Greatest Theft in History

Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo, presenting a painting to the Fuehrer as a birthday gift on his 50th birthday

Heroism during wartime takes many forms. The Second World War presents virtually unlimited opportunities for students to learn about courage, risk, responsibility, and sacrifice. The Greatest Theft in History highlights the brave men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives effort (MFAA), plus other individuals who fought evil by safeguarding art and cultural heritage. This lesson introduces learners to some of these heroes and their deeds.

War, by definition, includes individuals who are seen as enemies. In World War II, enemies presented themselves amid numerous settings, though sometimes those classified as "enemies" behaved in surprising and courageous ways. To be sure, however, students discover the identities and intentions of particularly lethal "villains." The consequences of their actions on European art and heritage are emphasized. The deliberate theft of objects and the deliberate destruction of cultural richness-often out of purely selfish motives-are understood as a fundamental part of the Nazi goal to decimate people perceived as enemies to Germany and Aryan progress.
  • Subject Areas

    Social Studies, Visual Arts


    Students will:
    • Investigate the names and goals of individuals whose actions resulted in devastating consequences for both the people and treasures of Europe.
    • Compare war roles that are compulsory to roles that develop from personal choice.
    • Understand how the protection of Europe’s artistic and cultural heritage led to the creation of a new type of soldier.
    • Learn about the MFAA program and the values that guided its members.
    • Reflect on the necessity of those values remaining strong in current and future conflicts.
  • Part One: Opening Activity-War Roles

    Brainstorm about war roles. Collaboratively generate a list of the roles people take during times of conflict. Begin with general terms (enemy, ally, soldier, and casualty) and expand the conversation to include other roles that exist during times of war. Include perpetrator, collaborator, supporter, oppressor, resister, bystander, rescuer, victim, and profiteer. Students may use their knowledge to apply these terms to well-known figures of World War II. Emphasize that all people play a role during times of war; some roles are imposed, while some come with choice.

    Adolf Hitler’s overall ambitions included cultural ambitions in which art mattered greatly. Elite National Socialist leaders and sympathetic collaborators followed suit. The Nazis directed a large portion of their resources and energy to the systematic collection and destruction of portable art-and often (though not always) pinpointed attacks to destroy cultural landmarks.

    Many of the leading participants in the war also directed their interests and actions to art.

    The methods by which art was obtained were varied. Ask students to speculate about the ways the Nazis gathered art. At the same time, continue to make reference to the theme of roles during war.

    • The Nazis’ Plan to Loot: Part One
    • Video here
    Draw out class comments. Wieviorka says that war and looting are historical partners ("To the victor go the spoils"). She also explains how Nazi looting efforts were different from prior campaigns of conquest and plunder. Leaders in the National Socialist Party developed several methods to obtain art.

    Independent Research
    Direct students to research a specific individual from the list below. These people represent a range of roles and actions. Assign names to ensure each individual is researched.
    Hermann Goering
    Joseph Goebbels
    Karl Haberstock
    Heinrich Hoffman
    Bruno Lohse
    Hans Posse
    Alfred Rosenberg
    Albert Speer
    Julius Streicher

    To report and present research results, each student will create a one-page biography of the assigned person. Direct students to include, where possible, any significant quotes about art. These may come from writings, speeches, interviews, or other sources; students must provide proper citations.

    Following student research and writing, review these individuals and their actions.
    As part of the discussion, ask students to analyze the war roles of these individuals.

    Examine the actions of Alfred Rosenberg in more detail.
    • The Nazis’ Plan to Loot: Part Two
    • Video here
    Check for student understanding of M-Aktion and ERR, as well as Jeu de Paume.

    ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg): The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Special Task Force Reich Minister Rosenberg) was organized under the direction of Alfred Rosenberg, specifically for the plunder of cultural property across Nazi-occupied territories.

    M-Aktion: (Möbel-Aktion; translated as Furniture Campaign (or Action). M-Aktion, the Nazi confiscation of all Jewish household items, was implemented in 1940 to solve the dire shortage of such items within Germany.

    Jeu de Paume: A French art museum, the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in the center of Paris. From 1940 to 1944 the Nazi looting organization ERR used the Jeu de Paume Museum as its central storage and sorting depot prior to distribution to various persons and places within Germany. The French art curator, Rose Valland, who was overseer at the museum during this time, began secretly recording as much information as possible on the more than 20,000 pieces of confiscated art brought to the Jeu de Paume Museum, aiding in its recovery at war’s end.

    The Nazi seizure of art was a premeditated and targeted activity. Political policies were developed to legitimize the removal of masterworks coveted by Hitler (primarily for inclusion in the envisioned Fuehrer Museum in Linz) or to enrich the private collections of high-ranking party officials (particularly, but not only, Goering).

    Contrast Rosenberg with Goering.
    • Adolf Hitler: Part Three
    • Video here
    The following clip discusses Goering and Bruno Lohse:
    • The Nazi Looting Machine
    • Video here

    Discuss how:
    • Art served Nazi party interests and individual self-interests.
    • "Worthy" art was seized to support one set Nazi principles and activities.
    • "Worthless" (or "degenerate") art was seized to support another set of Nazi principles and activities.
    • Art theft was assisted by individuals who acted as collaborators and supporters.
    • The "Hitler Albums" further illustrate the importance of art to Nazi ambitions.

    Monuments Men Foundation
    At the end of the war, Goering had collected approximately 1,700 paintings, mostly through ill-gotten means. Goering had amassed more paintings than there are in the U.S. National Gallery of Art’s collection of European paintings. This was in addition to tapestries, rugs, sculptures, fine jewelry, and other objects of great value.

    Emphasize the enormity of the devastation to people. The Nazis stole everything from their victims. In addition to taking a person’s possessions, the Nazis stole lives, families, histories, and futures. In a very powerful sense, the Nazis reversed normal, day-to-day life: People lost value, but their objects, belongings, and possessions took on new value.

    An overview of the efforts to create Hitler’s art museum at Linz, the methods used to acquire the artworks (Sonderauftrag Linz), a database of the nearly 5,000 objects that were gathered, plus key issues about ownership and restitution can be found at the website of the Deutsches Historisches Museum.

    Another useful link is to Prologue Magazine, published by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Nazi Looted Art, The Holocaust Records Preservation Project, Parts 1 to 3.

    Clip 5 helps students make the connection to the impact these policies had on real people.
    Claude Delibes is the daughter of André Seligmann; he had an art gallery in Paris. The Nazis stole its contents in 1940.
    • The Nazi Looting Machine
    • Video here

    If the class has already learned about Jacques Altman, build a conversation that includes his story about his family and M-Aktion. (Assigned to a Nazi labor camp, Altman encounters his family’s household objects at the train station). If the class doesn’t know this material, show the clip.
    • The Nazi Looting Machine
    • Video here

    Optional follow-up: In 2004 the heirs of André Seligmann received a painting, Les Jeunes Amoureux, by Francois Boucher that had been stolen from him. The painting had been in the collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
    • A Museum’s Responsibility
    • Video here

    Summarize the first part of the lesson. Make sure students have demonstrated understanding of the information and ideas presented through discussion, clips, and research work. Students may write to a question or journal an entry.
  • Part Two: Heros

    The Nazis were able to both amass and destroy on a scale never before seen. The war and theft continued for years. Eventually, after years of fighting, Germany surrendered in May 1945. Ask students to speculate about who fought back; students will likely point to governments and armies. Guide students to see that individual choices and opportunities also led to fighting back. Individuals fought back in endless ways, often limited only by the conditions in which they found themselves. Ask students to make predictions about the people who rescued art.

    Return to the art stolen from Jewish collectors and other Jewish citizens. Select Clip 7 or Clip 8. Both discuss Rose Valland. Clip 8 provides more detail.
    • The Nazi Looting Machine
    • Video here

    • Rose Valland
    • Video here

    Seek student reaction, thoughts, and questions. How is Rose Valland a counterpoint to Bruno Lohse, Hans Posse, and/or others?

    Rose Valland was joined by many other people who took on new roles during the war. Few were able to match her results, but that point is dwarfed by a more significant observation: Many individuals responded to the moral obligation to do right in the face of danger. Some people saved lives; some people saved art and heritage. Others who acted used words-or made art-to express resistance and protest. All were brave.

    (Invite students to provide the names of other people who acted responsibly. They may know Oskar Schindler, Miep Gies, and Raoul Wallenberg, three people who worked to save Jews. There also was Dietrich von Choltitz, the German general in Paris who defied Hitler’s order to burn the city as the Allies were closing in. After the war he wrote, "It had been my firm commitment from the very beginning as a decent soldier to protect the civilian population and their magnificent city to the greatest extent possible.")

    Introduce the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program. Review the history of its development.
    • Monuments Men
    • Video here

    Seek student reaction, thoughts, and questions. Students may see connections to the military experiences of people in their families. Encourage a discussion.

    Assign each student to research a different member of the MFAA. To report and present research results, each student will create a résumé of a MFAA member or other art rescuer. The résumé will include these headings: Person’s name, Career interests, Background experience, Service to country, and Major accomplishments. A résumé heading, “Significant quotes,” may also be added. Direct students to include, where possible, compelling statements about art. These may come from writings, interviews, or other sources. Students must provide proper citations.

    Display the résumé in the classroom, art room, or other suitable location. Invite class members and other audiences to view the “gallery” of art rescuers. To create a larger exhibit, add images of rescued artworks, maps, and timelines. To further enhance the exhibit, partner these materials with student artwork about themes of war and rescue.

    Questions for further discussion:
    How does the MFAA relate to the idea that gender roles are nowhere more prominent than in war?

    What about women who also helped save art-or who displayed moral courage in other situations presented by the war?

    One way to understand heroism is through creeds that are "lived by." What was the creed of the Monuments Men? In what way is that creed independent of warfare?

    How did that creed continue to remain important following the war? How does it remain important today? How does it have value for the future?

    Review or research the word "upstander." How does it apply to the Monuments Men and to other individuals during the war? Return to the discussion of war roles presented at the beginning of the lesson.

    In the Second World War, Hitler was both villain and hero. The same dual identity applied to Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, other prominent leaders, and virtually all persons engaged in battle. Examine how, in warfare, every hero is simultaneously an enemy. Building on the starting point “it depends what side of the battle you are on,” explore whether—and, if so, to what extent—there are universally accepted heroes and villains. It also has been said that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” How does point of view influence characterizations of heroes and villains?

    These additional clips from The Greatest Theft in History DVD set illustrate protection and rescue during World War II:
    The Purple Heart Battalion (Young Oak Kim)
    The Battle of Monte Cassino (Young Oak Kim)
    The Discovery of the Merkers Mine (Ken Lindsay)
    Entering Alt Aussee (Leonard Malamut)
    The Collecting Points
    Protecting our Heritage (Frederique Hebrard)
    Guarding the Mona Lisa (Frederique Hebrard)
    Winged Victory of Samothrace (Alan Pasquier)
    Evacuating the Louvre (Frederique Hebrard)
    Protecting Florence’s Treasures (Alessandro Cecchi)
    Protecting the Wine of Tour d’Argent (David Ridgeway)

    Review the clips and select the best for further building on student interest and the goals of the class.

    Recommended Books
    To support Holocaust studies: The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, Martin Gilbert (Macmillan, 2003). Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, Eva Fogelman (Anchor Books, 1994).

    To support learning about individuals in the German art community during the war:
    The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, Jonathan Petropoulos
    (Oxford University Press, 2000).


    Student assessment draws from an evaluation of student ability to conduct two research assignments, to present the information in the appropriate formats (one report and one resume), and from student demonstration of knowledge during class discussions and any oral presentations.


    National Council of the Social Studies Standards more info
    I. Culture
    II. Time, Continuity, and Change
    V. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
    VI. Power, Authority, and Governance
    IX. Global Connections
    X. Civic Ideals and Practices

    National Standards for Arts Education more info
    Content Standard 4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures

    Achievement Standard [Grades 9-12]

    • Students describe the function and explore the meaning of specific art objects within varied cultures, times, and places.
    • Advanced: Students analyze and interpret artworks for relationships among form, context, purposes, and critical models, showing understanding of the work of critics, historians, aestheticians, and artists.

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