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Monumental task: department helped protect, return art stolen during WWII.

After World War II, the United States facilitated the return of more than 5 million works of art and other cultural treasures taken by the Nazis from people and museums throughout Europe. A recently released Hollywood film brings to light the story of the staff of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) program, which protected and returned "works of art," broadly defined. The Department of State, too, performed an important but behind-the-scenes role in postwar restitution.

During the war, Department officials and their counterparts among the Allies grew alarmed by reports of Nazi theft and destruction of art. In the so-called 1943 London Declaration, the United States, United Kingdom and other allied governments pledged to invalidate property transfers or dealings occurring in enemy or enemy-controlled territories. That pledge applied whether the deal took the form of "open looting or plunder, or of transactions apparently legal in form, even when they purport to be voluntarily effected."

Months later, on the recommendation of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, President Franklin Roosevelt approved creation of a civilian advisory commission "for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe," to help protect historic monuments in the theaters of war and return looted cultural objects. In 1944, the advisory body's mandate expanded to include the Far East. The commission was chaired by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts and therefore known as the Roberts Commission.

The Department maintained permanent representation on the Roberts Commission, and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish was the liaison with the Department until he became the first assistant secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations (now Public Affairs) in December 1944. The commission coordinated with the War Department and related agencies, and it recommended art historians, curators and other specialists for the MFAA.

As the war's end approached, it became clear that a broad formal restitution policy for works of art was needed. (After invading Germany and Austria, U.S. forces discovered more than 1,800 repositories of cultural objects, including one where Nazi leaders had stored looted art destined for Hitler's planned museum and another where the Nazis had stashed more than 400 tons of art from Berlin's leading museums.) Department officials and the Roberts Commission quickly agreed on a policy of restitution of Nazi loot, defined as "identifiable looted works of art, books, archives, and other cultural treasures" removed to German territory from "the countries overrun by Germany." These works were seized for return to the governments of the territories where they'd been taken. Those governments, in turn, became responsible for returning the works to the individual owners.

The restitution began in August 1945 with the symbolic return to Belgium of the famed Ghent altarpiece, also known as the "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb." Nazi leaders had seized the altarpiece from a chateau in France, where it had been sent for safekeeping, but in May 1945, U.S. forces recovered it from one of the Nazi troves.

Within the U.S. zone of postwar Germany, suspected loot and other valuable collections typically were transferred from the repositories to central collecting points, where cultural objects were identified, processed and guarded. Only select high-profile works, such as the Ghent altarpiece and the stained glass windows of France's Strasbourg Cathedral, went straight to the governments of their prewar locations.

One of five remaining MFAA members, Sgt. Harry Ettlinger, sorted treasures 700 feet below ground in German salt mines that contained the Strasbourg stained glass. The mines held more than 40,000 cases of cultural objects in a series of "small" chambers that measured 60 feet by 40 feet and ran a mile in length. These chambers were located above larger chambers that had been underground factories for German war industries. One of the mines also held a large collection of fireworks intended to celebrate Hitler's unrealized final victory. Ettlinger instead ordered their use for a Fourth of July fireworks display in his final days as an MFAA officer in July 1946.

"I spent most of my time in the mines," Ettlinger said. "It became my job to separate out the boxes that we wanted [to return first]. It turned out to be 900 boxes" of items belonging to institutions outside Germany. A recent German documentary, he added, incorporates U.S. Army footage that "shows us packing freight cars with boxes to be returned to other countries."

Restitution operations in the U.S. zone of Germany continued for longer than expected, due to the volume of material and complexity of restitution issues. In the immediate postwar period, Department officials had expected that either a multi governmental commission of Allied representatives or a United Nations restitution commission would assume primary responsibility for coordinating restitution. That never happened because the four Allied powers never agreed on a comprehensive restitution policy to apply across all the zones of occupied Germany, partly due to disagreement regarding whether to use German-owned art and cultural artifacts as war reparations to replace works lost or destroyed during the war. The Soviet Union claimed cultural objects in its zone as war reparations, but the United States decided against using cultural material as restitution-in-kind.

The Department therefore coordinated with military and political officials to devise restitution policies for the U.S. zone, but piecemeal policies sometimes arose. Austria and Italy did not qualify as friendly liberated countries "overrun by Germany" and thus did not qualify initially for restitution, but they were soon brought within the fold. Department officials also suggested that the four Allied powers jointly reconstruct and administer Berlin's leading state museums, but these were located in the Soviet sector, and Soviet authorities rebuffed the suggestion. The United States ultimately returned the Berlin museum collections in its possession to regional authorities in the U.S.-friendly Federal Republic of Germany.

Unclaimed and heirless Jewish property, such as religious and ceremonial objects and Judaica, presented several tragically sensitive issues. After much negotiation among government officials and outside advisors, much of the property was provided to a Jewish organization that was specially created to succeed the U.S. military government as custodian.

On the home front, Department officials worked with U.S. Customs to help block importation of Nazi loot and track down stolen or looted works that turned up in the United States, whether brought by opportunistic U.S. military personnel, immigrants or others.

In mid-1949, the Department inherited authority for the remaining collecting points and MFAA personnel in the U.S. zone in Germany, reflecting the transition from a military government to a civilian administration headed by the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, a post within the Department. The Department already had assumed the residual functions of the Roberts Commission when the commission dissolved in June 1946. Thus, primary responsibility for postwar restitution was now in the hands of the Department.

The Department's Arts and Monuments Adviser Ardelia Hall tirelessly agitated for restitution until her retirement in 1961. She kept lists of looted works that had never resurfaced, fielded requests from conscientious dealers and auction houses about offered works, appealed to institutions for help in tracking down looted works and lobbied to continue import controls for looted works. She made clear that restitution would continue even after the MFAA and collecting points ceased to operate in 1951. As she wrote in State Magazine's predecessor publication, the Department of State Bulletin (August 27, 1951), "[F]or the first time in history, restitution may be expected to continue for as long as works of art known to have been plundered during a war continue to be rediscovered."

Information for this story was derived from documents in the "Foreign Relations of the United States" series produced by the Office of the Historian as the documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions. Other sources included the extensive official files known as the "Ardelia Hall Collection" at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Md.

By Anne-Marie Carstens, Franklin Fellow and historian, Office of the Historian
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Author:Carstens, Anne-Marie
Publication:State Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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