When Monuments Men Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein walked into the white-washed cottage in the German forest that housed Hermann Bunjes, the Harvard-educated one-time SS officer and art advisor to Herman Goring, they learned of an elaborate plan involving the wholesale looting of Europe’s art treasures. Bunjes, hiding in fear of reprisals against SS officers by angry German citizens, told these fellow art historians about the ERR—the Nazi art theft unit—and about Hitler’s plan to create a city-wide museum in his boyhood town of Linz, Austria: a “super museum” that would contain every important artwork in the world, including a wing of “degenerate art,” a sort of chamber of horrors to demonstrate from what monstrosities the Nazis had saved the world. It was news to Posey and Kirstein, who had to restrain their shock. The Monuments Men had heard rumors of art theft and looting throughout the war, but had no idea of the scale (some estimate that around 5 million cultural objects were looted, lost, or mishandled during the war), the advanced level of organization (scores of Nazi officers and hundreds of soldiers were assigned exclusively to the confiscation, transport, and maintenance of looted art and archival material), and the ultimate destination of the choicest pieces—the Führermuseum. It was years into the war, when this encounter took place, and only then did the Monuments Men finally realized what they were up against. Bunjes further detailed a number of hiding places for looted art, including the famous salt mine at Altaussee, in the Austrian Alps, which contained some twelve-thousand stolen artworks, the mother-load destined for the Linz museum. Posey and Kirstein were on the hunt for The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, the most influential painting ever made and the most-frequently stolen, but could hardly believe what they were hearing. Yes, The Ghent Altarpiece was the number one target that Hitler wanted as the centerpiece for his museum, both because of its beauty, fame, and importance but also because it had been forcibly repatriated to Belgium from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, and seizing it back would right this perceived wrong against the German people. But here was the chance to save not just this painting, but tens of thousands of artworks.
The race was on.
Hitler’s plan for his museum been on his mind for more than a decade, at least since 1934—for Hitler had long stewed upon the idea of capturing The Ghent Altarpiece for Germany, and had even dispatched a Nazi art detective (and Hitler lookalike), Heinrich Köhn, to find the Righteous Judges panel, one of the twelve that comprises The Ghent Altarpiece, which was stolen from St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent in 1934, and has never been recovered. Köhn was sent to Ghent to find it before the Nazis stole the rest of the altarpiece. The only reason why they would bother hunting for the one missing panel is if they intended to capture the rest of it as soon as the opportunity arose.
The museum was to have occupied the majority of the city center of Linz, turning the working-class town into Vienna’s cultural superior, a concept that Hitler had relished ever since his failed attempt to become an art student in Vienna, a city that made him feel like a rejected, second-class citizen, prior to his political career. A joke went that while Munich was the city of the Nazi Bewegung (the Nazi movement), Linz would be the city of the Nazi Bodenbewegung (the Nazi earthquake), by the time the contractors got underway. Designed by Albert Speer, the museum complex was to include an opera house, a hotel, a parade ground, a theater, a library with a quarter-million volumes, and a museum with a five-hundred foot colonnaded façade in the terrifyingly grand Fascist Neo-Classical style. An estimated 36 kilometers of galleries were included in the plan—to put that in perspective, the enormous and labyrinthine V&A Museum in London has about 8 kilometers of galleries, to display some 27,000 objects. On 21 June 1939 Hitler set up a special commission to oversee the Linz project—long before he had managed to annex, loot, and steal the art to fill it. From the fall of 1940 on, Hitler regularly received (often as a Christmas present) annotated photo albums full of confiscated art that could be featured in the Führermuseum. A total of 31 albums were prepared, of which 19 survive today. Hitler found great pleasure and comfort in poring over these albums, as well as the blueprints for the Linz project. He had the blueprints with him in his Berlin bunker when he killed himself, and was said to have studied them even near his end.
The German Historical Museum began a project in 2008 to create a virtual version of the Führermuseum collection, an online database of art looted between 1930 and 1945, which gives a sense of what was taken. Though the methods were abominable, as a professor of art history I admit to a dark and curious appeal to the concept that Hitler tried to bring about: a single “supermuseum” containing all of the world’s most important art.
Napoleon was the first general to have a dedicated art theft unit in his army, and to require the forfeit of artworks as a term of armistice—if you wanted him to stop shooting at you, you had to give him your art.
Hitler was by no means the first person to try to create such a museum. Jean-Dominique Vivant Denon, the first director of the Louvre Museum, had the same plan. He was Napoleon’s chief art advisor, and made a wish-list of art that he’d quite like to have for the Louvre, should it fall into the path of Napoleon’s forces. Napoleon was the first general to have a dedicated art theft unit in his army, and to require the forfeit of artworks as a term of armistice—if you wanted him to stop shooting at you, you had to give him your art. His art theft unit was responsible for the capture of thousands of works, particularly from Italy. Adding insult to injury, Napoleon obliged those he defeated to pay for the shipping of the art he stole from them back to Paris. The Vatican had to fork out the equivalent of $2.3 million in today’s currency to cover shipping for the hundred-plus artworks that Napoleon’s team had chosen, after the Treaty of Tolentine, for removal to the Louvre. Hitler’s plan for Linz was merely a more-elaborate attempt to create what Denon had envisioned for the Louvre a hundred and fifty years prior.
Imagine walking through Hitler’s museum. What would we have seen? The Nazis strongly favored artists and subject matter that they considered Teutonic or Scandinavian—the artists of choice were the likes of Dürer, Cranach, Friedrich, and van Eyck (Rembrandt shifted in popularity—some Nazis deemed him “too Jewish,” while others felt that he was the ultimate Aryan artist), but the scope of the collection was to have been universal, across eras and nations, but with the Northern Renaissance, Teutonic tradition clearly understood to be the “best.” Naturalism was dramatically favored over abstraction. The “degenerate wing” would have housed abstract, minimalist, Cubist, Impressionist, and Post-Impressionist works—even by German artists, a number of whom were considered as “bad” as their foreign, often Jewish, counterparts. The scale of the collection would have been tremendous, and it would have been curated in a moralistic, pedantic manner, indicating what one should, or even must, like.
At its center The Ghent Altarpiece would have stood, proof that Hitler had saved Germany after the humiliation of the First World War, and the ideal expression of naturalistic, Northern Renaissance painting by an artist of Teutonic lineage.
A stroll through the Führermuseum would be harrowing, terrifying, and fascinating. We have the Allied heroes—Monuments Men, soldiers, officers, and countless under-sung citizens—to thank for saving Europe’s art, and the world. But the haunting concept of a “super museum” remains.