Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Rape of Europa, by Lynn H. Nicholas

Having seen the films The Man Who Saved the Louvre, The Monuments Men and The Woman in Gold, and having read The Lady in Gold, I decided it was time to dig in and read the authoritative book on the subject of the Nazi plunder of art during the second World War.

The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas was published twenty years ago, and the author was awarded the French Légion d'Honneur for her work, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.

The book jacket does an admirable job of "selling" the story:
"The cast of characters includes Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, Gertrude Stein and Marc Chagall - not to mention works by artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Pablo Picasso. And the story told in this superbly researched and suspenseful book is that of the Third Reich's war on European culture and the Allies' desperate effort to preserve it.
"From the Nazi purges of 'Degenerate Art' and Goering's shopping sprees in occupied Paris to the perilous journey of the Mona Lisa from Paris (while bridges exploded in its wake) and the painstaking reclamation of the priceless treasures of liberated Italy, The Rape of Europa is a sweeping narrative of greed, philistinism, and heroism that combines superlative scholarship with the breakneck pace of a thriller."

The book is challenging, and includes 53 pages of notes, bibliography and index, so it is not for the casual reader. But the story is a compelling one, and is particularly relevant to art lovers and to those travellers who seek out European art treasures. I began this book while in southern France, and was fascinated by the real-life stories of intrigue and sabotage that related directly to the area, revealing a gritty historical dimension rarely mentioned in travel guide books.

And of course the story continues, with today's headlines of recovered paintings and unearthed caches of gold.

If you're interested in this subject, the 2006 award-winning documentary film based on the book might be a good place to start.

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