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The Monuments Men and Hitler's Art Operation

Updated on January 29, 2014

Unlike these special ops, the men in this group were all experts in identifying stolen art work that the Nazi regime had taken when a country was conquered. Their mission was to identify and return the property to the country. A total of 400 men and women were in the Monuments group, although, only a select few actually went to the front to fight.

When a country's art and culture was stolen by German forces, much of them would be sent back to Germany to secret destinations. Hitler's goal was to build a "super museum" with the loot. Unlike many operations. Hitler personally controlled four branches that looted the art and other cultural icons from museums. The museum was to built in his hometown of Linz, Austria (remember, Hitler had been an artist in the 1920's). It was to be a pure "Germanic" cultural museum with art from "alien races" such as Jews and Slavs not to be included.

As 1945 came and Germany threatened, Hitler ordered the loot to be stored in underground mines, barns, castles. Many of the mines were not known to the Americans, yet, one of the most biggest finds was at the Alt Ausee, near Salzburg, discovered by chance during interviewing locals. This mine contained 6500 pieces of art and sculptures. Much of the loot would have been most valuable to Hitler- Michelangelo's "Bruges Madonna" and others rare art. It was the Monuments Men that saved them from Hitler's planned destruction of the mine and contents. The evacuation of the art was vital before the Russians arrived. When the unit arrived in Berlin, the Russians had already taken much of the art but not the tons of gold. This gold was quickly loaded and moved to Frankfurt. Over 60,000 pieces of art were recovered in France alone!

Approximately 20% of the art in Europe was looted by the Nazis, and there are well over 100,000 items that have not been returned to their rightful owners. In early 2012, over one thousand pieces of artwork were discovered at the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of art collector from the war. Some 18 crates of gold and platinum buried under the bed of the Stolpsee, a 988-acre stretch of water to the north of Berlin. The latest sonar and radar equipment were used to locate the gold dropped into the lake as the Red Army made its final push for Berlin in March, 1945. One eyewitness, Eckhard Litz, told a post-war commission that he saw 30 concentration camp prisoners unloading heavy crates from lorries parked by the Stolpsee. The boxes were then ferried into the middle of the lake, and thrown into its waters. "When the last case had been thrown overboard, the men returned to shore, were lined up and the last thing I saw were the flashes of the machine guns of the guards as they were killed."

As you can see, the hunt for Hitler's stolen loot continues!


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