It was May 17, 1945, not long after Nazi forces had surrendered, ending Word War II in Europe, when miners dug through the wall of rubble with picks and shovels in Altaussee, Austria. There was a 12-meter thick layer of debris blocking the entrance to the salt mine, and though no one knew what was inside, they all hoped they would find what they were looking for.
Corporal Lincoln Kirstein was the first to crawl through the opening. Inside, it was dark and eerily quiet. The entrance was covered in dust and debris, and an iron security door hung shattered on its hinges. Deep inside the earth, Kirstein finally found what he had sought for so long: Europe's cultural legacy. The wooden crates were coated with a thick layer of dust, but otherwise undamaged.
In the years prior, Kirstein had been a writer and critic in New York, working on a number of projects that included launching a ballet ensemble in Dec. 1941. But when Pearl Harbor was bombed, the intellectual put his plans on hold and joined the military. He didn't end up battling with weapons, though.
The 36-year-old intellectual has a special task in Europe. As one of the "Monuments Men," he was tasked with preventing the destruction of Europe's cultural treasures. The Allied commanders created a "Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives" section after the 1,200-year-old Monte Cassino Abbey was destroyed by a hail of allied bombs in February 1944. Their orders were to protect churches, antique ruins and cultural monuments -- a meritorious task that would lend a moral dimension to a military victory.
Research in a War Zone
But the mission was muddled by chaos. Kirstein arrived on European soil in June 1944, hungry to take part in an effective, clearly defined mission. What he found, however, was that no one had heard of his unit, and no provisions had been made for vehicles, typewriters, radios, maps or even enough paper and pens. It was only by his own initiative, and with the help of his personal contacts, that Kirstein managed to get to France, where he met Lieutenant James J. Rorimer. The medieval expert and curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art had been on a personal mission against German dictator Adolf Hitler since Michelangelo's Madonna in Bruges and the Ghent altarpiece disappeared. When he got the chance to go to Europe with the Monuments Men, he took it.
The art historian was fending for himself in France without any military authority. With only a list of monuments worthy of protection and an order from Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, he travelled through northern France trying to save what was left to save. The key was improvisation. Rorimer consulted with officers and hung signs forbidding entry on church and museum doors. He also fastened signs onto important buildings with white tape, marking them as mine zones to keep soldiers away.
An Important Source
Under Hitler the Germans had stolen some 5 million artworks from across Europe -- the biggest theft in history. After the armistice, the Monuments Men concentrated on locating and returning these works to their rightful owners. The special unit, which had by this time grown to 350 men, acted as treasure hunters, combing through archives and the homes of Nazi officials, and interviewing museum directors and eyewitnesses.
Chance led Rorimer to Rose Valland, a Parisian woman who became one of the Monuments Men's most important informants. During the Nazi occupation, she had worked in the Museum Jeu de Paume, an important depot for art plundered by the Nazis. There she tried to keep track of where the artworks ended up, registering every single work the Nazis brought in and gathering information on their whereabouts. Her files were invaluable to the Monuments Men, leading them to the most important hiding places, like the salt mine complex of Altaussee.
A Link to a Recent Scandal
The mines held some 6,577 paintings, 230 sketches and watercolors, 954 illustrations, 173 statues, 1,200 cases of books, baskets filled with arts and crafts, and tapestries -- all of which had been stolen from European museums and private collections and were being stored for the Führermuseum, a museum complex Hitler had planned to open in Linz, Austria.
In the event that the Third Reich was toppled, the Altaussee depot was to be blown up, and the provincial governor August Eigruber had stored extra explosives there just in case. This plan was part of what became known as Hitler's "Nero Decree," with which the Nazi leader ordered the destruction of German infrastructure to make it unusable to the Allies as they advanced.
Blowing up the repository would have spelled the destruction of thousands of world-famous masterpieces, but it never happened. No one knows for sure who prevented the detonation, but it's the topic of many legends and hero stories in Altaussee. Perhaps it was the general director of the salt works, Emmerich Pöchmöller, who had the explosives removed with a bogus command. Or maybe it was the mine workers who refused to destroy both the art and their means of making a living.
Removing the art from the Altaussee mines took weeks, but the work didn't stop there. On an almost daily basis for some time after the war, soldiers were finding unexpected treasures in cellars, train cars, food depots, monasteries and in the ground. The last Monuments Men didn't leave Europe until 1946, leaving behind two comrades who were killed in action.
In the course of their investigations, the Monuments Men had interviewed the Gurlitt family, whose secret trove of more than 1,000 artworks was recently brought to light in Munich, raising a number of legal and historic questions. They questioned Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who handled "degenerate art" during the Nazi era and the father of Cornelius Gurlitt , from whom the recently discovered works were confiscated. Gurlitt was asked to explain the provenance of some 200 works that had previously been in French possession. He claimed to have bought all of them legally in the final years of the war. Some 150 artworks, antiquities and other cultural objects were taken from him, but were later returned in 1950. It isn't yet clear whether any of these were among those found in Cornelius Gurlitt's Munich apartment.
This article originally appeared in German on einestages.de, SPIEGEL ONLINE's history portal.