709: The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas

by Gerard

709.044: Nicholas, Lynn H. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Vintage, 1995. 444 pp. ISBN 0-679-75686-8.

The 700s are the fine arts, everything from architecture to city planning to sculpture to painting to dancing to acting. Most art history books focus just on painting or just on sculpture, so they tend to fall into 759 or the 730s respectively. It’s a big field, and when you write a book on differing facets of art from a historical perspective, you get the distinction of having a work in DDC 709–all the way on top.

Lynn H. Nicholas’ Rape of Europa is as heartbreaking as it is scholarly. When Hitler issued the order to begin conquering Europe in September 1939, it was not to be just a military annihilation but a cultural one as well. His goal was to redefine the Germanic people and its culture by gathering together all the works with a legitimate German heritage in one great nation and destroy or exploit all other works by “degenerate” races. From reading this book, you would think that the whole war was about art. The broad bureaucracy put in place by the SS to acquire and steal works of art from other countries is astounding.

Millions upon millions of items were looted or bought from foreign governments and families. Entire legacies were scooped up in one fell swoop. Collections were mangled, partitioned, moved around, and even buried throughout Europe. While the first half of the book details the programs in place to acquire all these pieces, the second half is about the groups of Allied Forces officers whose job it was to protect, retrieve, and recover all the “lost” art. For the most part, they succeeded (some pieces have yet to be recovered). Nicholas’ history is a tribute to the learned men who went along with the soldiers and helped to safeguard Europe’s most valuable treasures.

This is not your typical military or WWII history book. I was shocked to discovered that his Nicholas’ first book and it reads much like a great novel. While there aren’t a lot of pictures of the artworks mentioned, there are a great many vintage photographs of the life and times of the “Monuments men” who tried to save them. This was a great but slow read.