The American forces had established for this purpose a special unit of art protection officers, which we today call “Monuments Men”. One of the bases of their activities after the Second World War was built within the walls of the Museum Wiesbaden. It began in the summer of 1945 with the incorporation of works of art which originated in large part from the Berlin museums, from the National Gallery of Art Library, the Graphic Collection, the Egyptian department and other collections.
First CCP-Director Walter Farmer had previously undertaken some efforts to make the museum building ready for the artworks. Farmer therefore had to organize glass for the shattered windows, repair the roof and provide the building with a barbed wire fence and security guards for the security of incoming art.
He wrote to his wife Jocelyn:
“We are building a new world and want what is good, carry over from the old. (…) Nothing can stop my work. I’m constantly on my feet, and yet it seems to me as if it were progressing at a snail’s pace.”
But then something happened that Farmer didn’t see coming and what was contrary to his conception of cultural property protection: Farmer received the order for the removal of 200 works of art to the United States of America – westward ho!
Farmer was amazed – he had made every effort to ensure the accommodation of art in Wiesbaden as good as possible, with post-war constraints. What could be the background of this orders? Did the Americans want to bring German art as reparation to the U.S.? Were these 200 works of art just the beginning of art looting of a larger scale?
“We are no better than the Nazis!”
What farmers did not know: this action was in America has long been the subject of debate.
In March 1945, General Lucius D. Clay had expressed as Deputy Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army his desire to bring all German art in the United States – but without a clear idea of how many works of art there would be, and how the situation of museums in Germany was.
In July – the Wiesbaden CCP was already established – win the United States a classification system to manage the amount of artworks emerged:
- Class A: works of art that had been stolen by the Germans in occupied areas of public and private collections and for which no compensation was carried out
- Class B: same as A, but with some sort of compensation
These two categories were candidates for restitution to other states and thus not available
- Class C: works of art “bona fide” property of Germany. These works of art would be available for reparations to the Allies
In September, the military government drafted a press release about the planned shipment of artwork to the United States (in fiduciary because of insufficient accommodation) – for safekeeping.
In November 1945 came as an envoy Col. McBride in Germany to assess the situation in the WCCP. After a damning report on the conditions in the Museum, General Clay gave the order on the removal of 200 works of art. Farmer received this order in a telegram from his superiors Clay dated November 6: he may select 200 paintings from the storage stocks and send to the U.S., as their safe housing is not guaranteed in Germany. They should be kept in America until the situation has improved.
Farmer could not approve of this removal. It was against his view of protection of cultural property, the preservation of the cultural heritage of a nation, which must remain on site. His concern was that they – the Germans as well as the Allies – would accuse the Monuments Men of the looting of works of art in the occupied zone. They accused the Nazis as art thieves – and now they should themselves carry away booty art?
Walter Farmer himself commented on the removal:
“We are no better and no worse than the Germans fact is that we have learned a lot from them -… Dishonor”
At the same time he was concerned about the opinion of its employees to this incident and saw the good cooperation with them at risk.
Walter Farmer called the art protection officers stationed in Europe to Wiesbaden. Together they put on a paper, which states among other things:
We wish to state that, from our own knowledge, no historical grievance will rankle so long or be the cause of so much justified bitterness as the removal for any reason of a part of the heritage of any nation even if that heritage may be interpreted as a prize of war.
This document has become known as the “Wiesbaden Manifesto” and was signed by 24 of the 32 art protection officers stationed north of the Alps on 11/07/1945.
The manifesto was addressed to the supervisor of the Monuments Men and was- they were indeed members of the military – a insubordination. Edith Standen, an art protection officer who worked with Farmer in Wiesbaden, forwarded the Manifesto to Chief’s office in Frankfurt – were it remained without any effect. Supervisor Bancel La Farge (head of the MFA & A Department) was well aware of the possible consequences of this insubordination. And as some of the art protection officers were shortly before they regular dismissal from military service anyway, he held back the letter.
The transport could not be prevented in any case. Already on November, 20, 200 works of art were selected – masterpieces by artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Cranach, Dürer, Holbein, Raphael, Mantegna, Edouard Manet, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan Vermeer – and arrived in Washington in December 1945, where they were stored in the vaults of the National Gallery of Art.
An Exhibition Tour in the USA
The 200 works of art were thus lost. Was the manifest completely ineffective?
No, it was not! As a direct insubordination it could not have its effect, but the content, the mind of the art protection officers came to the public on a detour. In November 1945, the American journalist Janet Flanner visited the CCP. She published the Wiesbaden Manifesto on 11/17/1945 at the “New Yorker”. A little later Monuments Man Charles Kuhn, returned to the United States, published an article called “A Protest” in College Art Journal. On 02/07/1946, an article in the New York Times was released.
As a result, 95 American art expert, wrote a resolution to the U.S. President, in which they demanded the return of the images to Germany and to prevent further transports from Germany requested. Initiator of this action were the director of the Whitney Museum (New York), Juliana Force, as well as the director of the Frick Collection (New York), Frederick Mortimer Clapp.
With this public protest the U.S. government finally had to give in and return the artworks to Germany. But not right away –
It was not until 6 February 1948 that General Clay states that the conditions in the German Collecting Points were sufficiently so that the artworks could return. Before that the artworks hitherto locked away in the vaults, were yet to be shown the American people. March 17 to April 25 the art works have been exhibited in the National Gallery Washington. With great success – 964 970 visitors have seen this exhibition.
Subsequently, the Senate decided that 50 of the most delicate works of art should return directly to Germany, where they arrived in May 1948. The remaining paintings were sent on an exhibition tour with 13 stations across the United States. After five exhibition venues, in September 1948, another 50 paintings were sent back to Germany. The remaining paintings continued the tour to Minneapolis, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, until they too were able to return home in April 1949. The Berlin collections were reunited.
Thanks to the Wiesbaden Manifesto additional transports of German works of art to the United States have been prevented – and the Berlin artworks came back. Most of the artworks stored in Wiesbaden returned to German museums and form the core of our museum landscape. But that is a story George Clooney isn’t telling.