Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Third Reich's Pillage of European Art and Treasures

The Disappearing Room

Amber Room
Amber Room

The entire room was a masterpiece and one of the largest works of jeweled art ever made. Tons (literally) of high quality amber, accented with diamonds, emeralds, jade, onyx and rubies decorated the walls of Catherine the Greats summer palace in Russia. The reigning czars who succeeded and preceded Catherine cherished the unique jeweled spectacle.

For more than 50 years the Amber Room, as it became known, awed those who were fortunate enough to see it. Then in 1942, during the German occupation of Russia, the Nazis visited the palace. They, like many, were captivated by the Amber Rooms beauty. In fact, they were so captivated that they stole it. The   Nazis justification was that the room was a piece of Germanic culture. They believed   they had a right to it. At least, that was what Hitler told them.

In 1701, German designer and architect Andreas Schülter designed the Amber Room for the King of Prussia, Frederick I.  Upon his death it was passed down to his son, King Frederick Wilhelm, who several years later gave the room to Russian Czar Peter the Great. Peter received the amber panels that made up the room in finished parts, which were packed in crates and later transferred to St. Petersburg.

Catherine the Great, portrait by Rokotov
Catherine the Great, portrait by Rokotov
There the crates remained unpacked for approximately 24   years until Catherine the Great, then reigning Czaritza, commissioned the reconstruction of the Amber Room in her winter palace. There it stood for 15 years until it was transferred to her summer home in Pushkin. The Amber Room was reassembled in 1770 and remained there for another 171 years.

In 1941, the Nazis occupied Russia and plundered the countrys many museums, synagogues, churches and homes, stealing works of art, religious artifacts and personal property. The palace in St. Petersburg was looted, as was Catherine the Greats palace   in Pushkin. It was there that the Nazis discovered the Amber Room, which was of special interest to Hitler.

Catherine the Great's Winter Palace
Catherine the Great's Winter Palace
 

The Nazis disassembled and packed up the opulent room in 27 crates, along with other palace valuables. The contents were loaded onto a train bound for what is now known as   Kaliningrad, Germany, where they were dismantled and displayed at the Königsberg Castle. There it remained for approximately four years. 

In January 1945, air raid attacks by the British forced the Germans to disassemble the Amber Room again and store it in a safer location. The location   remains unknown. In fact, the crates holding the Amber Room were never seen again. Some believe they were stored in the castle and were destroyed when it burned down, whereas others believe it was buried in a silver mine. The truth: it is still a mystery.

Even though the Amber Room is one of the greatest missing treasures, it is not the only one. During World War II, countless objects, including some of Europes most prized treasures and artworks went missing. The Nazis were known to have stolen a majority of the valuables, many of which were sold. Some objects were destroyed outright for not being Germanic enough.

Nazi soldiers stealing artwork
Nazi soldiers stealing artwork
 

The Nazi campaign attempted to destabilize nonconforming cultures, especially the Jewish, by devising a series of laws that allowed them to justify and regulate the legal confiscation of cultural and personal property. The campaign was one of many steps leading to the final solution -- the destruction of the Jewish culture. It all began with the regulation and massive confiscation of art from Germanys state collections. However, the confiscation of cultural property rapidly spread as European countries fell under Nazi occupation. 

According to Lynn H. Nicholas papers presented in the 1995 symposium The Spoils of War, the displacement of art was unprecedented because never before have objects been moved about on such a scale. Moreover, for the first time in history, the Nazi armies enlisted the help of art specialists whose duty it was to secure and preserve movable works of art. It was a process that began well before WWII and one that would have considerable ramifications in the years to follow.

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