“In wartime,” writes Chris Hedges, “the state seeks to destroy its own culture.” Indeed, he continues, in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, “The destruction of culture plays a crucial role in the solidification of a wartime narrative. When the visible and tangible symbols of one’s past are destroyed or denied, the past can be recreated to fit the myth.”
This destruction and the ensuing myth take a variety of form, from accidental to calculated, sadistic to masochistic. The Rape of Europa recounts the devastation wreaked by the Nazis during World War II. Essentially a film version of Lynn H. Nicholas’s book, Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham’s documentary presents Hitler’s program for conquest through a particular lens. Not only did he mean to annihilate entire populations in order to make room for the “pure” race of Germans, but he also devised a scheme for destroying, confiscating, and resituating art. As historian Jonathan Petropolous puts it, “The Nazis were not just the most systematic mass murderers in history. They were the greatest thieves: they stole everything.”
The film traces various strands of this enterprise, including the outright demolition of sculptures, paintings, and buildings that Hitler deemed “degenerate” (more often than not, work by Jewish or otherwise non-Germanic artists). Other methods of reconfiguring culture were, however, based in the possession of materials. In large part, this reconfiguring is premised in a familiar story about Hitler himself: an ambitious and failed art student who believed himself unfairly judged against Jewish artists, he understood art to be a means to shape minds and goals. While he famously contracted with filmmakers such as Leni Riefenstahl to generate triumphalist mythologies of physical and musical perfection for movie screens, he also deployed art toward the same ends. He understood the power of architecture, monuments, and paintings in the telling of nationalist stories.
Narrated by Joan Allen, the film is a combination of surprising footage and regular talking heads, systematic in its own right. It takes an initial and recurring focus on Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer in order to lay out at least one facet of the havoc wreaked by the Nazis’ plundering. The painting was stolen during the Reich’s early days, then, in decades after the war, claimed by a series of owners and governments as it became the object of controversy, recriminations, and greed.
The Reich used art in multiple ways — as signs of their own ascendance (Hitler and Nazi officers from Goebels to Göring took up collecting as a sign of entrance into the social upper crust of they felt denied to them by their lack of education, breeding, and money; as Allen narrates, “art collection became a required pastime for the Nazi party elite”) and as a means to influence cultural policy and community self-identifications. As his first public building for Nazi Germany, Hitler commissioned The House of German Art in Munich, which he envisioned as a museum to “display contemporary sculptures and art that glorified the Third Reich. It would be a museum for the new fascist art, overseen by Hitler himself.” By the time of his death, he still had hopes — articulated in his will — that a gigantic museum would be completed in his hometown of Lintz, to house his collection and memorialize him.
To fill these cavernous spaces, the Nazis “raided the galleries of the leading Jewish art dealers,” determining which pieces would be salvaged, stored, or marked for future exhibition.” That Hitler comprehended the powers of art — as a way to garner support, to create a culture, to manufacture an identity — is to his credit. That their methods were so relentlessly crude and brutal while Hitler and his officers imagined themselves as connoisseurs only underlines the horrible ironies at work in the Nazi project to remake the world. (The film also notes the practice of stealing non-valuable objects, from keepsakes to clothing to household items — the grand scale and willful blindness of the venture still seem shocking.) Dr. Leonard Malamut of the 11th Armored Division, one of the Allied units that discovered some of the stolen art, says sadly, “All of this accumulated beauty had been stolen by the most murderous thieves that had ever existed on the surface of the earth. How they could retain the nicety of appreciation of great art and be exterminating millions of people nearby in concentration camps? I couldn’t understand then and I can’t understand it today.”
The film contrasts remarkable footage of the Fuhrer leading tours of museums and during his one trip to Paris, observing the Eiffel Tower with architect Albert Speer, with images of the devastation his troops wrought. Witnesses to the invasions of nations — Austria, Poland, Italy, and France — recall the violence committed by tanks and bombers troops, but also the theft conducted by the troops. Curators in Paris, Florence, and Rome organized efforts to hide away artworks: often conducted by volunteers and in haste, packing, loading, and transporting monumental pieces like the Winged Victory of Samathross and precious ones like the Mona Lisa. As Lynn Nicholas observes, it was a “miracle” that the art survived, given the hectic nature of these rescue labors.
A related concern emerged when the Allies entered into the war, especially via the British and United States air raids, but this is allayed in the film by the deliberate efforts by the U.S. — specifically, as considered and recommended by the Roberts Commission, in league with the National Gallery of Art — to preserve as much art and architecture as possible, even during bombing raids.
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.”