In this excerpt of the bestselling book The Monuments Men, on which the film of the same name, directed by George Clooney and released Friday, is based, the platoon comes across four coffins containing the remains of Germany’s greatest leaders—and discover what they were intended for.
George Stout arrived at Bernterode on May 1, 1945. Just as fellow Monuments Man Walker Hancock had hinted in his phone call, the mine was in a rural area, with nothing to see but forests. Even the tiny village nearby had been evacuated by Nazi officials so that no one would know about the frantic activity at the mine. The only sight of civilization, if that’s what it could be called, was an internment camp for displaced persons, mostly French, Italian, and Soviet slave laborers who had worked in the mine. The mineshaft was deep, eighteen hundred feet, and the tunnels spread almost fifteen miles underground. The slave laborers had primarily been used to load and unload ammunition , since Bernterode was one of the largest munitions production sites in central Germany. The American ordnance crew that had explored it estimated the mine contained 400,000 tons of explosives. “It was a flogging or worse if you even carried a match into the mine,” one of the French laborers had told Walker Hancock.
“The civilians were sent out six weeks ago,” Hancock commented to Stout as the two men took the long, slow, dark elevator ride to the bottom of the mine, “and the next day German soldiers started pouring in. They worked in complete secrecy. Two weeks later, the mine was sealed. It was April 2, George, the day we entered Siegen.”
The elevator stopped at the bottom of the shaft, and the men flipped on their flashlights. There were electric lamps in the ceiling, but the light was feeble and the power intermittent. “This way,” Hancock said, indicating the main corridor. They were more than a third of a mile underground, and there was no sound except their footsteps. Branching tunnels disappeared into the darkness, studded with chiseled rock chambers. Whenever Stout shone his flashlight beam into one of the rooms, it illuminated stacks of mortar shells and explosives. A quarter mile down was a newly mortared wall. There was no door— the Nazis hadn’t expected anyone to enter this repository— so an even newer hole had been smashed out of the middle. Across the corridor was an enormous cache of dynamite.
“After you,” Hancock said.
George Stout crawled through the wall opening and into a room even he, who had been at Siegen and Merkers, never imagined. There was a wide central passage, ablaze with light and lined with wooden racks and storage compartments. From the compartments hung 225 flags and banners, all unfurled and with decorative effects on their finials. They were German regimental banners dating from the early Prussian wars to World War I. Near the entrance to the chamber were boxes and paintings, and in the bays Stout could see carefully arranged tapestries and other decorative works. In a few of the bays, Stout noticed, were large caskets. Three were unadorned; one bore a wreath, red ribbons, and a name: Adolf Hitler.
“It’s not him,” Hancock said over Stout’s shoulder. “The ordnance men thought it was, but it’s not.”
Stout walked into the bay that held the decorated casket. Above him the flags hung limply, some of the older ones in nets to hold them together. He saw steel ammunition boxes on the floor nearby and swastikas on the ribbons. Hancock was right; it wasn’t Hitler. A crude label, written in red crayon and held on with tape, read , “Friedrich Wilhelm Ier, der Soldaten König.” Frederick William I, the Soldier King, dead since 1740. The decorations, Stout realized, were Hitler’s tribute to the founder of the modern German state. He examined the other coffins, each with its crude red crayon label held on with tape. There was Feldmarschall von Hindenburg, the greatest German hero of World War I, and beside him Frau von Hindenburg, his wife. The fourth coffin contained the remains of “Friedrich der Grosse”—Frederick the Great, the son of the Soldier King.
Where did Hitler get these coffins? Stout wondered. Did he rob their tombs?
“It’s a coronation chamber,” Hancock said. “They were going to crown Hitler the emperor of Europe.”
“Or the world,” Stout said, examining the photographs in a small metal box. They contained photographs and portraits of all the military leaders of the Prussian state from the Soldier King to Hitler. In the next three boxes were prizes of the Prussian monarchy: the Reich Sword of Prince Albrecht, forged in 1540; the scepter, orb, and crown used at the coronation of the Soldier King in 1713. The jewels had been removed from the crown, according to a label, “for honorable sale.”
Stout examined the rest of the room. The steel ammunition boxes held books and photographs from the library of Frederick the Great. The 271 paintings in the farthest holding bay were from his palaces in Berlin, and Sanssouci in Potsdam.
“This isn’t a coronation room,” Stout said. “It’s a reliquary. They were hiding the most precious artifacts of the German military state. This room wasn’t intended for Hitler; it was intended for the next Reich, so they could build upon his glory.”
Hancock laughed. “And it didn’t even stay hidden until the end of this one.”
Excerpted from The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel. Copyright © 2013 by Robert M. Edsel. Reprinted with permission of Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company.