The Monuments Men, George Clooney’s star-studded war drama about a group of Allied agents that infiltrated Nazi Germany to recover some of the world’s most precious masterpieces from the collapsing Third Reich, hits theatres next week.
And while the media is already buzzing with articles about the real story behind the Hollywood blockbuster, readers will probably see far fewer column inches devoted to the enemy’s version of the Monuments Men – Nazi art brigades that systematically plundered Europe of its cultural treasures.
From the very outset of the Second World War, Axis agents fanned out across the occupied territories in an epic campaign to snatch up Europe’s paintings, statues, artifacts and ancient manuscripts and haul them back to Germany. Some of the works sought by the invaders had long been claimed by Berlin; most was pilfered without any justification.
In all, more than 1.4 million railroad cars worth of booty were looted from museums, galleries and private collections – as much as 20 percent of all of Europe’s art. The pieces were methodically sold off, warehoused, put to the torch or added to the personal collections of some of the Reich’s most senior officials. Despite the best efforts of the Allied treasure hunters like Washington’s Fine Arts and Archives Program or the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission, as many as 100,000 pieces still remain unaccounted for. 
Here are some of the Nazi agencies behind the thefts.
The Crime of the Century
One of Nazi party’s pre-eminent “intellectuals”, Alfred Rosenberg, was the mastermind behind the Nazi’s official program of art thievery. The 47-year-old Estonian native founded the taskforce, known as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), in July of 1940 on Hitler’s orders. For the next five years, Rosenberg’s henchmen combed the continent, netting a veritable trove of cultural treasures. The ERR targeted libraries and galleries not just for paintings and carvings, but also for historic manuscripts, jewelry collections and even religious artifacts. The group was also tasked with confiscating the private art collections of Jews and other targeted minorities. ERR ran operations in France, Belgium, Norway Denmark, Holland, Italy, Greece and the Balkans, the Baltic states and the U.S.S.R. Poland was particularly hard hit. More than two-dozen museums were leveled and a half million pieces of art (nearly 45 per cent of the country’s known works) were either seized or destroyed.  It was all part of a wider campaign by Hitler to obliterate all traces of Polish national culture.
Elsewhere, billions of dollars worth of confiscated art was sold off to finance the Nazi war effort, while large consignments went to high party officials. Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering alone claimed 2,000 separate pieces for his own personal collection . Tens of thousands of works of art deemed ‘politically objectionable’ to the Third Reich were confiscated and then destroyed on the grounds that they were created by Jews, Slavs, Bolsheviks or other undesirables. The Fuhrer, a failed artist himself, harboured a deep resentment for the avant garde and modern art. Even before the war, such pieces were seized by the regime and displayed in so called “degenerate art” exhibits before being publically burned. It was a practice that would continue into the war years.
The lion’s share of the ERR’s other booty was stockpiled in fortified mines, vaults and caves throughout Germany until the completion of the Führermuseum, a city-sized art complex that was to be constructed in Linz, Austria once the war was won. Hitler boasted that the massive gallery would one day become the cultural epicenter of the world.
Goering’s “Art Protectors” — ‘We Had to Steal the Painting in Order to Save It!’
Following Italy’s surrender to the Allies, Luftwaffe chief and Germany’s second-in-command, Hermann Goering established his own personal military cultural unit dubbed the Kunstschutz — a German term meaning “art protectors”. Founded ostensibly to ‘preserve’ some of Italy’s most precious masterpieces from the ravages of British and American bombing, the group’s true mission was to loot the Reich’s one-time ally of many of its most celebrated and heralded classical and renaissance masterpieces. By the time it had finished ransacking the country’s great museums and cathedrals, Kunstschutz crews had absconded with nearly 100 crates of paintings and statues containing works by everyone from Di Vinci and Donatello to Michelangelo and Botticelli. Thankfully, Italian partisans tailed the shipments as they made their way north and passed the intelligence along to the Allies. Many of the pieces were eventually repatriated, but the process took years.
The SS Ancestral Heritage Division
Perhaps the most bizarre of all of the Nazi arts and culture units was the Ahnenerbe. Founded in 1935 by SS chief Heinrich Himmler, the outfit known as the Ahnenerbe was established to unearth archeological evidence validating Hitler’s claims of Aryan racial supremacy. Yet, once World War Two was in full swing, the unit turned to pilfering treasures and artifacts.
In the years leading up the conflict, agents from the Ahnenerbe, or the Office of Ancestral Heritage, travelled the planet in search of the mythical origins of Nordic culture. It seems no theory about the roots of the Aryan race was too hare-brained to go unexplored. Expeditions combed the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East in hopes of proving that ancient Romans were in fact blond haired, blue-eyed supermen. Other teams were dispatched to Tibet to explore dubious assertions that Neolithic Nordic warriors conquered Central Asia and even invaded China and Japan. The outbreak of the war put a damper on other planned excursions to Bolivia and Iran to support bizarre hypotheses linking the Master Race to the ancient Incan and Persian empires.
While hostilities ended the Ahnenerbe’s so-called “scientific” expeditions, Himmler’s archeologists were soon following the Panzers into Poland, Russia and France, to dig into history and also to pinch treasures and artifacts.
The Ahnenerbe famously made off with a priceless 15th Century altar in Krakow carved by the Renaissance artist Veit Stoss. On the eve of the German invasion, the Warsaw government ordered the 42-foot tall altarpiece to be disassembled and packed in unmarked crates to be dispersed throughout the country. Following the Nazi occupation, Ahnenerbe agents tracked each cache down and shipped the lot to Germany. The altar would remain there until 1946.
The famous Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot long representation of William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings was also targeted. It was removed from its historic cathedral in Normandy shortly after the fall of France. And although the Nazis only transported the iconic embroidery as far as the Louvre, Himmler sent agents into Paris to steal the tapestry shortly after the Allies liberated the city in the summer of 1944. The operation failed.
The Monuments Men opens on Feb. 7.