Category Archives: World War II

>Avert Your Eyes, Children: America’s Nazi Collections

>Last evening PBS re-broadcast the superb documentary “The Rape of Europa”, a two-hour film on the Nazi pillaging of public and private art collections across the continent, and their destruction of the world’s architectural and artistic patrimony. Based on the fascinating book by Lynn Nicholas, I wrote about this series when it aired previously. Among the many remarkable stories was that of a little French librarian whose work as a sort of art spy eventually led to the restitution of numerous works to the families and institutions whose pieces had been stolen. (N.B. I am still dumbfounded by the fact that no one has yet, to my knowledge, made a film about the life and exploits of Mme. Valland: what a story there is to tell about her heroism.)

During the course of re-watching the film, another detail caught my attention which I had not focused on previously. In all sincerity, both the book and the documentary are so chock-full of remarkable stories – sometimes horrific, sometimes inspiring – that the mind does not know where to focus, so overwhelming is the subject matter and the stories that are being told. In this particular instance however, the filmmakers made reference to the fact that, surely unbeknownst to many, the U.S. Army collected and archived an enormous amount of paintings by Nazi-approved artists, often portraits of Hitler and his henchmen.

Readers may or may not be aware that Adolf Hitler started out life as an artist, but was denied entry to Vienna’s Academy of Fine Art since he was not a painter of any great talent. In the documentary, we are taken to a U.S. Army storage vault, where a number of watercolors by Hitler are kept in a drawer. As the camera pans around the room, we see that there are hundreds of paintings being stored there. Glimpses of just a few of them show Nazi propaganda themes and the types of happy-peasant genre paintings that all dictators, not just Hitler, usually tend to enjoy.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the size of Hitler’s propaganda machine, after the war the efforts of American forces to get these things out of the public eye resulted in the carrying away of many thousands of pieces. These were kept in military hands for decades, until the early 1980s when the U.S. and then-West Germany came to an agreement about the return of these pieces. A committee was formed to work on the repatriation of most of the works, which in the end numbered about 6,000 pieces.

The remaining 400 pieces were kept by the United States and are archived at the U.S. Army Center of Military History and the U.S. Air Force Art and Museum Branch. As the narrator explained in the documentary, these pieces are often so polemic that the military, in its wisdom, believes they are too controversial to put on display. However, some of the works are put into appropriate exhibitions when the occasion warrants, such as for an exhibition at the Holocaust Museum or in a retrospective in one of the military museums on different aspects of World War II.

For my part, I am very happy that the U.S. military has the common sense not to put images of evil mass murderers on display, unlike those who enjoy wearing t-shirts with images of Che Guevara or displaying Warhol posters of Chairman Mao. The concealment of these images for the sake of public decency also brings home to us the great power of art to influence the human mind. Manipulation of the image can lead to remarkably inaccurate understandings of individuals.

For example, by all accounts Hitler was, in person, an undistinguished, pudgy midget; not surprising as both he and most of his Nazgul started out as a bunch of nobody-social climbers. Yet through the use of image manipulation, their propaganda art portrays them as giant, heroic figures. Similarly, consider the figure of Josef Stalin which we have been conditioned to accept as one of a giant bear of a man, as a result of the statues, portraits, and posters created of him during his reign of terror. In truth, “Uncle Joe” was only about 5 foot 6 inches tall – shorter in fact than the rather petite Harry Truman, who stood 5 foot 9 inches. This is nothing against those of shorter stature, of course, but it is often the case that smaller-scaled men of evil intent – be they Hitler, Napoleon, or other monsters of history – like to imagine themselves as being tall, and because of the power they yield no one has the courage to make fun of them to their faces.

The fact that the Nazi paintings are safely housed in military hands, away from public eyes, is a very good thing; no one wants that ridiculously tacky image of wee little Hitler dressed as a knight but looking more like St. Joan of Arc with a mustache hanging at the National Gallery. The long-term question of what to do with these Nazi works however, is an open-ended one, and one which I suspect neither I nor the contemporary readers of this blog will ever answer. Burning would be too good for them, frankly, particularly after the many wonderful things which the Nazis themselves unfortunately burned. Will future generations, perhaps a century from now, find these images too remote in time to do any harm, and take them out of storage, or will they eventually simply rot away in their drawers and cabinets?

U.S. Military Policeman guarding crates of Nazi art.

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Filed under art, art history, Germany, Hitler, Nazi, propaganda, Stalin, World War II

>On Equatorial Hobbits

>As The Courtier has rather a busy day today, I wanted to just briefly commend to you an excellent and absolutely fascinating documentary I caught on PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” series last night, entitled “The Airmen and the Headhunters”, which originally premiered back in November (the full episode is available here.) Based on the book of the same name by historian Judith Heimann, the film tells the story of U.S. airmen downed over Japanese-occupied Borneo during World War II. The local tribes, despite their fierce reputation, not only kept the men safe by hiding them deeper and deeper in the jungle, but with the help of British special forces, eventually formed themselves into guerrilla units to attack the Japanese troops who were in occupation of the island.

Among the tactics used by the Dayak people to take back their island and to defend the Allies, one of the most effective was the shooting of a poisoned dart from a blow gun. As one of the warriors explained, if you shoot an enemy with a handgun or a rifle, they might survive. On the other hand, if you even pricked the little finger of an enemy combatant with a shot from a poisoned dart blow gun, the fellow was sure to die.

As part of their efforts, the Dayaks brought back the abandoned custom of taking the heads of enemies killed in combat, smoking them over an open fire to cure them, and then distributing them among the villages. This was not done for the purpose of cannibalism, but rather as part of their cultural rituals. Dan Illerich, the only one of the airmen still with us today, was asked about what he thought of the practice; his very reasoned response was that as he was a guest in their country, and as the Dayak people were going to great lengths to protect and care for him and his fellow airmen, he was hardly in a position to criticize their practices. One of the tribesmen, who had been horribly tortured by the Japanese and permanently scarred, was pleased in 1945 to accept from his fellow tribesmen the head of the chief of the Japanese police force, who had been responsible for ordering his torture.

Despite the element of gruesomeness, the film does not dwell in any particularly gory detail on this part of the story. There are photographs of heads, yes, but not so as to be offensive to any but the most sensitive and ladylike of temperaments. Although wartime documentaries are not, in general, films which I usually find interesting, there is something very inspiring and Tolkien-esque about this relatively unknown bit of history, as the reader will readily appreciate. The supposedly unsophisticated but generous and kind-hearted Dayaks rising up for themselves, despite the overwhelming military advantage of the Japanese, cannot help but put one in mind, if even slightly, of the Hobbits.

The American B-24 Airmen who crashed in Borneo in 1944,
seven of whom survived thanks to the efforts of the Dayak tribes

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Filed under documentary, history, PBS, Tolkien, World War II

>Review: Der Neunte Tag

>German director Volker Schlöndorff is probably best known to American audiences for his dreary 1990 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s clichéd, anti-conservative hack-job-cum-novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”, starring Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall, which is not the best of cinematic calling cards. However in his recent film “Der Neunte Tag” (“The Ninth Day”), Schlöndorff presents an unexpectedly thoughtful look at the moral dilemmas facing a priest from Luxembourg during World War II. Based on the prison writings of Father Jean Bernard, the film follows a young priest who has been interned in the Dachau concentration camp. While the end result would probably have been more effective as a stage play, it does provide the viewer with some touching examples of faith in the midst of impossible circumstances.

Father Henri Kremer has been sent to Dachau for helping the resistance against the Nazis, and the film establishes very early on how much the Catholic clergy had to suffer for refusing to collaborate with their overlords. The goal of the guards is to give ever so slightly better treatment – comparatively – to the clerics, which the priests realize is meant to have the other prisoners turn on them. This does not mean that the men get off lightly, however. There is a harrowing scene in which one of them is taken out, beaten senseless, a barbed wire crown of thorns is shoved onto his head, and he is left hanging on a cross to die.

However there is faith and beauty even among the unimaginable ugliness. In a well-staged, surreptitiously celebrated mass Schlöndorff imagined for the film, a number of the prisoners sing bawdy sailor shanties to cover up the voices of the priests saying the Eucharistic Prayer and using a ration of bread for the Consecration. We learn that the interned priests come from all over the countries occupied by the Nazis, yet despite their linguistic barriers they manage to build a type of temporary religious community among themselves.

It is from this environment that Father Kremer is surprised to find himself given a nine-day leave back to his native Luxembourg, where he learns that his mother has died, his sister and her husband are expecting their first child, and his elder brother is trying to bribe the local SS to obtain protection for his family. His bishop has been holed up in the chancery, feigning illness, and refusing to speak with the new regime; he has the great bell of the cathedral rung every day as a protest of the occupation. While on leave he meets with Lieutenant Gebhardt, a former seminarian and now a member of the Gestapo, and learns why he has been placed on leave. Gebhardt tries to convince Father Kremer to use his influence with the bishop to have the diocese endorse the new Nazi regime, and threatens to have all of the priests of the diocese killed if Father Kremer does not comply.

The most interesting moments of the film are the conversations between Gebhardt and Father Kremer about the concepts of salvation and damnation, particularly as personified in the relationship between Jesus and Judas. Gebhardt, being a trained seminarian, has used his knowledge to create a twisted version of Catholic theology with which he tries to convince Father Kremer to collaborate with the Nazis. In Gebhardt’s view, Judas should actually be viewed as a heroic figure for what he brought about for mankind. Father Kremer himself is carrying around guilt for what he perceives as an act of betrayal of one of his prison comrades, and the argument that there is no salvation without betrayal begins to gnaw at his conscience.

The ladies with whom I watched this film thought that Ulrich Matthes, who plays Father Kremer, was not charismatic enough to feel any real sympathy for, but I have to disagree. The casting of this role, of a priest with dead eyes, emaciated and haunted by what he has seen and experienced in the dehumanizing atmosphere of Dachau, would have been ruined by the choice of another actor. Matthes is at times inscrutable, so deadened by his experiences that the viewer has to project onto him what he would do under similar circumstances – and this in my opinion is the mark of a good director and actor in this type of morality tale.

“The Ninth Day” is not really for the kiddies, though it is not nearly as harrowing a view of the Holocaust as some more recent films. I did come away from it thinking that older children, perhaps around Confirmation age, who are already versed in Church history to a reasonable extent, would be well-served by seeing and discussing it. The choices Father Kremer must make are those that most Catholics in this country will never have to make on such an heroic scale, and yet the seductive voice whispering to us to become complicit with immorality and evil, is just as present in contemporary society.

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Filed under Catholic, Church, cinema, Dachau, film, movies, Nazi, World War II

The Little Librarian That Could

Last evening PBS screened the fascinating documentary “The Rape of Europa“, a film based on the book of the same name by Lynn Nicholas, which tells the story of looted and destroyed works of art during World War II. The film combines the detailed historical scholarship of the author with astounding footage and stills of what was lost or stolen during the war. Among these were the tragic stories of the destruction of the Royal Castle in Warsaw and the frescoes of the Camposanto in Pisa. Of all the stories told, however, none made more of an impression upon me than that of the redoubtable Rose Maria Antonia Valland (1898-1980), a lady whose life story proves that one does not need to be a superhero to engage in truly heroic acts.

At the time of the Nazi invasion of France, Mme. Valland was an art historian employed by the Louvre as administrator of the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. Today housing contemporary art, in 1940 the former real tennis courts building housed a number of the Louvre’s Impressionist pieces (now in the Musée d’Orsay.) Then in her early 40′s, no doubt Mme. Valland hoped that her work at the Jeu de Paume might some day, if she were successful, get her a more plum curatorial position inside the Louvre itself. She could have had no idea of what was to happen next.

Ahead of the fighting, much of the French national collection from the Louvre was taken out of Paris and hidden at chateaux and monasteries in the French countryside. Smaller museums, art dealers, and private collectors in Paris were not so lucky. Hitler, Göring, and others in the Nazi leadership had an insatiable appetite for art and began the systematic plunder of Paris’ collections. The vast scale of this operation required a central warehousing point, and the Germans chose the halls of the Jeu de Paume for this purpose. One can imagine Mme. Valland’s horror as she saw pieces from the Rothschild collection arriving at her museum.

While in person Mme. Valland may have appeared to be nothing more than a little school librarian of a lady, she had a keen resolve. When they occupied the museum, the Nazis kept her on as the administrator, which would later prove to be a colossal mistake on their part. For you see, Mme. Valland never let her Nazi overlords know that she was completely fluent in German.

No one noticed the mousy woman with her thick glasses scurrying among the works of art, looking at documents and eavesdropping on conversations, all the while making mental notes about where the pieces had come from and where they were headed. Using her remarkable memory, each evening she would go home from work and document, in a secret diary, everything that had come into the Jeu de Paume. While powerless to stop the removal of the art, she was nevertheless able to warn French Resistance fighters about which trains headed out of the city contained the looted masterpieces, so that these cars would not accidentally be blown up and the art lost forever.

Mme. Valland managed to keep up this deception, undetected and at great peril to her own life, for four years until the Allied liberation of Paris. After the war she was able to help return thousands of pieces of art to their rightful collections, not only as a result of her amazing diary, but also by working with museums and post-war governments on the restitution and conservation of art. For her efforts, she was showered with numerous honors, including membership in the French Legion of Honor and the award of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. This truly remarkable lady, small though she was, should be an inspiring example to anyone who feels overwhelmed by difficult circumstances in which they may find themselves.

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Filed under art, art history, Hitler, Louvre, museum, World War II