The Heist Of 1945

It must have been one of the strangest sights an invading army ever encountered. On April 4, 1945, only weeks before Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies, U.S. troops arrived in Merkers, a tiny town in the eastern German province of Thuringia. There, in a salt mine 2,100 feet below the bombed surface, soldiers stumbled on an astounding collection of art and valuables. One hundred tons of gold bars from the Reichsbank reserves were scattered on the floor. Pictures by Raphael, Durer, Renoir and Rembrandt were piled into mine-trolley cars or stacked haphazardly against the walls. There were Roman and Egyptian antiques, tapestries and precious books from Germany's most famous libraries. The soldiers quickly packed up the priceless goods and moved them to the American occupation zone in the West.

Hitler had sent the treasure from Berlin to the salt mine as one of his final desperate orders. He hoped that his loot-most of it plundered by Nazi troops-would be safe from Allied bombs and the advancing Red Army. But he could not save it all. As Soviet troops swept into Berlin in May 1945, they discovered giant flak towers filled with the collections of Berlin's museums and galleries. The Soviets promptly emptied them. Within weeks, units of the Red Army "Trophy Commission" worked their way across Soviet-occupied Germany, clearing out museums, archives, libraries and private collections, including Hitler's. They took masterpieces by Goya, Brueghel, El Greco, Dilrer, Monet, van Gogh, Rembrandt and Cezanne, drawings by Raphael, Leonardo and Titian, the gold treasure of Troy, medieval manuscripts and religious artifacts. By the time the Soviets were finished, some 2 million objects worth billions of dollars today were destroyed or on their way to Moscow.

This may have been the greatest art heist in history. After the war, the Americans returned most of the works they captured to West Germany, and the Soviets returned the bulk of their booty to East Germany. But nearly half a million pieces confiscated by the Red Army were never seen again. That could soon change. As part of a recently ratified treaty on neighborly relations, united Germany and the Soviet Union have promised to return stolen works of art "to their rightful owners or heirs" and to provide compensation for missing works. The treaty is the first step toward closing one ofthe most painful chapters of World War II history, in which each side tried systematically to destroy the cultural heritage of the other. "Art was central to both Hitler's and Stalin's Weltanschauung [world view]," says Klaus Goldmann, chief curator of Berlin's Museum for Pre- and Early History. "The Nazis and Soviets went at it with equal vigor on the theory that if you destroy a people's art, then you destroy their historical identity and confidence. It wasn't just a matter of some GI stuffing things into his pockets,", he says. "We are talking about confiscation of art as a matter of state policy."

Soviet cultural officials still refuse to acknowledge the stolen art, but prominent art historians have taken advantage of the breakdown of traditional barriers of secrecy in the Soviet Union to confirm what international experts have long suspected. Last January Aleksei Rastorguyev, a 33-year-old professor of art history at Moscow State University, announced that dozens of Soviet museums have "secret repositories" of art removed from Germany after the war. Three months later, correspondent Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov of Moscow's Museum of Private Collections backed him up in an article published in ART news. "A special commission should be established to settle the problem," Rastorguyev says, "now that the people involved lack the courage to hang on to these stolen works so blatantly, "

In effect, the looting began shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933 and set about trying to reshape German culture. Art squads appropriated private Jewish collections. They confiscated the works of prominent modernists such as Klee, Kandinsky and George Grosz. Hitler called their works "sickly excrescences." By the time warbegan in 1939, Hitler's campaign to rid the Third Reich of "non-Germanic" art was in full swing. Art squads systematically scoured European museums and private collections, channeling "Germanic art" to Linz, Austria, for Hitler's cherished Fuhrer Museum, and confiscating or destroying the rest. Both Hitler and Hermann Goring, chief of the Nazi Air Force, had art squads combing German-occupied territories for additions to their personal collections, Goring routinely provided Air Force planes and trains to transport the loot back to his eight private residences, each crammed with stolen art.

More than 200 private collections in the Netherlands, France and Belgium were looted. In Eastern Europe, Nazi troops ruined more than 2,000 museums, archives and libraries; in Poland, they gathered religious manuscripts and rare books and burned them. German troops destroyed, removed or damaged more than half a billion museum pieces throughout the Soviet Union, which at that time were worth more than $1 billion. "First the Nazi War Commission took what they wanted, then officers went through, then the soldiers, then they poured gasoline on it and burned [the Kharkov Museum] to the ground," recalls Kozlov.

The Soviets began inventorying their losses in 1942. "That was when the word trophy came up," says Kozlov, "to express the idea of compensation." When the tide of the war turned and Soviet troops invaded Germany, they struck artistic targets regularly. While individual Soviet soldiers engaged in pilfering, secret-police squads cleared out museums and art depots. On May 17, 1945, the art-filled flak tower in the Berlin district of Friedrichshain went up in flames, destroying more than 400 old masters, including works by Raphael and Rubens, according to reports at the time. The Soviets blamed Nazi diehards, but many experts now believe the fire was set by the Soviets themselves, and that the paintings were removed first. Works brought back to the Soviet Union were stuffed into museum warehouses, where they remain today.

Through his contacts at Soviet museums, Rastorguyev has located much of the war contraband. The treasures of Troy, excavated in the 19th century by Heinrich Schliemann, which were taken from Berlin's Museum for Pre- and Early History, are in Moscow's Pushkin Museum, he says. Other treasures are at Leningrad's Hermitage and even in the Kremlin. Many of the works plundered from German collections have been distributed to Soviet dachas, embassies and officials, often as rewards for good service. "It's quite possible that some of these works hang at Gorbachev's house," says Rastorguyev. Less valuable objects are unlikely to have survived the often careless storage. According to German officials, more than a million volumes from German libraries, including Hitler's own, are in soggy stacks in the Uzkoye Church outside Moscow.

Finding out what each country is missing and where the art has been hidden is a daunting task. Museum records were destroyed during the war or lost during the postwar chaos. A good deal of art was looted by occupying soldiers, American and Russian alike. Last year the German government paid $3 million to regain a medieval manuscript stolen by an American GI in 1945 from the Quedlinburg Cloister. After the man died, his relatives tried to sell the 1,100-year-old volume to international art dealers. "The legal problems are tremendous," says a Bonn official involved in the negotiations. "People inherit something from Grandpa without having any idea that it was stolen." In May, three London museums were shocked to discover that their Durers belonged to a collection of lithographs stolen by Nazi troops from a museum in the Ukrainian city of Lvov.

Earlier this year French police seized a portrait by the Dutch master Frans Hals while it was on temporary exhibit from Paris. They were tipped off by a man who recognized the work as part of his father's collection seized by a Nazi art squad in 1943. Last fall three antique tables still bearing inventory numbers from the Kaiser Friedrich Palais in Berlin were auctioned at Sotheby's in New York. The tables had been removed from Berlin by Soviet troops after the war.