Movies: How the Nazis Pillaged Europe

To the victor, go the spoils: the world's great museums are chock full of the booty from long-ago conquests. But as Lynn Nicholas, author of the award-winning book "The Rape of Europa" points out, the magnitude of Nazi looting of art during World War II "far surpassed anything previously attempted." In the fascinating new documentary based on her book, also titled "The Rape of Europa," the filmmakers explore how Hitler's passion for art—and his rigid judgments—shaped Nazi policy. Hundreds of thousands of artworks were plundered and shipped to Germany as a means of glorifying the fatherland: Hitler even kept a wish list of art he wanted from countries he had yet to invade. And while it's well known that the führer hated modern art and had examples of so-called "degenerate art" destroyed, he also systematically set out to decimate the Slavic cultures he deemed inferior—that of Poland and Russia—by ordering the destruction of art, architecture, monuments and libraries that his armies found in their path.

The Nazis began, of course, by taking art from the Jews—starting with wealthy collectors and dealers in Vienna who fled after the annexation of Austria in 1938. One of the most extraordinary such examples—Gustav Klimt's "Gold Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer"—was only restored to the family of its owner in 2006 and now hangs in the Neue Gallery in New York, after Ronald Lauder bought the painting for a record $135 million. In France, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, the Nazis rounded up artworks by the truckload. Some went to the private collections of Third Reich honchos such as Heinrich Himmler, while others were destined for Hitler's ultimate cultural fantasy: a spectacular new museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria, which he planned to turn into a cultural capital far grander than Paris or Vienna—a city he particularly hated because its art academy had rejected him when he was an aspiring painter. So infatuated was Hitler with his plans for Linz that, according to a photograph, he was still studying the model of his gloriously re-imagined city as late as March 1945—mere weeks before his final defeat and suicide.

Much of the documentary shows in gripping detail the efforts to save Europe's treasures from Hitler 's clutches and the ravages of war. The Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in Leningrad were practically emptied before the Germans arrived, as eerie photographs of the galleries attest, with barren gilt frames scattered about. The French sent their treasures into hiding in chateaux outside Paris for most of the war—the "Mona Lisa" was moved six times in as many years. In Italy, workers labored feverishly to fortify monuments too difficult to transport, entombing Michelangelo's "David," for example, inside a thick brick shell. Some unusual heroes emerge in the stories in "The Rape of Europa." One was a quiet, mousy curator named Rose Valland at the Jeu de Paume museum, which the Nazis made the central collecting point for all the art they pillaged from Parisian collections. Valland went quietly about her work, never letting on she was fluent in German and could understand everything that was said or written down: she kept a meticulous diary in which she wrote down what was stolen, who it belonged to before the war and where it was sent by the Nazis.. After the war, her lists were invaluable.

Though individual Allied soldiers were occasionally guilty of their own plunder, the Allied command worked hard to restore art to collectors and museums—including German museums—after the war. Eisenhower understood the importance of trying to preserve Europe's treasures in battle and afterward, as much as possible. Of course, there are moral ambiguities all through the film: the difficult decision to bomb the historic monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy or the horrific bombing of Dresden, Frankfurt, Berlin and other cities with their almost incalculable old treasures. The Allies fretted terribly about bombing Florence—and finally, with great precision, only bombed the train station to disrupt the enemies' transport lines. After the war came the fantastic discoveries of much of the art looted by the Germans safely hidden in mines. The process of restitution of artwork went on for years—and some goes on to this day. In the Soviet Union, a debate still rages: some Russians believe that the art the Red Army took from Germany at the end of the war deserves to stay in Russia after all the suffering and death the country endured at the hands of the Nazis.

Scholars know about the fantastic artwork destroyed in the war—paintings by Caravaggio, Rubens, Raphael. But what's so heartening about "The Rape of Europa" is how much was saved and found—priceless paintings by Vermeer, Leonardo and on and on. And the hunt for works that were lost isn't over. Scholars continue to hope that some rare pieces, somehow, somewhere, might still turn up.