As the war neared its end, the Nazis sent photographers to document the ceiling and wall murals of endangered churches and castles. More than 60 years later, the shots of lost works of art are available online.
Antoine Pesne's Prometheus, once in Berlin's Charlottenburg Palace
No one knows who exactly gave the command, but between 1943 and the end of the war, the Nazi leadership spent millions of Reichsmarks sending photographers to the corners of the German "Reich."
From Austria to Poland and Russia, the photographers, on orders from Hitler, took tens of thousands of color photos of wall and ceiling murals as well as shots of the buildings themselves. The estimated 480 different buildings, among them castles and churches, covered were either already damaged or facing possible destruction.
"The cost of the project numbered probably in the many millions," Ralf Peters from the Central Institute of Art History, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Louis de Silvestre, in the Zwinger Palace in Dresden
The Munich-based institute is now putting the more than 39,000 slides online for everyone to see. At the moment the Web site is accessible, but bare bones. A polished version will go online Oct. 21.
Snapshots, no more
On it, visitors will be able to search for a piece of work either by location or by the name of the artist. Works by muralists such as Hermann Anton Stilke, Louis de Silvestre or Albrecht Dürer are mentioned along with many other artists. A few clicks and visitors can get a scan of the slide photo taken by the photographers, many of them amateurs.
Der Krieg (The war) by Hermann Anton Stilke once covered the ceiling of Berlin's armory
The photos, though of good quality, can't show much detail because of the size of many of the murals. As a result, visitors will only get a vague idea of what they looked like. Muralists virtually have no chance to repaint them.
"The photos are fairly volatile," Peters said.
The institute has been in possession of the slides since 1956, when the Federal Interior Ministry ordered it to archive the collection. In 2000, it reached an agreement with the picture archive in the city of Marburg, which held 20,000 slides, to begin digitalizing the collection.