Realizing that similar fates awaited them, European countries prepared for the worst. Thousands of museums, art galleries, dealers, owners of private collections, churches and synagogues gathered their most precious works and hid them. Hundreds of thousands of people worked diligently, sometimes for months on end, packing up the valuable objects to be evacuated.
Rembrandt's Night Watch, stored
Countless objects were dispersed throughout Europe
and the world. Much of the art in France
, including Leonardo da Vincis Mona Lisa,
and the statue Venus de Milo,
stored in chateaus scattered throughout the west and south of the country. Britain
evacuated many of its cultural treasures to quarries in Wales
, as well as various museums in the United States
. In the Netherlands
, some of the museums transferred their most prized possessions to barges in canals in the north and in bunkers around the country. Every country had its secret hiding place for its
treasures. Yet, many of the hideouts didnt stay secret for long.
The Night Watch by Rembrandt (unrolled)
Following the occupation of Austria, Poland had little time to prepare for the onslaught of the German army, which occurred in September 1939. As soon as the Nazis arrived in Poland, they immediately began a campaign of destruction. A large portion of the military concentrated its efforts on containing the Jews and other political dissidents, as well as destroying monuments, works of art, buildings and anyone or anything else that was considered inferior or worthless.
However, other smaller organized subdivisions of the army focused primarily on confiscating valuable works of art, treasures and personal property. The systematic plundering of Göerings cultural assets was significant. According to Peter Harclerode and Brendan Pittaways book, The Lost Masters,
alone, a total of 13,512 paintings and 1,379 sculptures were confiscated, along with tens of thousands of other art objects. Some of the items that were plundered, lost or destroyed included the famous painting, A Portrait of a Young Man
by Raphael, countless books and rare manuscripts, which were burned when the Nazis set fire to the Krasinski Library in Warsaw
, and the altarpiece of the Church of Our Lady
A Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael
It was not just in Austria and Poland where mass looting took place, but also in many European countries conquered by the Nazis. Over the subsequent years, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, France and Italy, among others, were occupied by enemy forces and stripped of cultural artifacts. Many were never recovered.