At war over art

There’s been a drought in Evil Nazi-themed viewing here lately. Netflix to the rescue: The Rape of Europa tracks the tragic fate of European art treasures during WWII. Not an incidental victim of Nazi destruction and theft, art was a prime mover behind Hitler’s imperial vision. From wiping out “degenerate” modernist, Jewish and Slavic culture to “reclaiming” the work of so-called Germanic artists, the Reich saw art as the subject and object of world domination. Hitler and Goering drafted lists of the works to be seized along with new territory; the film implies battle plans were shaped by their desire for specific pieces (especially from the deep collections of Parisian Jews).

By war’s end, nearly every great work of art in Europe that wasn’t in ruins had been stolen and/or stashed (lost works are still coming to light as far away as Utah). The Allies’ tireless corps of art specialists or “Monument Men” pick up the pieces (in every sense) to hunt down, repair and repatriate everything they can.

The art history student in me is jealous of Europe. In America, art can feel peripheral—a passtime, a stunt, an evening’s entertainment or an investment (it barely makes a blip on the political radar in ’08). But over there, art is inseparable from city, identity and history, something to live and die for. I envy that without exactly wishing for it.

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