Summary of Rape of Europa Documentary
"The Rape of Europa," a startling documentary, puts the number rather higher: One-fifth of all the known significant works of art in Europe -- millions. Incredibly, Hitler maintained shopping lists of art for every country he invaded, and dispatched troops to secure (i.e., plunder) the works and ship them back to Germany. He had plans to build a monumental art museum in Linz, his Austrian birthplace, and was working on models of the structure even during his final days in the Berlin bunker. His right-hand man Hermann Goering was no less keen as a collector.
The narrative moves back and forth through time, making prodigious use of recent interviews, historical newsreels, and archival film footage from several different countries, much never seen by the public before. Recovery work began even before the war ended. “Monuments men,” mostly American art historians and curators, were dispatched during and after the war to safeguard, identify, and restore many of the art treasures. Scenes of industrial-sized warehouses full of paintings, salt mine tunnels clogged with piles of looted art, bonfires and rubble heaps of art beg the mind’s ability to comprehend. The film progresses through time, focusing on one city or museum, each an exemplary case typifying the vast scope of the project of protection or recuperation. During the Allied bombing of Florence, for example, American pilots were carefully briefed to avoid bombing art treasures. In other cities, such loss was not avoided. Perhaps the most painful of such was the notorious fire-bombing by British pilots, in a no-holds-barred vindictive bombing of many German art treasure cities in the final days of the war. Americans may likely think of Dresden as portrayed in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. The relationship between Hitler’s obsession with art, as a means to dehumanize his enemies and apotheosize his master racial aesthetic values — and just how integral to Hitler this strategy to redraw the geopolitical map through bald physical brute force was — stands today as a fresh, new, soul-shriveling warning out of the past for humankind to heed what it does today. We have seen the small beginnings, as documented in Degenerate Art, thedevastatingly insightful 1993 made-for-TV documentary by director David Grubin. It is not clear yet whether anyone, outside of art experts and connoisseurs is even really taking note, let alone beginning to learn the lessons from the dark side of present-day human psyche.
Definitely, the Commission -- underfunded and underequipped though they were -- sent curators and artists with troops to seek out art and recover it, even hoping to return it to rightful owners or their surviving relatives. Some of these Monuments Men recall their efforts and sense of mission, the importance of their work to save the past. The contrast between these efforts and the lack of foresight that shaped the looting of Iraq during the U.S. invasion is striking. Though the recollection work continues to this day, it remains a passion for those who conduct it. "Art belongs to humanity, says Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the Hermitage Museum. "Without it, we are animals. It's what makes us human."