Neuschwanstein Castle and The Monuments Men
You may have seen the George Clooney movie, or read the (much better) book that inspired it. If so, you’ll have some idea about the role Neuschwanstein Castle plays in the story of World War II and the “Monuments Men.”
During the war, the Nazis looted occupied Europe of countless artistic treasure representing centuries of heritage. Perhaps the most infamous example was Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece of 1432, which is widely regarded as one of the most important artworks in Europe, the “first oil painting” that marked the birth of the Renaissance. The altarpiece is the most stolen art work in history. Protestant iconoclasts at the time of the Reformation tried to burn it. Napoleon stole it. The Germans pilfered it more than once. And of course the Nazis came for it. In what sounds like a script from an Indiana Jones movie, there is some speculation that Hitler believed the painting was a coded map to hidden Christian relics that would provide him with supernatural powers.
The “Monuments Men” was the name given to a special force of Allied soldiers, art historians and museum curators who risked their lives in the war, sometimes operating behind enemy lines, to locate and save priceless treasures. They tracked down hidden art everywhere, from France to Germany, from the Harz mountains to a salt mine in Austria.
Some of these monuments to art history were discovered in King Ludwig II’s fairy tale castle. It is a chilling thought that the great romantic edifice in the Bavarian Alps was also a crime scene.
Neuschwanstein became a temporary repository for stolen art during the war. The castle’s expansive rooms and hidden chambers were used to store looted paintings, sculptures, and other cultural treasures. The castle’s unique location on a lofty mountainous perch in the Alps marked it as an ideal den for thieves.
It was soon identified as a key target for art recovery. The recovery team’s relentless pursuit of the stolen art led them to uncover hidden caches within the castle’s walls and secret chambers. The final scene in the movie, in which George Clooney’s team can be seen driving into the castle courtyard to reclaim stolen art is based on a real historic event.
By carefully cataloging and documenting the recovered works, the Monuments Men played a vital role in preserving the cultural heritage that the Nazis had sought to destroy.
Today, Neuschwanstein Castle stands not only as a testament to Germany’s architectural brilliance but also as a reminder of the dark chapter of looted art during World War II. It is also a reminder of how the great public spaces, and artistic and architectural heritage of Germany and Bavaria was so misused and abused by the leaders of the Third Reich. Neuschwanstein is a beautiful and happy place, built by a sensitive king who treasured Europe’s artistic heritage more than anything in his life, and deserves better than to be remembered as a store house for stolen cultural property.