The World’s Greatest Ever Removal!
Many historians claim that the great Louvre Art Evacuation of 1939 is perhaps the World’s Greatest Ever Removal; priceless pieces of art being packaged and crated before being sent to Château de Chambord to escape the Nazis. It utilised a total of 203 vehicles and 1862 wooden cases. However, one could argue that the World’s Greatest Ever Removal took place at Neuschwanstein Castle. Where over 21,000 pieces of stolen cultural art history had to be extracted from over a height of 800m. It took 6 weeks to empty the castle of it’s stolen artwork after the Second World War. Using a lot more man power and vehicles, whilst employing removal techniques that we still use today.
Translated as “New Swanstone Castle”, Neuschwanstein Castle was built by the “Mad” King Ludvig II, King of Bavaria, as his own personal residence. Construction took place at his own cost between 1882-1885. However it was not fully finished when King Ludvig died in suspicious circumstances in 1886 near Lake Starnberg. In fact, King Ludvig only slept 11 nights in the Castle before he died. Ludvig never intended for the castle to be accessible by the public, but only 6 weeks after his death the regent Luitpold opened it up to paying guests, with over 200,000 visitors in 1939 alone.
It’s location 800m above sea level, between the Austrian and German border, is pretty remote. Not forgetting that it was only accessible via one very steep road, it made in an impressive fortress. Well out of the range of aircraft in World War 1, it became a navigation point for pilots in the Second World War. Fortunately it was never bombed. It was, however, under the control of the Nazi’s who used it as a depot for stolen fine arts.
“Degenerate Art” was a term coined by the Nazi party in the 1920s and 30s to describe modern art. Hitler banned all this “Degenerate Art” as he claimed that such art was an “insult to German feeling”. It was called un-German, Jewish or Communist in Nature. In fact, Hitler had a “hit list” of paintings and sculptures he wished to retrieve. On top of this was the Bruges Madonna, which Hitler stole during the early hours of September the 8th 1944. German officers stole the statue at gun point, sandwiched it between 2 matresses, and smuggled it to Austria in the back of a red cross van.
However, many historians claim that this was a ploy in order to be able to sell the siezed artwork for money to fund the upcoming war. What better place to hide it than in a secluded castle high up in the mountains.
The very fact that Neuschwanstein Castle hadn’t been completed internally meant that it was perfect for storage. Over 10 stories of storage in-fact, packed with thousands of items of Nazi plundered art.
In January 1944, American forces made a grave mistake after they destroyed a 1500 year old Benedictine abbey called Monte Casino in Italy. The Allies believed German soldiers were hiding in the abbey and bombed it to pieces. Thus causing the total destruction of what was once one of Italy’s oldest religious sites.
General Eisenhower identified this as a mistake and called for the protection and respect of cultural monuments. As a result, the Army Unit Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) was formed. You may recognise the more popular name of the unit as “The Monuments Men”. With a modern day film being of the same name, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, was made in 2014.
Beginning in late March 1945 these Monuments Men began discovering hidden German repositories in what would become the “greatest treasure hunt in history”. They found over 1500 repositories of art and sculptures in Germany alone with the 2 major storage locations. The first of which was hidden 400ft under ground in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria. With the second being at Neuschwanstein Castle itself.
French curator Rose Valland played an important role in helping the Monuments Men in locating all of the stolen artwor. Based in Munich she secretly kept records of all the artwork’s destinations, then passed this information to the Momuments Men towards the end of the war, which inevitabily led them to Neuschwanstein Castle.
Guarded by the SS, in April 1945 the SS-Gruppenfuhrer was ordered to blow up Neuschwanstein Castle to prevent the building and it’s artwork from falling into the enemies hands. The allies (U.S 10th armoured division) knew the Castle was guarded by the SS and full anticipated a massive fight for the castle. However, when they arrived at the castle on the 1st of April, they found it in-tact and abandoned. 1st Lieutenant James Rorimer was the first member of the Monuments Men on site at the castle. Rorimer’s report states that room after room were stacked from floor to ceiling with artwork, only the throne room remained free of pilfered art.
Over 21,000 items were sent to the Castle. This immense collection of art would require 1000s of hours to catalogue, with one shipment of French items numbering 600 pieces required 1221 crates, and 36 freight cars!
As you can see from the pictures, the techniques we still use today, such as straps and crates, were common place during that time. Even their custom made ramps are similar to ones we’ve created for specialist packaging jobs. Although we believe we could do it in a shorter time thanks to the use of modern technology, we are still in awe at the sheer amount of time and effort required to complete the Greatest Removal Ever.
Neuschwanstein Castle – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuschwanstein_Castle
The Monuments Men, A Roadmap for a European Vacation – http://www.iforgotmymantra.com/art-history/travel-deeper-the-monuments-men/
Neuschwanstein Castle Used by Nazis – http://www.terriwangard.com/2015/04/neuschwanstein-castle-used-by-nazis.html
Raiders of the Lost Art – Hitler’s Secret Treasure Castle – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxjCPHe1kyQ