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Historical Perspective

According to U.S. estimates, the Nazis stole one-fifth of all the known artworks in Europe. While the Allies returned most of the displaced art in the decade following the war, much of the loot is still missing. Tragically, unique masterpieces were destroyed and lost to posterity forever. Other works of art—the last, forgotten victims of the war—survived but remain unidentified, traceable only with costly and difficult investigation.

By the mid-fifties the initial, massive restitution effort by the Allies had lost its priority and momentum to the pressures of the Cold War. Hundreds of works of art, their owners unidentified, still lay in government storerooms across Europe, or remained in the hands of unscrupulous dealers who waited for years before disguising their origins and feeding them slowly into the market.

But this long quiet period is over. The end of the Cold War and the opening of the archives of Eastern Europe revealed that many works believed lost had survived. The commemorations marking the end of World War II and the development of Holocaust scholarship also led to the re-examination and declassification of forgotten records, inspiring those who had long since despaired of finding their lost possessions to search again. Instrumental in bringing worldwide attention to this long-neglected story was the 1995 publication of The Rape of Europa, Lynn H. Nicholas's landmark book on which the film is based. The documentary film by Actual Films builds on her scholarship by incorporating the latest historical research, examining the legal and political problems presented by contemporary restitution claims, and assessing the lingering effects of this massive cultural displacement, an aspect of the war that still haunts us today.

The revival of interest in the subject of looting and restitution has had dramatic results. American museums from Seattle, Washington to Raleigh, North Carolina have had to explain how stolen paintings ended up in their collections after the war. In France, a catalogue of unclaimed art held by the national museums and ignored for years is now available online. Other nations, feeling the pressure, have also revisited the often unjust decisions made by their governments after the war concerning ownership of looted art. Perhaps most notable is the case of the five paintings by Gustav Klimt, long held by the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, that were awarded in 2006 by a panel of Austrian judges to Maria Altmann, the 90-year-old Los Angeles niece of a Viennese Jew from whom the paintings were stolen in 1938. She subsequently sold the pictures, one of them—the famed Gold Portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer—to Ronald Lauder for a record $135 million.

Pillage and looting during warfare are not, of course, activities that originated with World War II. Even before the epics of Homer, human history recorded the time-honored tradition of victors seizing plunder from the vanquished. But the massive scale, the unprecedented bureaucratic organization and the legalistic rationalizations offered by the Nazis set their accomplishments apart. Not hundreds or thousands, but millions of visual objects were bought and sold, confiscated and transported around the continent of Europe.

Just as the Nazis sought to impose their race-based morality onto the diverse population of Europe, they also sought to redraw the cultural face of Europe by rearranging or destroying its great artworks. Even in the upheavals of war the Nazi leaders devoted precious time and energy to the gathering of works of art. They carried out multiple operations with cross purposes. While Alfred Rosenberg’s propaganda unit (ERR) appropriated artworks that would buttress the Party’s racist ideology and pilfered the great Jewish collections of Europe, Hitler employed distinguished art historians and corrupt dealers to steal masterpieces that would confer prestige and symbolic legitimacy on the German nation.

However diverse, these operations were all linked by an underlying, racist effort by the Nazis to use the expropriation and destruction of cultural property as a means to dehumanize their victims. The Holocaust has become a symbol of the dark side of humanity, and we have spent decades trying to understand what it means to live knowing that average people are capable of complicity in such a horror. The history of what happened to Europe's great art during and after the Second World War provides an important new lens through which to examine these seemingly imponderable themes.

In contrast to the wholesale looting of Hitler and the Nazis, the western Allies worked to mitigate the tragic, inevitable toll exacted on art and historic cities during their invasion of Italy, France and Germany. Central to this history is the unprecedented mission of the Monuments Men, mostly American art historians and museum curators who, drafted into military service, mounted a miraculous effort to protect monuments and recover millions of pieces of displaced art.

Moving back and forth in time, the film links investigations into looted art back to their wartime origins, tracing the remarkable journeys of individual masterpieces from wartime confiscation to present-day recovery by the families of the original owners. The Rape of Europa offers a privileged entry into the exclusive circles of the contemporary art trade and explores the little-known legacy of World War II that lured many post-war collectors and dealers into a Faustian bargain that continues to present day.

We live at a time when the common cultural heritage of humanity continues to be vulnerable to the threats of ideologues and the assaults of armed conflict, from the wanton destruction by Serbs of centuries-old mosques in Bosnia and Kosovo to the televised demolition by the Taliban of the ancient Bamian Buddhas of Afghanistan and the rampant looting that accompanied the American invasion of Iraq. The Rape of Europa is an emotional witness to the destruction wrought on culture and art by fanaticism, greed, and warfare. But it is also a hopeful film that demonstrates how it is possible for humanity to protect the integrity of cultural property in armed conflicts.

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Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the film or on this website do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, or any other project sponsor.