High in the Bavarian Alps, a white castle with soaring turrets overlays a scene of rolling green meadows and snow-capped mountains straight out of a storybook watercolor. The setting is so idyllic it served as Walt Disney’s inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
But the world-famous Neuschwanstein Castle, nearly straddling the German-Austrian border, once played host to something more sinister than the fairytale setting it inspired. During World War II, the Nazis, aiming to amass a world-class art collection for Hitler’s dream of a “Führermuseum,” stashed thousands of paintings inside the castle. When the war ended, it also closed a 12-year period now recognized as history’s largest art heist—raking in priceless masterpieces from the likes of Michelangelo, da Vinci and Vermeer—and the recovery efforts were tasked to an allied unit known as the Monuments Men.
What began as a brain trust of the art world’s finest during the war became a group of 345 men and women from 13 countries that comprised the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section unit. They spent 1945 seeking out more than 1,000 troves containing an estimated 5 million pieces of artwork and cultural items stolen from wealthy Jews, museums, universities, and religious institutions. And for six years after the surrender, a smaller group of about 60 Monuments Men continued scouring Europe as art detectives. Now, on Friday, and more than 70 years after the recovery began, a George Clooney-directed movie documenting their cultural reconnaissance opened in theaters with an all-star cast.
When Paris was liberated, the real-life Monuments Men were directed to Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle by French museum employee Rose Valland (played in the film by Cate Blanchett), who, unbeknownst to the Nazis using her Jeu de Paume museum as a headquarters, spoke German and had tracked the outgoing shipments of pillaged art. There, over the course of six weeks, they triumphantly recovered some 21,000 stolen collectors’ items. Auguste Rodin’s bronze sculpture The Burghers of Calais was found in the woods nearby, abandoned by its Nazi caretakers.
Also found in the castle were 39 leather-bound photograph albums documenting looted items. These books, some of which had been presented to Hitler for his birthday, were used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials. Though many were lost in the aftermath, two were recently rediscovered by the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art and donated to the National Archives.
The Romanesque-styled Neuschwanstein sits propped on the Bavarian countryside in a stately pose. It was built for “Mad” King Ludwig II, who announced construction of the castle in a letter to his confidant Richard Wagner. “It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day,” he wrote in 1864. “[Y]ou know the revered guest I would like to accommodate there; the location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world.”
It took 20 more years for Ludwig to actually move into the still-unfinished complex. The king had a predilection for the Middle Ages and decorated the walls of Neuschwanstein in homage to the medieval scenes that were inspiration for Wagner’s operas. Ludwig was known as an eccentric, and he furthered this image by closing his palaces to visitors and retreating into the mountains, preferring to sleep by day and work at night. Neuschwanstein, built to be his mountain retreat, featured state-of-the-art technology, including flushing toilets, electric bells to summon servants, and even telephones despite its outwardly throwback design.
Two years after his move into the new castle, and 22 years into reign as king, Ludwig was declared insane, deposed by the government, and arrested at the castle. Three days later, both he and the psychiatrist who’d evaluated him were found dead in Lake Starnberg in what was called suicide. The mysterious circumstances surrounding his death persist today—historians have long called for Ludwig’s descendants, the House of Wittelsbach, to allow his body to be exhumed and examined, even as recently as 2007.
Almost two months after his death, Neuschwanstein was opened for visitors, and today it’s become one of the most popular royal destinations in Europe, attracting 1.4 million people annually.
It’s lucky for the camera-welding tourists snapping pictures of Ludwig’s fairytale castle that the Monuments Men descended on the looted treasures before the Nazis’ final art solution came into play: The flailing Reich had plans to destroy its caches of priceless art as allied forces approached.