“The castle of the fairy-tale king” seduces more than a million tourists every year with its serene facade and mysterious air featured in postcards, travel guides and products from Walt Disney. The castle holds its own tales which it told to world and some and kept in mystery.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria who designed the castle as his solitary refuge was said to have been driven to insanity. Later in 1886, he was declared to have drowned a mysterious death. A few weeks later, the castle, Neuschwanstein, was opened to the public. Until today, it is among the famous tourist destination in Germany. Beyond the fairy-tale story, the fortress also holds a Nazi past. It was only recently featured in George Clooney’s World War II film, “The Monuments Men”. The film is about a special forces unit with a mission to track and steal back Europe’s stolen art works and treasures during the Second World War.
Hitler’s Marching Orders
Hitler ordered the Rosenberg task force to “search lodges, libraries and archives of the occupied territories for material valuable to Germany.” The task force was created for the exclusive purpose of searching and looting art works from around the world. The command was given after German troops attacked France. It was the Fuhrer’s dream to open a “Fuhrer’s Museum” in Linz, Austria displaying all the treasures they have plundered during their war exploits. Acting upon orders, the Nazis looted art works and valuables and kept them hidden in various locations all over Germany including monasteries, salt mines and castles between 1940 and 1945.
“Neuschwanstein castle was chosen as headquarters of the ‘Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg,’ the German art-looting organization,” said an art historian Tanja Bernsau. The castle was also set in an ideal location being near the Austrian border and far from Berlin which are likely targets of Allied attacks. The castle was built with a design similar to that of medieval inspiration. However, the castle was featured with the latest of architectural technology of the time. The castle has central heating, electric bell system for summoning servants and flushing toilets. The cornerstone dated back to 1868. However, the castle was not yet complete. There was still a large part unfinished which could be used for storage.
Tracking Lost Art
“She pretended to be a [Nazi] collaborator,” Faison said of Rose Valland. The curator worked at the Jeu de Paume Museum which was one of the Nazi’s central collection points before the looted items were shipped to Germany. For many years, Valland secretly traced the route of the art work and found out where they ended up eventually.
Valland then made a report which provided the Allies with information of the looted items leading the U.S. troops to the Bavarian castle. The troops then stormed the hideout in 1945. The troops discovered a vast file of index cards, lists and slides which document in detail stolen items numbering to around 21,000.
The DW reports that the items included in the list were the Gent altarpiece looted from the Van Eyck brothers, the gold and silver works of David-Weill and the private jewelry collection and furniture pieces of the Rothschild family.
Some of these items which were successfully salvaged are now currently in exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art. “Monuments Men: On the Front Line to Save Europe’s Art, 1942-1946”, included documented photographs in black-and-white of soldiers bustling around crates in Neuschwanstein. “They would have preferred to leave the artworks in the castle to organize the restitution to France from there,” art historian Tanja Bernsau said. “But as most of the contents in Neuschwanstein were stored uncrated and were valuable gold and silver works, they decided to relocate them for security reasons.”
The crates which contained invaluable pieces of art work were then transferred to the U.S.-directed Central Art Collecting Points. The center is assigned with the restitution or the returning of the items to their original owners. “And that’s where the huge task started,” said Iris Lauterbach of the Central Institute for Art History in Munich. “The works of art had to be inventoried, photographed and restituted one by one. American and German art historians and secretaries worked together to restitute tens of thousands of pieces.”
S. Lane Faison also related how the task came as a daunting mission. Faison returned to Germany in 1951 to transfer the operations initially started by the U.S. to the Germans. “One of the saddest problems was that acres, I think you might say, of furniture just went on and on and on, piled up to the ceiling…and chairs, tables, household things, everything you could think of known to have come from Jewish sources,” Faison said. “But what do you do? And if somebody lost six Louis XV chairs, which ones were they? And did we have them? There was no way – you can’t identify such things.”
The mission handed over to the Germans continue to this day. Germany continues the huge task of identification and art restitution. The discovery of stolen art in Germany also continues to be news. The film “Monuments Men” which recently had its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, though interesting and informative of the preservation efforts of the art in war, received its share of criticisms.
“I didn’t like the film,” Iris Lauterbach said. “The film pretends to be based on a true story, but it contains too many fictitious elements.” She shared that the film gave out some informative inputs. Yet she also has some reservations on whether the film connects the European war theater and art to the lay person given the complexities that surround them. The tour of Neuschwanstein will also not be able to provide answers of the lost art works. Tourists will only find themselves amused of the castle tours to the king’s bedroom, the artificial dripstone cave and kitchen all intricately and lavishly laid out. However, the tour does not answer questions on the role of the castle in one of Europe’s darkest episodes.
“We’re not trying to hide that fact,” said castle spokesperson Thomas Rainer. He also said that the management even wants to provide answers to the castle’s role in the Nazi plunder. The director of the Bavarian Palace Museum department recently wrote an essay about art looting and art rescue sites during the Second World War. “But we have more than a million visitors per year and very strict regular tours that last 30 minutes,” Rainer said. “We focus on what we can during that time.”