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Neuschwanstein's dark past

Lori HerberFebruary 21, 2014

King Ludwig II designed the castle as an isolated refuge. That's what made it the perfect depot for hiding Nazi stolen art. George Clooney's 'The Monuments Men' sheds light on Neuschwanstein's role in World War II.

Neuschwanstein castle, Photo: picture-alliance/Bildagentur Huber
Image: picture-alliance/Bildagentur Huber

Splashed across postcards, travel guides and even Walt Disney products, "the castle of the fairy-tale king" lures more than a million visitors each year. Its instigator, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was declared insane and later drowned a mysterious death in 1886. Weeks later, Neuschwanstein opened its doors to the public and remains a top tourist attraction in Germany today.

But the fairy-tale fortress has its own Nazi past, illuminated most recently in George Clooney's World War II drama, "The Monuments Men." The film follows an Allied special forces unit tasked with protecting and tracking down Europe's stolen treasures during the Second World War.

Eccentric King Ludwig II didn't construct the whimsical Neuschwanstein for royal purposes: He designed it as a hideaway from the public. In a perverse twist of the king's intentions, this is precisely what the Nazis did here with art plundered from their victims: hide it from the public.

Black and white engagement postcard of King Ludwig II, left, who broke off his engagement to Duchess Sophie and lived in solitude most his life Photo: photo alliance / dpa
King Ludwig II, left, broke off his engagement to Duchess Sophie and lived in solitude most his lifeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Hitler's orders

"Search lodges, libraries and archives of the occupied territories for material valuable to Germany," Hitler ordered the Rosenberg taskforce - his exclusive art-looting team - in a 1940 transcript after German troops stormed neighboring France. Hitler's dream was to build a "Führer's Museum" in Linz, Austria, with the plundered treasures.

Between 1940 and 1945, Nazi officials funneled stolen valuables to various locations throughout Germany including monasteries, salt mines and castles.

Photo of Neuschwanstein framed by tree branches Photo: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images
Neuschwanstein was isolated and close to Austria, where Hitler wanted to build his museumImage: AFP/Getty Images

"Neuschwanstein castle was chosen as headquarters of the 'Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg,' the German art-looting organization," said art historian Tanja Bernsau. Its location near the Austrian border, and far from Berlin or other likely Allied targets, made Neuschwanstein an ideal depot.

Although it was built to mirror a medieval structure, the architectural gem featured the latest technology of its time: central heating, flushing toilets and an electric bell system for summoning servants. The cornerstone stone was laid in 1868, but the castle remained unfinished, which meant ample space for storage.

Art espionage

Scene from 'The Monuments Men' Photo: 2013 Twentieth Century Fox
In the film, 'The Monuments Men,' Rose Valland is played by Cate Blanchett, rightImage: 2013 Twentieth Century Fox

Most of the looted property stored in Neuschwanstein stemmed from France, and it was the French connection that ultimately led the US army to the castle.

Before his death in 2006, Monuments Man and art historian S. Lane Faison, Jr. described the discovery in an interview for the Archives of American Art. The key, he said, was French curator Rose Valland.

"She pretended to be a [Nazi] collaborator," Faison said of Rose Valland, who worked at the Jeu de Paume Museum, one of the Nazis' central collection points before they shipped stolen wares to Germany. For four years, Valland secretly tracked where the art was being shipped.

The van Eyck 'The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,' pictured above, from 1432 was among the stolen pieces at Neuschwanstein Photo: picture alliance/akg-images
The van Eyck 'The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb' from 1432 was among the stolen pieces at NeuschwansteinImage: picture alliance/akg-images

Storming the hideout

Rose Valland's reports led the Allies to the Bavarian castle. When US troops descended upon Neuschwanstein in 1945, a vast collection of index cards, lists and slides were discovered, detailing about 21,000 stolen items. Among them was the Gent altarpiece from the Van Eyck brothers, the private jewelry and furniture collection of the Rothschild family, and the gold and silver works of David-Weill.

A current exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute's Archives of American Art highlights some of these World War II art rescue missions. "Monuments Men: On the Front Line to Save Europe's Art, 1942–1946," features black-and-white photographs of soldiers handling crates at a snow-covered Neuschwanstein.

"They would have preferred to leave the artworks in the castle to organize the restitution to France from there," art historian Tanja Bernsau said. "But as most of the contents in Neuschwanstein were stored uncrated and were valuable gold and silver works, they decided to relocate them for security reasons."

Black-and-white photo of two American soldiers with a painting found in Neuschwanstein in 1945 Photo: Photo by Horace Abrahams/Keystone/Getty Images
US soldiers brought the treasures to safety in 'Central Art Collecting Points'Image: Getty Images

Rescue and restitution

Thus, the crates were relocated to US-directed Central Art Collecting Points, which were tasked with restitution, or tracking down the treasures' original owners.

"And that's where the huge task started," said Iris Lauterbach of the Central Institute for Art History in Munich. "The works of art had to be inventoried, photographed and restituted one by one. American and German art historians and secretaries worked together to restitute tens of thousands of pieces."

S. Lane Faison returned to Germany in 1951 to supervise the handover of US operations to the Germans and was struck by the enormity of the task.

"One of the saddest problems was that acres, I think you might say, of furniture just went on and on and on, piled up to the ceiling…and chairs, tables, household things, everything you could think of known to have come from Jewish sources," Faison said. "But what do you do? And if somebody lost six Louis XV chairs, which ones were they? And did we have them? There was no way - you can't identify such things."

Matt Damon, left, and George Clooney, right, in a scene from the movie, 'Monuments Men' Photo: 2013 Twentieth Century Fox
It may not be historically accurate, but 'The Monuments Men' brings awareness to the operationImage: 2013 Twentieth Century Fox

Battle continues

Identification and art restitution work continues in Germany today. Recent discoveries of potentially stolen art continue to hit the headlines, and "The Monuments Men" film, recently premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, also sheds light on those responsible for preserving art in war. Nevertheless, Clooney's drama has its critics.

"I didn't like the film," Iris Lauterbach said. She appreciates the awareness the drama brings, but she questions whether a layperson can process the intricacies of the European war theater, the locations, the art involved. "The film pretends to be based on a true story, but it contains too many fictitious elements."

Black-and-white photo of a soldier pulling back a covering over a stolen Fragonard painting Photo: Horace Abrahams/Keystone/Getty Images
Neuschwanstein's role in Nazi Germany is not mentioned in tours of the castleImage: Horace Abrahams/Keystone/Getty Images

Those looking for the details in a tour of Neuschwanstein won't learn more either. Castle tours include includes King Lugwig II's lavish bedroom, an artificial dripstone cave and the modern-for-its-time kitchen. But there's no mention of the castle's role in Germany's dark chapter.

"We're not trying to hide that fact," said castle spokesperson Thomas Rainer. Management wants to confront the castle's role in Nazi history, he added. The director of the Bavarian Palace Museum department recently wrote an essay on the topic of art rescue sites during World War II.

"But we have more than a million visitors per year and very strict regular tours that last 30 minutes," Rainer said. "We focus on what we can during that time."