Whenever I'm feeling a little uninspired, it is fun to watch something about WWII. You know, gasp in horror and gnash your teeth at all the horrible things that Hitler did. Most people are well-aware of the experiments, the concentration camps, the racism and crimes against humanity. But I was particularly interested in pursuing a topic not often discussed...his theft of thousands of Europe's greatest pieces of art. Dude did love his art, which is so contradictory to his otherwise hateful nature. He even fancied himself an artist, but he wasn't very good.
For twelve years Hitler and his minions (particularly Goering) sacheted through museums and private homes, taking what they pleased and destroying what wasn't up to their standard. Like it was their God-given right. The Soviets got in on some of the action too, but this was mostly a German affair.
In this documentary, we travel through seven European countries that suffered from such pillaging, with specifics provided to illustrate the level of greed and despicability. For example, this 1907 painting by Gustav Klimt entitled "Gold Portrait", was confiscated by the Nazi's from the subject's husband when he escaped to Switzerland. It took years in the courts for the family to get the painting back in their possession, and in 2006 sold on the open market for $135 million. Some have called it the "other Mona Lisa".
This painting, painted in 1513 by Italian High Renaissance Old Master Rafael and entitled "Portrait of a Young Man", was brought to Poland by a prince in the late 1700's (along with DaVinci's "Lady With an Ermine", seen below). When the Nazi's invaded Poland in 1939, they took both items and eventually they ended up in Hitler's private collection. The DaVinci painting was eventually returned to Poland, but the Rafael, and 843 other artifacts, were never found. Most likely these items will resurface once those hiding the treasures die and their kids want to cash in, or older buildings are renovated and the paintings are found in a secret chamber.
Thanks to some brave souls whose passions are firmly on the side of the arts began to fight back almost immediately. They dedicated their lives to hunting down and returning these paintings to their rightful owners. But there was SO MUCH taken. Over 100,000 items by some counts. 43% of all Polish cultural heritage was snatched away during the war.
Then there is Rose Valland, a mousy woman hired by the Nazis to do clerical work. Secretly, she cataloged every piece of artwork the Nazis stole, which greatly aided in the recovery.
Still, some are still fighting to retrieve their rightful heritage to this day through the courts. I was more than a little annoyed when a German historian angrily protested the return of the stolen artifacts, saying that the Germans lost so many people in the war, and so they shouldn't have to do the honorable thing. Really? And nobody else did?
For anyone who enjoys learning about WWII or art history, you will find this documentary fascinating. For more information, there is also a book written by Lynn Nicholas of the same title.