The best birthday present Harry Ettlinger ever got arrived on the frigid morning of January 28, 1945. The 19-year-old Army private was shivering in the back of a truck bound from France toward southern Belgium. There the Battle of the Bulge, raging for most of a month, had just ended, but the fighting continued. The Germans had begun their retreat with the new year, as Private Ettlinger and thousands of other soldiers massed for a counterassault. "We were on the way east," Ettlinger recalls, "when this sergeant came running out. 'The following three guys get your gear and come with me!' he yelled. I was one of those guys. I got off the truck."
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The Army needed interpreters for the forthcoming Nuremberg war trials, and someone had noticed that Ettlinger spoke German like a native—for good reason: he was a native. Born in the Rhine-side city of Karlsruhe, Ettlinger had escaped Germany with his parents and other relatives in 1938, just before the shock of Kristallnacht made it abundantly clear what Hitler had in mind for Jewish families like his. The Ettlingers settled in Newark, New Jersey, where Harry finished high school before being drafted into the Army. After several weeks of basic training, he found himself headed back to Germany—a place he had never expected to see again—where the last chapter of the European war was being written in smoke and blood.
Ettlinger's Nuremberg assignment evaporated without explanation, and he was plunged into a thoroughly unexpected sort of war, waged deep in Germany's salt mines, castles, abandoned factories and empty museums, where he served with the "Monuments Men," a tiny band of 350 art historians, museum curators, professors and other unsung soldiers and sailors of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section. Their task, begun with the uncertain peace of May 1945, was to find, secure and return the millions of pieces of art, sculpture, books, jewelry, furniture, tapestries and other cultural treasures looted, lost or displaced by seven years of upheaval.
The conflict swallowed up a massive volume of cultural objects—paintings by Vermeer, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Raphael, Leonardo, Botticelli and lesser artists. Museums and homes throughout Europe had been stripped of paintings, furniture, ceramics, coins and other objects, as were many of the continent's churches, from which silver crosses, stained glass, bells and painted altarpieces disappeared; age-old Torahs vanished from synagogues; entire libraries were packed up and spirited away by the trainload.
"It was the largest theft of cultural items in history," says Charles A. Goldstein, a lawyer with the Commission for Art Recovery, an organization promoting restitution of stolen works. "I've seen figures every which way, but there is no question that the scale was astronomical."
The most systematic looting, at the behest of Adolf Hitler and his reichsmarshal, Hermann Goering, swept up thousands of prime artworks in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Russia and other war-ravaged countries; indeed, in their thorough way of doing things, the Nazis organized a special squad of art advisers known as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), which targeted Europe's masterpieces for plunder. Choice works were detailed in some 80 leatherbound volumes with photographs, which provided guidance for the Wehrmacht before it invaded a country. Working from this hit list, Hitler's army shipped millions of cultural treasures back to Germany, in the Führer's words, to "safeguard them there." From the other direction, Soviets organized a so-called Trophy Commission, which methodically picked off the cream of Germany's collections—both legal and looted—to avenge earlier depredations at the hands of the Wehrmacht.
At the same time, state art repositories across Europe crated their prized collections and shipped them away in hopes of shielding them from Nazi looting, Allied bombing and Russian pillaging. The Mona Lisa, bundled into an ambulance and evacuated from the Louvre in September 1939, stayed on the go through much of the war; hidden in a succession of countryside châteaux, Leonardo's famous lady avoided capture by changing addresses no fewer than six times. The prized 3,300-year-old beauty Queen Nefertiti was whisked from Berlin to the safety of the Kaiseroda potash mine at Merkers in central Germany, where thousands of crates from the state museums were also stored. Jan van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece, a 15th-century masterwork the Nazis had looted from Belgium, was shipped to the mines of Alt Ausee, Austria, where it sat out the last months of the war alongside other cultural treasures.
When the smoke cleared, Hitler planned to unearth many of these spoils and display them in his hometown of Linz, Austria. There they would be showcased in the new Führer Museum, which was to be one of the finest in the world. This scheme died with Hitler in 1945, when it fell to Ettlinger and other Monuments Men to track down the missing artwork and provide refuge for them until they could be returned to their countries of origin.
"That's what made our war different," Ettlinger, now 82, recalls. "It established the policy that to the victor do not go the spoils. The whole idea of returning property to its rightful owners in wartime was unprecedented. That was our job. We didn't have much time to think about it. We just went to work."
For Ettlinger, that meant descending 700 feet below ground each day to begin the long, tedious process of clearing artwork from the salt mines of Heilbronn and Kochendorf in southern Germany. Most of these pieces were not looted but belonged legally to German museums in Karlsruhe, Mannheim and Stuttgart. From September 1945 to July 1946, Ettlinger, Lt. Dale V. Ford and German workers sorted through the subterranean treasures, ferreting out works of questionable ownership and sending paintings, antique musical instruments, sculptures and other objects topside for delivery to Allied collecting points in the American zone of Germany. At major collecting points—in Wiesbaden, Munich and Offenbach—other Monuments teams arranged objects by country of origin, made emergency repairs and assessed claims by delegations who came to recover their nation's treasures.