21 May 2010

Hitler's Holy Relics I

I've recently read a surprisingly fascinating book, Hitler's Holy Relics: A True Story of Nazi Plunder and the Race to Recover the Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Empire by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick.

The book is written from the point of view of Walter Horn, an art historian by trade who had improbably been given the task near the war's end in Europe of interrogating German prisoners on what they knew about poison gas. There was nothing improbable about the mission: allied intelligence was sensibly concerned, circa February 1945, that Hitler would unleash poison gas when he believed he had nothing left to lose. What seems improbable in retrospect was that Horn, whose interest in medieval art had had him studying before the war with such giants in the field as Erwin Panofsky and Bernard Berenson, should have been given that task. But it was a fortuitous circumstance, because one day one of the German prisoners, knowing nothing about poison gas but eager to please his captors and perhaps improve his own miserable conditions, leaned forward to ask Horn, "Are you interested in art and antiques?"

He was. And that sets Kirkpatrick's tale in motion. Private Huber told of a bunker on Blacksmith's Alley in Nuremburg that held a variety of artefacts that he, the private, had seen but the importance of which he did not understood. (Huber had been there because his father was in charge of maintaining the air ventilation unit, which is obviously crucial to any facility for the underground storage of antiquities.) Huber told of monarchical robes embroidered with pearl-studded pictures of camels and lions, of a crown with uncut sapphires, rubies, and amethysts, a golden apple tipped with a cross, and much else. Horn recognized that the descriptions matched the regal paraphenalia of the Holy Roman Emperors, the "First Reich" in the line in which Hitler fancied his own regime the Third.

US forces invaded Nuremburg on April 17. Acting on Horn's report, and on high command's concerns that the relics could become symbolically significant for the would-be founders of a Fourth Reich, a 135-man assault team was detailed in the chaos of that battle to secure the Blacksmith's Alley facility. Huber had been telling the truth. The facility was the Third Reich's treasure trove.

The war in Europe ended on May 8 (and the dying Third Reich had never employed poison gas). Horn's job in the early days of the occupation was to interrogate high-ranking Nazis, in anticipation of the eventual war crimes trials. So although he was now asking questions of people who far outranked poor Private Huber, his daily work had not much changed. But in July '45 Horn was called away from that task and given another. Some of the most precious of the treasures inside that Blacksmith's Alley trove had gone missing. He was ordered to become an impromptu gumshoe -- to report within three weeks on who was responsible for their disappearance, and if possible, to recover them.

SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading NOW if you hope ever to read this book in the spirit of reading a who-dunnit. Still with me? All right.

The two alternative hypotheses with which Horn begins his quest are: that the Nazis had established a covert resistance program near war's end in order to sabotage the occupation and lay the groundwork for an eventual restoration of their fortunes, and had spirited away the pick of the treasures -- including the aforementioned imperial crown -- for this purpose; and that one or more GIs within the occupation administration had taken them either for souvenirs or for a black-market profit.

The right answer was a variant of the first of those. There was general agreement among the Nazi elite that these treasures should be kept safe for a Fourth Reich, but the actual move of the five key pieces out of the Blacksmith Alley locale seems not to have been part of any very careful plan, but the result of an intra-party dispute, and of an order given by the City's mayor (who was himself murdered by an SA Group Leader just before the US forces invaded the city.)

Before that final confrontation, Mayor Liebel had instructed that certain artefacts be moved out of one underground hiding place ... into another. Not far away. Indeed, this mystery has a twist that reminds me of one of Poe's stories, "The treasures for which [Horn] had criss-crossed Germany had apparently been hidden less than a thousand yards from where his investigation had begun."

Two of the mayor's underlings did some prison time for lying about this to the occupation authorities, and Horn was treated like a conquering hero by the MFAA, the office of the US Forces European Theatre concerned with "Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives."

It's a fine story, with broader significance concerning the core matters of this blog -- pragmatism and sovereignty. I hope to speak to that significance tomorrow.

1 comment:

Henry said...

Two other books, both published in 2009, on the recovery and preservation of art during WW II are The Monuments Men and The Venus Fixers. Here are a couple of reviews of both books:



Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.