The Nazis Stole Thousands Of Artworks During WWII – But Then A Crack Team Decided To Take Them Back

As the carnage of World War II rages across western Europe, another, quieter, crime is being committed. Across the continent, Hitler and his men are looting priceless artworks, hoarding them as centerpieces for a new museum. But as Germany’s power begins to wane, the paintings and sculptures are in danger of disappearing for good – until an unlikely band of heroes steps in.

As a teenager in Austria, Adolf Hitler left his home in the city of Linz and traveled east to Vienna in the hopes of studying art. And even though the city’s prestigious Academy rejected his application on two separate occasions, the future Fuhrer’s passion for the artistic remained.

Three decades later, Hitler led Germany into one of the bloodiest wars that the world has ever seen. But as the Nazi’s influence spread across western Europe, it wasn’t just a way of life that was under threat. Apparently, the Fuhrer also had his eye on the cultural heritage of the continent – and it seemed as if little could stand in his way.

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Over the course of the war, Hitler oversaw the systematic removal of countless works of art from collections across Europe, including those held in private homes, universities and religious buildings. And soon, he had amassed a staggering catalogue of drawings, paintings, sculptures and more.

Picking their way through some of the world’s greatest museums, the Nazi’s acquired works by Picasso, Rembrandt, Michelangelo and many others. And while some officers, such as Hermann Goering, siphoned off pieces for themselves, Hitler himself had a different goal.

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Back in 1938, Hitler had begun planning a great museum to be built in his hometown of Linz. Dubbed the Fuhrermuseum, its purpose would be to display all the finest art from across Europe, putting Nazi Germany firmly on the cultural map. And to fill it, the Fuhrer began sifting through the spoils of war in search of the best artistic treasures.

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Meanwhile, in the Allied countries, concern was growing for the fragile cultural treasures caught up in the violence of war. And over in America, an art conservationist named George Stout began petitioning the government to step in. However, it wasn’t until 1943 that an official program was established to protect valuable artifacts from further destruction.

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At first, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program – whose members soon acquired the nickname the Monuments Men – was responsible for preventing cultural property from becoming collateral damage during Allied bombing raids. But as the war began to draw to a close, their remit shifted to include the recovery of stolen art.

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By the time that Stout eventually joined the program he had campaigned for at the end 1944, the Monuments Men comprised some 345 individuals. The team included both women and men, from across 14 different countries. However, they were far from soldiers; in fact, most had never expected to have any involvement in the war.

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Instead, the Monuments Men were artists themselves, or museum directors, historians, curators and archivists. And even though many of them were approaching middle age, they volunteered to become part of the fight to rescue Europe’s cultural treasures from the clutches of the Third Reich.

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Although most of the Monuments Men never made it to the front lines, a small group of about 12 members – including Stout – regularly found themselves in the thick of the action, working to retrieve looted works of art. And tragically, American Captain Walter Huchthausen and British Major Ronald Balfour both died in the field.

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In March 1945, Monuments Men Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein were in the German city of Trier when they heard a fascinating confession. Desperately seeking a way out of the country, a man told them the location of Goering’s art stash. And he went on to reveal the location of another cache. This one belonged to the Fuhrer himself, and was hidden among the Alps of Austria.

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Two months later, with the war finally coming to an end, Posey and Kirstein arrived at Altausee, a salt mine that had been in operation for thousands of years. Inside, a network of tunnels stretched for over a mile into the one of the mountains. Making the perfect stash-spot, the chambers ensured that anything stored within would be well protected from any enemy artillery.

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Beginning in 1943, Hitler’s forces had transported thousands of pieces of art to the mine. Once there, they were stored on specially constructed shelves within the tunnels. And when Posey and Kirstein entered, it wasn’t long before they stumbled upon a priceless treasure. They had found van Eyck’s eight-panel altarpiece “The Adoration of the Lamb,” an iconic piece of 15th-century art. The masterpiece had been stolen from St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium.

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Soon after, Posey and Kirstein found the “Madonna of Bruges,” a marble sculpture by Michelangelo. It seems that the piece had been smuggled out of the same Belgian city by Hitler’s men. And within just a few days, they had recovered a number of works by Johannes Vermeer, a renowned painter from the Dutch Golden Age, the 17th century.

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In May of 1945, Stout arrived in Altaussee to coordinate the removal of the mine’s massive stash of priceless art. Amazingly, he noted more than 6,500 paintings as well as vast collections of drawings, sculptures, tapestries, books and furniture. And shockingly, he discovered just how close the world had come to losing them all.

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Apparently, back in April, Hitler had issued something called the Nero Decree. This order requested the destruction of valuable assets across Nazi territory as the Allies approached. At Altaussee, leader August Eigruber duly placed eight explosive devices within the mine. He was, apparently, ready to wipe centuries of art and culture off the face of the Earth. Destruction, it seems, was preferable to letting the Allies get their hands on it.

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However, this plan was ultimately thwarted by the director of Altaussee, who convinced Eigruber to place a number of additional small charges within the mine. Keen to save his livelihood, the mine worker then secretly ordered the removal of the larger bombs. When detonated, the weaker explosives simply sealed up the tunnels with the intact artworks inside.

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Throughout June and July of 1945, Stout and his team worked to remove some 80 trucks-worth of artwork from the tunnels. However, the work of the Monuments Men didn’t end there. In fact, many stayed behind in Europe for years after the war. The spent their time tracking down the original owners of the stolen pieces. And by 1951, they had helped some five million artworks find their way home.

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Amazingly, the efforts of the Monuments Men might have remained a footnote in history if wasn’t for Lynn H. Nicholas. In 1995, she wrote the book, The Rape of Europa, about their painstaking search for the stolen art. Almost 20 years later, the story formed the basis for the 2014 blockbuster movie The Monuments Men. Thanks to Nicholas and Hollywood, the work of men like Stout, Posey and Kirstein will be remembered for many years to come.

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