National Archives Announces Discovery of "Hitler Albums" Documenting Looted Art
Press Release · Tuesday, April 20, 1943
Washington, DC . . . Today at a National Archives press conference, Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, Michael Kurtz, Assistant Archivist for Records Services and Robert M. Edsel, author of Rescuing Da Vinci and President of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, announced the discovery of two original leather bound photograph albums documenting art that was looted by the Nazis during World War II, both of which Mr. Edsel will donate to the National Archives under separate terms.
These albums were created by the staff of the Third Reich’s Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). This special unit was organized in the summer of 1940 under Reich Leader Alfred Rosenberg, initially to collect political material in occupied countries for exploitation in the "struggle against Jewry and Freemasonry." The ERR established its base of operations in Paris in July 1940 and on November 5, Hermann Goering assigned the ERR the responsibility for the confiscation of "ownerless" Jewish art collections. On November 18 of that year, Adolf Hitler ordered that all confiscated works of art be brought to Germany and placed at his personal disposal. During the next several years, the ERR would be engaged in an extensive and elaborate art looting operation in France that was part of Hitler’s much larger premeditated scheme to steal art treasures from conquered nations.
The Archivist hailed this discovery as "one of the most significant finds related to Hitler’s premeditated theft of art and other cultural treasures to be found since the Nuremberg trials. It is exciting to know that original documents shedding light on this important aspect of World War II are still being located, especially so because of the hundreds of thousands of cultural items stolen from victims of Hitler and the Nazis that are still missing. Documents such as these may play a role in helping to solve some of those mysteries and, more importantly, helping victims recover their treasures. The National Archives is grateful to Mr. Edsel and the Monuments Men Foundation for today’s donation of Album 8, which will allow scholars and historians immediate use of these materials." (Mr. Edsel intends to donate the original Album 6 at a future time, and until then, to make this volume or images of it available to researchers upon request.)
These two photographic albums were in the possession of heirs to an American soldier stationed in the Berchtesgaden area of Germany in the closing days of World War II. Mr. Edsel, understanding the importance of these albums, worked closely with these heirs to acquire them, thereby assuring their preservation and, by way of these gifts to the Nation, availability to the public.
Mr. Edsel stated that the "Hitler Albums" are not only evidence of the premeditated effort of Hitler and the Nazis to rob Europe and Russia of its greatest cultural treasures, they also demonstrate just how obsessed and personally involved Adolf Hitler was with building the world’s greatest museum—the Führer Museum, in his hometown of Linz. "With the increasing pace and visibility of restitution claims, and important discoveries such as the ‘Hitler Albums,’ that story is finally becoming more widely known," said Mr. Edsel.
Soon after the German occupation of France in 1940, the German military, and subsequently the ERR, focused their art confiscations on the world renowned Jewish- owned art collections from families such as the Rothschilds, and the Veil-Picards, Alphonse Kann, and Jewish dealers such as the Seligmanns and Georges Wildenstein. According to the German ERR documents from 1944, the art seizures in France totaled 21,903 objects from 203 collections. There were 5,009 items confiscated from the Rothschild family collections, 2,687 items from the David-Weill collection, and 1,202 from Alphonse Kann’s collection. The first shipment of confiscated art objects sent to Germany from Paris required 30 rail cars and consisted primarily of Rothschild paintings intended for Hitler’s Linz Museum. Among the first fifty-three paintings shipped to Hitler was Vermeer’s Astronomer from the Édouard de Rothschild collection, today in the Musée de Louvre in Paris.
As the ERR staff looted and catalogued the French collections, they created photograph albums specifically intended for the Reichschancellery and Adolf Hitler in an effort to keep them apprised of their work in France, and more importantly, to provide a catalogue of items from which Hitler and his curators could choose art treasures for the Führer’s Art Museum in Linz, Austria. A group of these photograph albums were presented to Adolf Hitler on the occasion of his birthday on April 20, 1943, by Alfred Rosenberg to "send a ray of beauty and joy into [his] revered life." ERR staff stated that nearly 100 such volumes were created during the years of their art looting operation.
"More importantly to our world today is the story we don’t know, the role of the men and women of 13 nations, known as ‘Monuments Men,’ [the staff of the various Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives units]. These courageous individuals rescued and returned more than 5 million cultural items to the countries from which they had been stolen, including many of the paintings featured in these ‘Hitler Albums,’ in what became the greatest treasure hunt in history," Edsel stated.
"The Monuments Men set the standard for the protection of artistic and cultural treasures during armed conflict. It is my hope, and the goal of the Monuments Men Foundation, that their rich legacy will finally be used in a manner befitting their contribution to our world. Their legacy belongs not just to Americans, but to people of good will in all countries who believe these treasures should be protected from armed conflict and preserved for the benefit of civilization," Edsel stated.
During the latter part of April and first part of May 1945 elements of the United States Army recovered some of the ERR photographic albums. These albums were turned over to the Monuments Men and were subsequently stored at the Munich Central Collecting Point where they were used in identifying art work to be restituted.
Today the National Archives has custody of the 39 original ERR photograph albums that were discovered at Neuschwanstein, where the Germans, in April 1945, had placed them for safekeeping. In late 1945, this set of 39 albums was used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials to document the massive Nazi art looting operations.
Until now it was believed that the missing ERR albums had been destroyed during the latter days of World War II. But thanks to Mr. Edsel’s efforts two more albums have been recovered and will undoubtedly serve as useful sources for documenting not only Nazi art looting but also establishing the provenance of art works and, perhaps, in facilitating the restitution of long-alienated works of art.
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