Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park
In Aachen, Germany, during mid-November 1944, American soldiers found a document from the Suermondt Museum that indicated that the Germans were storing cultural treasures at various locations, including Bad Wildungen, 25 miles southwest of Kassel. The exact storage location in Bad Wildungen was not given. On February 11, 1945, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) issued its first listing of German repositories holding loot and German-owned property. The list included Siegen, somewhere in Bad Wildungen, and the salt mines at Heilbronn and Kochendorf.
On April 2 members of the First U.S. Army reached Bad Wildungen and there found two concrete bunkers, specially designed and built for the purpose of storing cultural property. Once entry was gained the soldiers determined that it contained paintings and sculptures from a number of the finest collections in Western Germany. This and subsequent inspections revealed that the bunkers contained approximately 2,500 paintings, Greek and medieval sculpture, famous musical instruments, and other objects of the greatest cultural and artistic value. Many of the works of art were from Frankfurt’s Städtische Galerie, Freies Deutsches Hochstift (Goethemuseum), and Städelsches Kunstinstitut. There were about 90 uncrated paintings and 9 cases with applied art and smaller objects from the Landesmuseum and Kastner Museum of Hanover. There also were many works of art from Mainz and Kassel. Additionally, the bunkers also contained some of the most valuable church property in Western Germany, including cases of stained glass. Among the church property were 14 choir windows and 9 figures from the high altar from Marburg’s St. Elisabethkirche.
First U.S. Army Monuments Man (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives [MFA&A] specialist) Walker Hancock based in Marburg, during the latter part of April visited Bad Wildungen, thirty miles northeast of Marburg, and determined that the bunkers were ideally adapted for the safeguarding of works of art and therefore he did not believe that the items in the bunkers needed to be moved in the short term. And, at this point, Hancock had little time to deal with most of the repositories in his area of responsibility, including Bad Wildungen. Near the end of April, Hancock, reported to Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, Advisor, MFA&A, G-5 Internal Affairs Branch, SHAEF, that the work of checking repositories in his area was hampered by restrictions upon civilian circulation and the meagerness of the transport that could be afforded for this purpose by Military Government Detachments. Webb wrote that the project of dealing with the repositories was a large one and could not be undertaken seriously without some special provision of transport and personnel. He added that:
“One MFA&A Officer at headquarters without even the aid of a typist is well nigh powerless in the attempt to cope with the urgent requirements of the situation. Because of the lack of assigned transport it is impossible to make overnight trips which would greatly reduce the time required for visiting a number of sites. In fact, many places are too remote to be visited in one day. Furthermore, in view of the restrictions against traveling alone in enemy territory [and] the lack of enlisted person creates other obstacles in the way of making the required number of inspections.”
The trips made, he noted, could be said to amount to no more than a “check.” So frequently, he wrote, that even during these situations had been “encountered demanding immediate action that it may safely be assumed that the dearth of transport and personnel has resulted in failure to prevent much unnecessary damage to works of art and archives.” Hancock suggested that two officers with assigned transport and five enlisted men at Army Headquarters might to some degree keep pace with the demands of the existing situation in regard to MFA&A work. He also suggested that higher headquarters give consideration to the immediate organization of a concrete program within the Allied armies, designed to gather works of art and archives into central depositories for safeguarding. His views regarding central collecting points, shared by other MFA&A officers, would begin to bear fruit by the end of May.
At this point also, Hancock was quite busy trying to get the Central Collecting Point at Marburg up and running, and on May 1 he began dealing with the treasures buried in a mine at Bernterode.
It would not be until July that the Monuments Men returned to check on the status of the contents of the Bad Wildungen bunkers. They were visited on July 6 by Capt. Patrick J. Kelleher and on July 17 by Capt. Hancock, Lts. Sheldon Keck (an art conservator), and Samuel Ratensky (an architect). The three found the condition of contents to be reasonably good, the major fault being the over-concentration of items which they believed, might ultimately cause serious damage to some of the paintings. They made arrangements shortly after their visit for the movement of some of the items to a third, vacant bunker under the supervision of a MFA&A Specialist Officer.
During late July the United States Forces European Theater (USFET) received a request from the British regarding the contents of the art repository at Bad Wildungen. The British were interested in objects that would be returned to their zone of occupation of Germany. USFET asked the Seventh U.S. Army to report which institutions had holdings at the repository. 1st Lt. James J. Rorimer, the MFA&A specialist officer with the Seventh U.S. Army and Lt. Ratensky visited Bad Wildungen on July 28 and several days later the Seventh U.S. Army reported that the repository had been inspected by a MFA&A officer and the holdings were found to be in satisfactory condition and that Dr. Friedrich Bleibaum, the Landeskonservator, under the direction of the Military Government Detachment for Land Hessen-Nassau, was completing inventories of the objects and copies would be forwarded as soon as practicable.
In the latter part of September, Rorimer reported that paintings of the first importance from public German collections at Bad Wildungen included 388 from Kassel; 110 from Hanover; 127 from Mainz; and others from Aix-la-Chapelle. He reported that stained glass, altars, and other ecclesiastical objects of international importance had been brought to Bad Wildungen from many churches. He also noted that private property stored at Bad Wildungen included 1,343 paintings, 63 pieces of furniture, and 23 sculptures. He reported that the two large fire-proof bunkers were very well suited to the safe-guarding of these treasures; that they could be adequately ventilated when the weather outside was less humid than the atmosphere in the bunkers; and that physical security of the bunkers was excellent. Dr. Bleibaum, the Landeskonservator, Rorimer reported, was expected to complete a detailed inventory with photographs by the end of September. With the inventory, Rorimer believed, it would be possible to segregate looted works of art and send them to Marburg for return to the countries of origin; church objects could be returned to the churches; and further decisions about private property would be examined in light of directives which they were to receive from higher headquarters.
During November complete inventories of contents of bunkers at Bad Wildungen were prepared and the return of church art stored at Bad Wildungen was authorized. Very quickly the church property was returned. That month, altar pieces from the Elisabethkirch in Marburg were returned and re-installed in the church.
In the latter part of December 1945, Lt. Col. P. Villemer, French Mission for Restitution, attached to the Office of Military Government, with the Restitution Control Branch, Economics Division, provided the Americans with two inventories covering paintings removed from Mainzer Gemäldegalerie in Mainz (Rhineland): 174 to Bad Wildungen and 33 to Erbach. He requested the Americans to investigate the matter so that return could be made. In short order, Monuments Man Walter Horn, then the MFA&A intelligence specialist with the Economics Division, informed Lt. Cmdr. Thomas C. Howe, USNR, (then acting chief of the MFA&A Section of the Restitution Control Branch, Economics Division), that the bunkers at Bad Wildungen were reported in a Seventh U.S. Army July 1945 report as having the paintings there, but that there was no detailed listing. He recommended that the local MFA&A officer be requested to check the paintings against the list submitted by Villemer. Horn informed Howe that no records showed the existence of 33 paintings from Mainz in Erbach. In early February 1946, Villemer was informed that the Americans were looking into the paintings removed by the Germans from the Gemäldegalerie at Mainz (Rhineland). Of course, since there was no interzonal arrangement made with the French, even had everything been found, it still could not have been returned at this point.
The bulk of the items stored at Bad Wildungen would in March 1946 be transferred to the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point and several months later the return to the original owning institutions and individuals began.
- ETO-Wiesbaden Reports: Status of Collecting Point and Consolidated Field Reports for March  [2 of 2] [AMG-385], MFA&A Field Reports, 1943-1946, (NAID 1537270) Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (The Roberts Commission), RG 239 (Roll 80 of NARA Microfilm Publication M-1944).
- 312.1 Miscellaneous Correspondence, RD&R Division USGCC 1945, General Correspondence (Central Files), 1944-1949, (NAID 6923852) Records of the Economic Division, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260.
- 35.7 Germany MFA&A, General Records of the Section Chief, 1944-1949, (NAID 1571282)Reparations and Restitution Branch, Records of the Property Division, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 2 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1949).
- Repositories: Bad Wildungen-List of Contents of Bunker I and Bunker II, Records Relating to Status of Monuments, Museums, and Archives, 1945-1951, (NAID 2435815) Records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 62 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1947).
- Repositories: Works of Art and Archives in Germany, Records Relating to Status of Monuments, Museums, and Archives, 1945-1951, (NAID 2435815) Records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 63 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1947)
- Monthly Report: United States Forces European Theater, October 1945-November 1945, Activity Reports, 1945-1951, (NAID 2435804) Records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 54 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1947).
- Repositories: Oberlahnkreis-Correspondence, Records Relating to Status of Monuments, Museums, and Archives, 1945-1951, (NAID 2435815) Records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 63 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1947)
- AMG 292, 12 Army GP, Subject File Aug 1943-1945, (NAID 612714) Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section, Operations Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331.
- 17.16, Jacket 10, Historical Report-12th Army Group-April 1945, Numeric-Subject Operations File 1943-July 1945, (NAID 611522) Historical Section, Information Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331.
- SHAEF/G-5/751, Public Monuments-Fine Art, Numeric File Aug 1943-Jul 1945, (NAID 610059)Secretariat, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331.
- Walter Hancock, “Experiences of a Monuments Officer in Germany,” College Art Journal (vol. V. No. 4, May 1946), p. 309.
- James J. Rorimer, Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War (New York: Abelard Press, 1950), p. 231.