Inspired by a recent team visit to Bruges as a place of historical interest, and out of curiosity as to the depths of our records, we decided to investigate what we could find out about Bruges and Belgium using records held here at The National Archives. Many of the results from a simple Discovery search (using the keyword ‘Bruges’) came up with records related to looting of art by the Nazis in the Second World War. Of all of the war crimes committed by the Nazis during the Second World War, looting and plunder of cultural property in occupied territory was not something we were all too familiar with – so we decided to investigate this further. What items were looted? Why? What happened to looted and plundered items from occupied territories, such as Belgium? Could the records held here answer these questions for us?
What items were looted and why?
The Nazis, and Hitler in particular, greatly admired and respected art and culture (provided they were by non-Jewish artists and not what they termed ‘degenerate’ art). Looting therefore was intended for the ‘moral and material enrichment’ of the German people and of particular party leaders through the attainment of iconic art works in occupied territories, including Belgium (FO/371/45769/6). It was also for the purpose of Hitler’s personal ambition of establishing the finest museum of art in the world in Linz (T209/29/15).
Towards the end of the war, and an Allied victory was assured, Britain set up a Committee for the Preservation and Restitution of Works of Art, Archives and Other Materials in Enemy Hands, also known as the Macmillan Committee. The American equivalent to the Macmillan Committee was the Roberts Commission, named after its Chairman, Supreme Court Judge Justice Roberts. After the Allies had entered Europe – along with the Soviets – they established the Restitution Commission whose objectives were: recording what was taken by the Nazis, identifying what had been found and returning it to its rightful owners (FO 371/45769).
One of the cases dealt with by the Restitution Commission involved Michelangelo’s ‘Madonna and Child’ statue, a fifteenth-century monument, looted in 1944 from the Church of Notre Dame in Bruges (and from where our curiosity first stemmed). According to a report by the Macmillan Committee, the statue was taken by:
‘two German officers…accompanied by a party of armed sailors [who removed] the statue in order to protect it from the approaching Americans. By light of torches, the visitors loaded the statue, wrapped in a number of mattresses, on to a waiting lorry.’ (T209/12)
This conjures up an incredible image of the removal of one of Belgium’s most treasured – and priceless – monuments on the night of 7 September 1944. We were keen to trace more information on this, and what else the documents could unveil about its journey.
What happened to looted art?
War Office Military Headquarters files (WO 204) and also the files of the Directorate of Civil Affairs of occupied enemy territories (WO 220) from during the Allied advance contain many reports of the intelligence that was being collected about missing items, when they were taken, by whom and their suspected locations. A lot of the collected information was speculative, but nonetheless this was fed back to the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) who analysed the information and coordinated the recovery of the items.
The Nazis, it seemed, had been storing looted items in various locations across Austria and Germany from salt mines to castles. Furthermore, a report dated May 1945 named the Austrian mountains as the supposed location for a large number of repositories containing stolen artwork. This information was supported by reports from Rome of numerous crates containing valuable Italian documents and artefacts which were despatched from Rome railway station to Altaussee in the Austrian Mountains (WO 204/3043). Continue reading »