Published in The Daily Beast on February 7, 2014, "Inside Hitler's Fantasy Museum":
Before World War II’s start, Hitler was driven to create his dream museum containing all his favorite Aryan-approved art. Noah Charney on how the Monuments Men had to unravel the thousands of objects plundered by the Fuhrer’s minions—and what they learned from Napoleon.
When Monuments Men Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein walked into the white-washed cottage in the German forest that housed Hermann Bunjes, the Harvard-educated one-time SS officer and art advisor to Herman Goring, they learned of an elaborate plan involving the wholesale looting of Europe’s art treasures. Bunjes, hiding in fear of reprisals against SS officers by angry German citizens, told these fellow art historians about the ERR—the Nazi art theft unit—and about Hitler’s plan to create a city-wide museum in his boyhood town of Linz, Austria: a “super museum” that would contain every important artwork in the world, including a wing of “degenerate art,” a sort of chamber of horrors to demonstrate from what monstrosities the Nazis had saved the world. It was news to Posey and Kirstein, who had to restrain their shock. The Monuments Men had heard rumors of art theft and looting throughout the war, but had no idea of the scale (some estimate that around 5 million cultural objects were looted, lost, or mishandled during the war), the advanced level of organization (scores of Nazi officers and hundreds of soldiers were assigned exclusively to the confiscation, transport, and maintenance of looted art and archival material), and the ultimate destination of the choicest pieces—the Führermuseum. It was years into the war, when this encounter took place, and only then did the Monuments Men finally realized what they were up against. Bunjes further detailed a number of hiding places for looted art, including the famous salt mine at Altaussee, in the Austrian Alps, which contained some twelve-thousand stolen artworks, the mother-load destined for the Linz museum. Posey and Kirstein were on the hunt for The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, the most influential painting ever made and the most-frequently stolen, but could hardly believe what they were hearing. Yes,The Ghent Altarpiece was the number one target that Hitler wanted as the centerpiece for his museum, both because of its beauty, fame, and importance but also because it had been forcibly repatriated to Belgium from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, and seizing it back would right this perceived wrong against the German people. But here was the chance to save not just this painting, but tens of thousands of artworks.