Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 16, 2008

The Rape of Europa

Filed under: art,Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Now available from Netflix, “The Rape of Europa” is an outstanding documentary on the theft or outright destruction of some of Europe’s greatest art during World War Two. Based on the 1995 book of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas, who is one of the film’s many interesting interviewees, it focuses most of its understandable outrage against the Nazis but the allies are by no means angels in the 20th century’s greatest calamities. Notwithstanding the film’s penetrating and scholarly examination of the topic, you are left with the feeling that taking the spoils of war is deeply embedded in “civilized” behavior, a perspective that the film flirts with but never adopts.

The movie begins with the struggle of Jewish survivors to reclaim art that had been stolen by the Nazis, or in the case of Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting taken “legally” by the Austrian fascist government. Despite its illegal seizure by the fascists, the gold-leaf portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was only turned over to the Bloch-Bauer family after an intense legal and political campaign was mounted.

Klimt was a typical “decadent” artist despised by the Nazis but they were not above hoarding their masterpieces in cellars as booty. Two top leaders of the Nazi party, Adolph Hitler and Herman Goering, amassed enormous collections of stolen art in their respective castles, including works by decadent artists, but their preference was for Aryan art or pre-modern masterpieces. This was a particular obsession for Hitler who started out as an aspiring artist but whose career came to a crashing end when an Austrian art school decided he was too mediocre to accept. One of the interviewees speculates that WWII and the Judeocide could have been prevented if Hitler was a somewhat better artist but it is more likely that the capitalist economic collapse would have precipitated some other madman’s rise to power.

Once the war begins, the Nazis make a point of seizing art in the conquered territories including Poland and France. Just before the siege of Leningrad begins, Russian museum workers in that city make a heroic effort to relocate the work away from the fighting.

When art was not stolen, it often went up in flames as bombs and artillery shells had their sickening effect. Throughout Europe, some of the most beautiful and irreplaceable architecture found itself inconveniently in the path of advancing armies and became “collateral damage”. One of the most egregious examples of such destruction came at the hands of the allies in the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, an episode that looms large as example of allied malfeasance in the Ken Burns PBS series on WWII.

On the top of Monte Cassino was a monastery that had been created in 524 by St. Benedict and that was filled with priceless religious art. Just beneath the monastery were heavily dug-in Nazi troops who were blocking an allied advance. Despite pleas to spare the monastery, allied bombs virtually destroyed the building and everything within it. It was subsequently learned that the Nazis were not even inside the monastery and that the destruction was totally unnecessary.

Unlike the dastardly Nazis, the allies are depicted as being far more civilized than the Nazis, despite such collateral damage. The documentary dwells at length on the work of a branch of the American military that was tasked with the mission of accounting for and returning stolen art. The film’s website points out:

In early 1943 a group, known as the American Council of Learned Societies, appointed a committee to address protection of Europe’s art by identifying civilian experts who could liaise with the military. They also prepared pamphlets that detailed known German looting. Theirs and several other similar groups’ entreaties to government officials coalesced at about the same time. On June 23, 1943, FDR approved the formation of the “American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas” widely known as “The Roberts Commission,” after its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. Thus was born the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (“MFAA”) section under the auspices of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied Armies.

The “Venus Fixers” as they were sometimes called by fellow troops-“Monuments Men” by most others-were mostly young museum directors and curators, art professors and architects who volunteered for service. After the war, many would become leaders of the most prominent museums in the United States. Virtually every major American museum had one or more employee who served as an MFAA officer during World War II. Still, their numbers were ridiculously few when compared to the overwhelming task they confronted. In as much as the MFAA program was an untested concept, the Monuments Men had minimal resources to accomplish their job and little direction other than to inspect, repair, and report on monuments needing protection, and to prevent improper billeting by Allied troops in historic or culturally important buildings. This last task was a constant challenge. There was no handbook to follow. Those with skill or knowledge were given authority to act.

While the film understandably is focused on the depravity of the Nazis and the somewhat mixed record of the allies in relationship to European art, a broader survey of the issues posed by the film might lead one to the conclusion that the “civilized” Anglo-American imperialists might actually be responsible for more destruction and theft in the grander historical scheme of things.

To start with, what exactly is the difference between Hitler and Goering filling their mountaintop chalets with stolen art and the same behavior carried out on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the British Museum?

Just as the Austrians received “approval” from the Nazis to put the Klimt masterpiece on display, so did Lord Elgin get permission from the Ottoman court to remove the Parthenon marbles from Greece and put them on display in London. Sculptures were stripped from the face of the Parthenon in utter disregard for their historical and esthetic context and put on display for the benefit of the British Empire, over the protests of many truly civilized people including Lord Byron. Unlike the case of the Klimt painting which was returned to the rightful owner, the so-called Elgin Marbles remain in London, thus prompting Merlina Mercouri to say:

And the Parthenon Marbles they are. There are no such things as the Elgin Marbles.

There is a Michael Angelo David.

There is a Da Vinci Venus.

There is a Praxitelles Hermes.

There is a Turner ‘Fishermen at Sea’.

There are no Elgin Marbles!

You know, it is said that we Greeks are a fervent and warm blooded breed. Well, let me tell you something – it is true. And I am not known for being an exception. Knowing what these sculptures mean to the Greek people, it is not easy to address their having been taken from Greece dispassionately, but I shall try. I promise.

I have been advised by one of your eminent professors that I must tell the history of how the Marbles were taken from Athens and brought to British shores. I protested that this was too well known but was told that even if there were a single person in this audience who might be vague about the facts, the story must be told. So, as briefly as I can, here goes.

We are at the end of the 19th Century. Napoleon is pondering the risk of invading England. He decides that it is not a very good idea. Instead he invades Egypt, wresting it from Turkish authority. The Turks don’t appreciate this at all. They break off diplomatic relations with France. They also declare war. Britain decides that this is a dandy time to appoint an Ambassador to Turkey.

Enter Lord Elgin. It is he who gets the job. He has just married pretty Mary Nisbett and is finishing his fine country house. Its architect tells him of the wonders of Greek architecture and sculptures, and suggests it would be a marvellous idea to make plaster casts of the actual objects in Athens. ‘Marvellous, indeed,’ says Elgin. He sets about organising a group of people who could make architectural drawings, headed by a worthy painter, who turns out to be Giovanni Lusieri, an Italian painter.

I can’t resist stealing a moment for an anecdote. Elgin had previously approached Turner. Yes, the Turner. The young painter was interested. Lord Elgin sets down the conditions: every drawing and sketch that Turner made was to become his Lordship’s possession. In his spare time he would give Lady Elgin drawing lessons. ‘Okay,’ says Turner ‘but then I would want £400 a year.’ No, no says Elgin, too much, much too much. So, no Turner. End of anecdote.


  1. Hi Louis – since you post quite a bit about Latin America here (as well as in the Yahoo course), I’m wondering if you could recommend a decent history of Bolivia. I’m writing a paper and I’m definitely planning on using Frank and Mariategui (thanks for that ;p), but I’m looking for a little background to get the more analytical stuff into some kind of perspective.

    Keep up the great postings!

    Comment by dksu — October 16, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  2. As a (not so) “warm”-blooded Greek (i think she meant ‘”hot”-blooded’), i am not that bothered about the marbles being on display in the British Museum, precisely because of that fact: they are on public display in a museum. At least they are not locked up in some ultra-rich bastard’s private mansion, like so many other antiquities and modern masterpieces, away from the public’s reach. I concede the point about them being removed from their aesthetic context, the temple of Parthenon though. [Time to move the Parthenon to London then 😉 I’d be lynched in Greece for even joking about that…]

    The Greek people, being incorporated to the capitalist world rather late, can’t still accept that *everything* is a commodity, and private ownership & selling of antiquities is regarded as a terrible moral crime similar to the medieval notion of blasphemy. A murderer would get more sympathy from the public in Greece than an antiquities thief.

    The British Museum was built as a display of British Imperial loot, with Egyptian, Indian, Greek, Roman and other antiquities being “salvaged” from their countries of origin. However now it is merely a museum, and the marbles are being seen by *more* people from around the world travelling to London, than they would be in Athens. Millions more. Which i think is just fantastic. [I am aware that they weren’t taken from Greece for that reason, but this is how thing are *today*]. Does this fact justify the theft then? No. Should we then gather all antiquities in one popular tourist destination for the purposes of high visibility? No. But then again, i am aware that Greek, Egptian, etc antiquities will NEVER be returned, as this would mean that the British museum would remain mostly empty. Again, this doesn’t justify the theft, or keeping the marbles there to this day, but the FACT is just that: they’ll NEVER be returned.

    There is also another modern context to the demand to return the marbles, the Greek nationalist/chauvinistic myth that “foreigners are always trying to keep us down”, “always trying to steal from us since we are a “superior” culture” etc. constantly being used by the Greek Right, with which i feel much more uneasy than the marbles being in London. Keep in mind that Greece is a country where it is still perfectly acceptable to call black people “Nigger” even on TV, as well as the saying that “when *we* built the Parthenon, *you* (foreigners) were still dangling from the trees”. And in *that* cultural context, i wouldn’t mind at all moving the bloody Parthenon to London to join the marbles…

    Comment by Antonis — October 16, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

  3. It’s more just as well as more esthetically valid that monuments remain were they were created. But it would be absurd to apply this principle across the board without respect to real conditions. The British Museum is bursting every day with visitors from around the world. Most of them are in the UK on economy flights. There is no entry fee and the Museum’s practice is very people-friendly. Bringing the Marbles back to Athens would now be just as artificial as keeping them in Bloomsbury. Third millennial Greece has as little to do with the Age of Pericles as today’s London has with Lord Elgin’s. A change would only make it harder and more expensive for ordinary people to see them.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 17, 2008 @ 8:23 am

  4. I agree. The case of the Greek marbles is not a very good analogy to the Nazi art plunder. The former took place 200 years ago, and the marbles are by now imho as much part of British heritage as they are of Greek heritage, no matter how this happened.

    A better analogy might be the current destruction of Iraqi ancient heritage and the plunder which took place from the start of the war and undoubtedly still goes on. There is a much greater chance that whatever leaves Iraq now will never again see the light of day.

    Comment by Antonis — October 17, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

  5. Right. It’s not a just world. If we pulled all of Napoleon’s International thefts out of France, there would be no more romantic Paris for Americans to dance to in April. Bernard Berenson didn’t steal the paintings he sent back to Boston from Florence. He bought them for a pittance from the clueless sacristans of country churches. Are they better off at Elizabeth Gardener’s Museum? You could argue both ways. Italy is crushed under the treasures it has to maintain and is still digging up new ones. Maybe we ought to take a less nationalistic view of great art.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 18, 2008 @ 8:57 am

  6. FYI, PBS will broadcast The Rape of Europa nationwide on Monday, November 24th. Check your local listings for exact time in your area.

    Comment by Richard Berge — November 8, 2008 @ 6:01 am

  7. […] στην πολεμική βιομηχανία παγκοσμίως, έχουν τεθεί. The Rape Of Europe Οι Τράπεζες αγοράζουν τον κόσμο & οι Εταιρίες είναι […]

    Pingback by Μόλις κατακτούν την αγορά απαγορεύονται όλα...η τιμή τους εκτινάσσεται... είναι πλέον ένα στρατηγικό όπλο. - EMEO — August 19, 2012 @ 4:08 am

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