World War II was an event that forever changed the cultural landscape of the world. Even today, nearly 70 years after its end, the pieces are still being put back together. The story of European art in WWII is a fascinating one. The Nazis hated modern art, as it was a symbol of free thinking and the individual. Beyond that, Hitler was a failed artist who harbored deep resentment against the art establishment. In the same way that he tried to purge Germany of people who were considered racially degenerate, he sought to rid Germany of modern art and establish a new German museum dedicated to images that celebrated true Arian culture. Many modern artists fled Europe all together in the years leading up to war. Others bravely stayed to face ridicule and persecution. As the Nazis fanned out across Europe, taking Poland, Austria and France, and becoming an ally with fascist Italy, the made a business of confiscating art where ever they could find it, which was pretty much everywhere. It was stolen and shipped back to Germany for the private collections of Hitler and his higher-ups, or sold off to other world museums to make money for the war effort. In France and Italy, many world-famous masterpieces were quickly wrapped up, removed from museums, and hidden in rural farmhouses to escape the on-coming armies and stray bombs. Because of such efforts, many pieces remain today. Many others have ended up scattered around the world, leading to legal custody battles. Many world-famous pieces have simply vanished forever, either destroyed in the war or collecting dust waiting to be rediscovered.
In part one on Italy and WWII, I discussed the ethical dilemma that faced allied troops in places like Italy. They were under orders to limit the damage the cultural sites and world-famous art, which is hard to do when you’re being shot at and soldiers are dying. As the allied troops gradually pushed the Nazis north back towards Germany, they had to plan their operations around limiting damage to the great cities of Europe. Their solution was to place specialists on the front line who were able to recognize what needed to be saved. These art-historian specialists were the first ones in to evaluate the damage and preserve what was found from looting and further damage. It was a remarkably delicate operation.
There is a fantastic documentary made a few years ago that tells the story of Nazi occupation and the allied recovery of art works. It’s a film that will absolutely enhance your understanding of European art and appreciation for those who managed to save so much of it in the face of near total destruction. It’s called “The Rape of Europa” and is available for internet streaming on Netflix. I have yet to find a free version online, but I would consider it essential viewing before heading to Italy. Make a point to see it. For now, here’s a trailer-