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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SEVENTY Monuments Men and the Moon

On Saturday night we went to a drive-in movie. I don't know if you have ever sat on the back of a Harley Davidson for three hours – not comfortable. The film was The Monuments Men, the story of the art hunters who rescued art stolen by the Nazis; and we had to see it because one of the actual Monuments Men, Harry Ettlinger (Sam Epstein in the film), came originally from Karlsruhe.

Ettlinger, a German-American, was one of the art historians who advanced with the Allied armies in an attempt to preserve artworks and buildings and to recover the trainloads of art stolen by the Nazis, not least by Hitler himself who was intending a magnificent Führermuseum in Linz, near his birthplace. It is an amazing story of success - saving the panels of van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece - but also of failure: thousands of artworks were destroyed by the Nazis (and sometimes by Allied bombing) or simply disappeared.

One local artwork still missing is the Rupertsberg Codex, a beautiful manuscript of Scivias that Hildegard of Bingen commissioned towards the end of her life. We know about it from black and white photographs and painted copies of its images. The Codex was taken to Dresden for 'safekeeping' in 1945 – and has never been seen since.

After the film was released, the Monuments Men Foundation (which is entrusted with perpetuating the work of reconnecting rightful owners with their art) set up a toll-free line 1-866-WWII-ART as an easy conduit for relevant information. The family of Margaret Reeb called to say that they had inherited two pictures that Ms Reeb had bought from someone at Schloss Kronberg when it was being converted into an US Army officer's club. It turned out that both paintings had belonged to Queen Victoria – one was of her eldest daughter and the other was van Dyck's triple portrait of Charles I.

The Monuments Men project was admirable in emphasising the importance to civilisation of conserving art, and ethical in acknowledging rightful ownership. Another Allied project – Operation Paperclip – was neither admirable nor ethical, in simultaneously denying the imperative of justice and permitting prima facie war criminals to evade trial.

Hans Morgenthau, born quite near here in Coburg, who rose to be a key figure in the State Department, expressed the rationale that underpinned Operation Paperclip: "The statesman must think in terms of the national interest, conceived as power among other powers. The popular mind, unaware of the fine distinctions of the statesman's thinking, reasons more often than not in the simple moralistic and legalistic terms of absolute good and absolute evil."

The story of Operation Paperclip begins after defeat at Stalingrad when the Wehrmacht recognised that they were not prepared to hold off the coming Soviet advance. Their solution was to turn to technology: they made a list – the Osenberg List - of all the scientists, mathematicians and engineers who, until then had been scattered through the Wehrmacht as lorry drivers, bakers, and front-line soldiers and bought them back to Germany to develop advanced weapons.

The men on the Osenberg List made some remarkable weapons: the first mass-produced assault rifle, the Sturmgewehr 44; the first jet plane used in combat, the Messerschmitt Me 262; the first rocket-powered ballistic missile, the V-2; and the super-heavy tank first used at D-Day, the Königstiger (which was translated by the Allies as 'Royal Tiger', but is used in German to mean Bengal tiger).

When Hitler issued his infamous Nero Decree ordering the destruction of all militarily-useful assets and “anything else of value within Reich territory, which could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the prosecution of the war”, loyal Nazis began an orgy of obliteration that included thousands of artworks – and, in one officer's mind, the Osenberg List itself.

The chosen mode of destruction was particularly poor: the torn up List blocked the lavatory. A sharp-witted Polish technician retrieved it, passed it to MI6 - and on to the Americans.

And here the political realism of Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr came into play. Justice was sacrificed, as was the ethical imperative to try war criminals. Irrespective of whether or not they had a case to answer, some 1,600 'Osenberg' men whom the Nazis had identified as particularly valuable could not be allowed to fall into Soviet hands - so they were taken to Mexico and given residence permits so that they could enter the United States legally.

Some of these men had a particularly evil history: Arthur Rudolph was linked to the Mittelbau-Dora slave labour camp, and Hubertus Strughold with human experimentation. Nor has Wernher von Braun escaped criticism. The V-2 rocket plant at Peenemünde used slave labour: many died of overwork and starvation, and those suspected of sabotage were summarily hanged.

Not all Americans welcomed Operation Paperclip. Congressman John Dingell, Democrat from Detroit, said on the floor of the House in 1947: “I have never thought that we were so poor mentally in this country that we have to go and import those Nazi killers to help us prepare for the defense of our country.”

Morgenthau died in 1972, living long enough to see one successful outcome for his realpolitik – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon. In the early Cold War, the Soviet Union's sputniks and manned orbits had embarrassed Americans, and JFK cast round for some response. Wernher von Braun's analysis suggested that if the space race were to be confined to earth orbit, the Soviet Union would always be able to compete. In a memo to Kennedy, he argued that the game needed to change: America should choose an objective that would sidestep Soviet strengths - an escape from earth orbit to take the ultimate prize, the Moon.

Saturn V rocket (c)NASA

Kennedy accepted von Braun's strategic vision and made his famous speech – 'We choose to go to the Moon” - setting out the parameters of the project: time (a decade) and objective (a manned landing on the Moon). The task rested on NASA's shoulders - the critical element, a rocket powerful enough to escape earth orbit, landed straight on the desk of von Braun, who was by then Director of the Marshall Space Flight Centre. With the enormous budget made available by Kennedy, he led the design of something new in the world, the Saturn V rocket. Standing 106 metres tall, it offered extraordinary power, sufficient to push a lunar lander, command module, three men and their re-entry capsule out of earth orbit on a journey that would take them beyond the Soviets' reach.

Perhaps there could be an exhibition one day of the Saturn V and the Ghent Altarpiece. Hans Morgenthau could take turns giving the tour with Hannah Arendt, the philosopher from Hanover with whom he later had an affair and whose views were very different from his: “What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”

All this moralising has made me hungry. Fortunately, Karlsruhe has some wonderful restaurants. As it's our last evening here, we might head out for some Sauerbrauten: the meat (traditionally horse, but let's hope not tonight) is marinated for up to ten days in vinegar, herbs, and spices and then roasted. My guess is that the Race Marshal will order the traditional accompaniment of Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes).

The full film of The Monuments Men -

Audio of Eisenhower receiving the fellowship of the Monuments Men Foundation

The Smithsonian Museum's film on stolen art -

The Saturn V rocket -

Extraordinary film of von Braun's futuristic vision for travel to the Moon -

Bonzo Dog's comment on it all:

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