Emanuel de Witte (c. 1617-1692)
Interior of a Gothic Church (1668)
oil on canvas, 22.05 x 25.59 in. (56 x 65 cm)
Much of the lost works of art from the Second World War is widely assumed to have come from European collections plundered by the Nazis, but a great deal of works from state institutions and collections within Germany were stored with the plunder for safekeeping. They too were moved to salt mines and stately residences across Reich territories to protect them from theft, ground combat, and aerial bombardment. Some of the greatest losses from German public collections were recorded in the collection of the Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie) of the National Museums in Berlin (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). Formerly housed in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (today, the Bode Museum) on Berlin’s Museum Island (Museumsinsel Berlin), this important collection is a survey of masterpieces of European painting from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Larger paintings that were unable to be transported distances outside of the capital city were stored locally in an imposing anti-aircraft tower known as the Friedrichshain Flak Tower (Flakturm II). Two fires are believed to have destroyed the portions of the collection there, however smaller works store there have since been rediscovered in the post-war years, and it is possible some of these masterpieces were saved from destruction by looting.
Flak towers were large, multistory, above ground bunkers designed to both withstand aerial attacks and bring enemy bombers down. Their construction began after the British RAF began air raids on Berlin in 1940 and were completed within six months. There were eight flak towers in the Reich—three in Berlin, two in Hamburg, and three in Vienna, Austria. While the guns at the top of these towers were operated by the Luftwaffe, the main inner sections acted as air-raid shelters for local civilians as well as storehouses for some of the most important works from Berlin collections.
In later interviews, the Director General of the National Museums of Berlin, Prof. Dr. Otto Kümmel, outlined the lack of interest by Nazi officials in the protection of Berlin’s state collections. As early as 1935 a memorandum had been sent suggesting the construction of a purpose-built shelter for the works, but nothing was ever done. In 1938 some of the collections were moved to the new building of the Berlin Reichsbank. By 1941, portions of the collections began moving to the Zoo Flak Tower (Flakturm Tiergarten; Flakturm I) and Friedrichshain Flak Tower. At the time they were believed to be ideal for storing delicate pieces due to their humidity level and climate control. By the summer of 1942, nearly fifty-three thousand cubic feet of objects (one and a half thousand cubic meters) were stored in the Zoo Flak Tower, and twenty-six thousand cubic feet (735 cubic meters) at the Friedrichshain Flak Tower.
Allied air raids intensified in late 1943 and early 1944 and Berlin Museum officials began evacuating the lesser works to subterranean locations outside the city. By March 1944, it had also become clear that the flak towers were not the impervious fortresses they had been built to be. Some works in the towers were transferred between the two locations or removed to accommodate military needs, but a direct bombing of Museum Island in February 1945 forced the works out of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum and into the Friedrichshain Flak Tower. Soon after, Nazi officials ordered Berlin’s collections to be evacuated from the city, but some works remained trapped in the Flak Tower when the Battle of Berlin began in April 1945. It is believed that some of the larger works remained behind because they would not have been able to fit into the pit cages that would have taken them underground in the mines that served as repositories.
The Soviet Red Army entered Berlin in the last major offensive of the Second World War. Due to the chaos and destruction, the series of events at the Friedrichshain Flak Tower in the final days of the war are not entirely known. It was reported that when the Red Army began entering Berlin on 21 April 1945, the museum guards were still present at the Zoo Flak Tower but not at Friedrichshain. When the city fell on May 2, the museum staff were tending to the museum buildings and the museum guards at the tower were dismissed by the Red Army. Prof. Dr. Kümmel did manage to secure Red Army guards for the tower. On May 5, the works at the Friedrichshain Flak Tower were seen to be in good condition, although civilians were in the near vicinity, no doubt having sought refuge from the fighting. The next day, a fire started. When museum officials and a Soviet officer returned on May 7, the first floor was found to be burnt out. No longer guarded by the Soviets, a second fire the following week destroyed the second and third floors.
The extent of the looting at the Friedrichshain Flak Tower and by whom is unknown. The Red Army begun removing collections from the Zoo Flak Tower on May 7, an operation that continued for a month. They also removed pieces from repositories and museums that would later fall in the British sector of occupied Berlin, and, even after Allied requests for official excavation, some of the remaining debris of the Friedrichshain Flak Tower was taken by the truckload to be sifted for anything worth keeping.
However the two fires were set in the Friedrichshain flak tower, whether by accident, or to disguise looting, the loss of the contents of that tower is indisputable. Four hundred and thirty-three paintings have not been seen since, including seven works by Rubens, three by Caravaggio, three by Van Dyck, and more by various European masters. The only known painting to have been recovered was a Madonna and Child, a sixteenth-century panel painting from Lombardy, Italy. It was returned to the Gemäldegalerie in 2012 by the son of a US soldier who had bought it in 1946. To this day, a number of large-scale frames are waiting in the museum’s basement for their paintings to hopefully return.