LVIII: The Amber Room

The Nazi are fairly infamous for a wide variety of atrocities in a wide variety of categories, and one of the most bizarre and well-known has to be large-scale art theft. Pieces by famous masters such as Matisse, Degas, Raphael, Renoir, and Picasso were among among the masterpieces looted from museums across Europe as the German army swept over them. They managed to seize and move pieces as large as the Ghent Altarpiece across the continent. But that pales in comparison with their most massive prize: an entire room.

It wasn’t just any room, and they didn’t just hack it out of a building and truck it back to the fatherland. It was the Amber Room, a series of carved amber panels adorned with mirrors and gold leaf designed to cover the walls of a room. Construction on this “Eighth Wonder of the World” began in 1701 in Prussia under the supervision of German and Dutch artists and craftsmen. In 1716, it was given as a gift from King Frederick William I of Prussia to his ally, Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. The Russians made a few modifications, bringing the total size of the Amber Room to 590 square feet and 13,000 pounds of amber.

Hitler and his Nazi regime had created a massive cult of personality, and part of that ideology included the concept of a proud Aryan ancestry that had little to no basis in factual history. Reclaiming this ancestral birthright would involve recovering anything that the Germans perceived was rightfully theirs and had been stolen by other nations, including artwork and land. This included the Amber Room, which had actually been given away as a gift.

Germany invaded Russia on June 22, 1941. Art curators in Leningrad were aware of the looting being carried out by the Kunstschutz (literally “art protection”) who swept across Europe behind the German army, “saving” valuable works of German art while simultaneously destroying Jewish art and collecting “degenerate” art such as Impressionist pieces to sell for cash. Some of the loot was destined for the Fuhrer Museum in Linz, but most of it was horded by high-ranking Nazis such as Hermann Goering. To save the exquisite Amber Room from this fate, the Leningrad curators tried to disassemble the Amber Room in order to hide it, but age had made the amber brittle, and it could not be moved without crumbling the amber. They tried to hide the precious art behind mundane wallpaper, but the Nazis knew what to look for, and the attempt to conceal the Amber Room quickly failed.

Germany’s Army Group North, accompanied by two art experts, disassembled the Amber Room in October of 1941 and shipped it to Königsberg in East Prussia where it was reassembled and proudly put on display in Königsberg Castle. Where the war began to draw to a close in 1945, with Germany clearly on the losing side, Hitler order the removal of all cultural treasures from Königsberg in order to save them from Allied troops. Albert Speer and his team began transporting various artworks, but before the Amber Room could be moved, Königsberg’s head of civil administration fled the city, stalling all efforts to hide the city’s treasures.

The Red Army moved in to occupy Königsberg on April 9, 1945, but the Amber Room was nowhere to be found. Soviet propaganda claimed the Germans had stolen the precious artwork which was rightfully theirs, haven been gifted to Russia over 200 years earlier. The Amber Room was never seen again after the war, and it was not until the end of the 20th century that clues about its disappearance emerged. Several witnesses claimed to have seen parts of the disassembled Amber Room being loaded onto the MV Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945. The ship, which was being used to help Germans living in Prussia flee  from the advancing Red Army, was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine and sank in what was the largest loss of life in any single maritime disaster in history. Now considered a war grave, diving is not permitted within 500 meters of the wreck, and it has never been explored.

Other evidence showed the Amber Room was not lying on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. One of four Italian stone mosaics that had once been part of the Amber Room was found in Germany in 1997 in the possession of a former soldier who claimed he had helped pack up the Amber Room in the last days before the Soviet occupation of Königsberg. A year later, a German team claimed they had found the Amber Room in a silver mine, while a Lithuanian team claimed to have located it at the bottom of a lagoon. Both leads proved to be false. A lengthy investigation by British journalists in 2004 produced more definitive, albeit tragic; they concluded that the Amber Room had been destroyed during the first three days of the Soviet occupation, when Königsberg Castle was heavily bombed and then set ablaze, essentially razing the structure to the ground. They proved that the Italian stone mosaics found in Germany had been taken from the burned rubble of the castle, only surviving due to their sturdy stone construction.

The Amber Room shared its tragic fate with a great number of valuable artworks looted by the Nazis. Much of the Nazi plunder was accidentally destroyed in the bombing of Germany at the end of the war, while some was hidden or secretly sold off. Some artworks even followed their Nazis owners across the globe as they fled the Allied advance. While a great many works of art were saved by the Allied Monuments Men and returned to the rightful homes, others became innocent victims of Hitler’s delusions.

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