The Monuments Men and the Recovery of the Art in the Merkers Salt Mine April 1945
Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.
In the forthcoming movie The Monuments Men there will be a scene of Monuments Men entering the salt mine at Merkers, Thuringia, Germany in April 1945, and beholding German and looted gold, concentration camp victims’ gold teeth, and fabulous artwork. The scene looks something like this:
Capture of Germany’s Gold
ReichsBank wealth, SS loot, and Berlin Museum paintings that were removed from Berlin to a salt mine vault located in Merkers, Germany. The 3rd U.S. Army discovered the gold and other treasure in April 1945.
Of course the movie version takes liberties with what actually happened, as documented in the record holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration. What follows is a brief overview of what actually happened as documented in those records, focusing on the artworks. For a more detailed account see “Nazi Gold: The Merkers Mine Treasure” in Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration.
To protect Germany’s art treasures, the Reichminister for Education decided in March 1945 to ship them to mines for safekeeping. The first shipment took place on March 16, when forty-five cases of art from the Kaiser-Friedrichs Museum were shipped from Berlin to an unworked salt mine in Hesse, with shafts at Heimboldshausen and Ransbach. The mine is about fifteen miles west of the salt mine at Merkers, ten miles west of Vacha. Dr. Paul Ortwin Rave, curator of the German State Museum in Berlin as well an assistant director of the National Galleries in Berlin, who had been sent with the shipment, found that the mine was unsuitable for a deposit, and therefore it was decided that subsequent shipments would go to the salt mine at Merkers. The Merkers mine complex included more than 35 miles of tunnels and a dozen entrances. Between March 20 and March 31 the Germans transported one-fourth of the major holdings of fourteen of the principal Prussian state museums to Merkers. Rave was ordered to stay at Merkers and watch over the collection.
Late on the evening of March 22, elements of Lt. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army crossed the Rhine, and soon thereafter his whole army crossed the river and drove into the heart of Germany. Advancing northeast from Frankfurt, elements of the Third Army cut into the future Soviet Zone and advanced on Gotha. Just before noon on April 4, the village of Merkers fell to the Third Battalion of the 358th Infantry Regiment, Ninetieth Infantry Division, Third Army.
By noon on April 6 a story had reached Lt. Col. William A. Russell the Ninetieth Infantry Division’s G-5 (civilian affairs) officer that there was gold and other valuables in a mine at Merkers. He proceeded to the mine, where interviews with displaced persons in the area confirmed the story. They told him that works of art were also stored in the mine and that Dr. Rave was present to care for the paintings. Russell then confronted mine officials with this information, and they stated they knew that gold and valuable art were stored in the mine and that other mines in the area were likewise used for storing valuables. Russell learned from a German bank official that that the gold in the mine constituted the entire reserve of the Reichsbank in Berlin and Rave told him he was in Merkers to care for paintings stored in the mine.
With this information, Russell requested that the 712th Tank Battalion be ordered to proceed to Merkers to guard the entrances to the mine. Elements of the Ninetieth Division Military Police were also deployed about the entrances, and arrangements were made for generation of power and electricity at the mine so that the shafts could be entered for examination the next morning. Later that afternoon, after it was learned that there were at least five possible entrances to the mine at Merkers and that one tank battalion would not be sufficient to guard them all, Russell requested reinforcements. That evening Maj. Gen. Herbert L. Earnest, the Ninetieth Infantry Division’s commanding general, called the 357th Infantry Regiment then at Leimbach and ordered that its First Battalion proceed to Merkers to relieve the Ninetieth Division Military Police and reinforce the 712th Tank Battalion.
On the morning of April 7 military personnel interrogated civilians to obtain information on storage of Reich property in the mine. Also that morning, new entrances to this mine and to other nearby mines were found by the Americans at Leimbach, Ransbach, and Springen. Guards were immediately placed at these entrances. Later that morning, General Earnest directed that a company of the First Battalion of the 357th Infantry Regiment be posted to guard the main entrance of the Merkers mine. This company was reinforced with tanks from the 712th Tank Battalion, tank destroyers from the 773d Tank Destroyer Battalion, and Jeeps mounting machine guns for antiaircraft defense. Reinforced rifle companies were also ordered to guard entrances at Kaiseroda and Dietlas. Around 11 a.m. another entrance to the mine was found at Statinfsfeld by the First Battalion. Accordingly, a tank destroyer company was dispatched to guard this entrance.
At 10 a.m. Russell, the assistant division commander, and two other Ninetieth Infantry Division officers, Signal Corps photographers, Rave, and German mining officials entered the mine. The elevator took them to the bottom of the main shaft twenty-one hundred feet beneath the surface
Meanwhile the Ninetieth Infantry Division was continuing on the offensive and needed all of its forces. So at 5 p.m. the 357th Infantry Regiment was ordered to move out and join up with the division’s other units, with the exception of the First Battalion, which was to pass to division control and to continue guarding the mine, and Third Battalion guards were to be relieved by elements of the First Battalion. By that evening three companies of the First Battalion were guarding the entrances at Merkers, Kaiseroda, Leimbach, Springen, and Dietlas, with the assistance of one platoon of heavy machine guns and two sections of light tanks. The Merkers, Dietlas, and Kaiseroda factory areas were guarded by a perimeter defense, and special guards were placed on essential operating installations such as electric plants, transformers, and elevator mechanisms.
While the treasure was being reviewed on April 8, in other tunnels Americans found an enormous number of artworks. Late that day, Capt. Robert Posey, a Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) officer with the Third Army, his assistant PFC Lincoln Kirsten, and Major Perera, of G-5, Third Army, arrived to inspect the artworks and the gold and currency. Robert M. Edsel, in his The Monuments Men (2009) described their inspection:
Slowly, Posey and Kirstein began to realize just how much was hidden in the Merkers mines. Crated sculptures, hastily packed, with photographs clipped from museum catalogues to show what was inside. Ancient Egyptian papyri in metal cases, which the salt in the mine had reduced to the consistency of wet cardboard. There was no time to examine the priceless antiquities inside, for in other rooms there were ancient Greek and Roman decorative works, Byzantine mosaics, Islamic rugs, leather and buckram portfolio boxes. Hidden in an inconspicuous side room, they found the original woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer’s famous Apocalypse series of 1498. And then more crates of paintings—a Rubens, a Goya, a Cranach packed together with minor works.
Posey, Kirsten, and Perera then set out for the Third Army headquarters at Frankfurt, arriving there at 10 p.m. Shortly thereafter they made their report to Lt. Col. Tupper Barrett, G-5, 12th Army Group. Word was passed up the chain of command.
A painting by the french impressionist Edouard Manet, titled “Wintergarden”, discovered in the vault at Merkers. 4/25/45. RG 111-SC-203453-5
Col. Bernard D. Bernstein, deputy chief, Financial Branch, G-5 Division of SHAEF, was then placed in charge of the Merkers operation. After inspections of the mine regarding the gold and currency, and trips back to Frankfurt, on April 11 Bernstein returned to Merkers, and that morning, he and Rave made an inspection of the art treasures. Later that day Lt. George Stout, USNR, MFA&A Officer, G-5, 12th Army Group, and the SHAEF MFA&A chief, British Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, reported for duty, with the expectation that they would handle the art matters. After Posey’s earlier visit to Merkers, he had notified Webb of the treasure and recommended Stout, former chief of conservation at Harvard’s Fogg Museum and considered America’s greatest expert on the techniques of packing and transporting, be sent to the mine to provide technical guidance. Webb and Stout arrived at Merkers only to find that they needed Bernstein’s permission to see the art. Bernstein showed them his letter from Third Army’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Hobart Gay authorizing him to decide who went into the mine and the need for XII Corps Commander Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy’s permission for Allied personnel to inspect the mine. Bernstein agreed to let Stout view the works of art, but he denied Webb access.
On April 12 Bernstein gave generals Dwight Eisenhower (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, or SHAEF commanding general) Omar Bradley (commanding general of the 12th Army Group), Patton, Eddy, and Brig. Gen. Otto P. Weyland, commander of the XIX Tactical Air Command of the Ninth Air Force, a tour of the mine. After looking at the gold, currency, and SS loot, including gold teeth from concentration camp victims, Bernstein also showed the generals the art treasures.
General Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Allied commander, inspects art treasures in the Merkers salt mine. Behind Eisenhower are General Omar N. Bradley (left), and (right) Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. 4/12/45.
Stout on April 12 talked to Rave at the Ransbach mine, who explained that the forty-five cases of art there could not be inspected as the mine elevator was not working. Stout returned to Merkers and made a spot-check of some of the boxes and crates of artwork. He found that in addition to the crated items, some four hundred paintings were lying loose. He had seen enough to know that he needed proper packing materials and that the art constituted great wealth. The next afternoon he returned to Ransbach to prepare the items there for the move. Upon his return to Merkers, Bernstein told him that the art convoy would leave on the sixteenth.
At some point on April 14 Bernstein met with Stout, Lt. Col. Carl L. Morris, G-4, SHAEF, and others to discuss the arrangements for the movement of approximately four hundred tons of art stored in different parts of the Merkers mine. It was agreed that loading would begin at noon on April 16. But the loading would actually begin earlier, for at midnight on the fourteenth, Bernstein ordered Stout to prepare three truckloads of art, which were to be mixed in with the gold to make the loads lighter. Stout, between 2 and 4:30 a.m., complied with Bernstein’s order, complete with an inventory.
Also on the fourteenth, Morris flew to Frankfurt to confer with transportation officers about procuring trucks to be used for the shipment of the art to Frankfurt, where it would be stored in the Reichsbank building. Morris made arrangements on April 15 with the Third Army provost marshal to obtain one hundred POWs to be used in loading the art treasure the next morning. The following morning, Morris flew back to Merkers to assist in the move.
At 8 a.m. on April 15, a platoon of the First Battalion, 357th Infantry Regiment, under the direction of Stout, assisted by 1st Lt. William A. Dunn, Financial Branch, U.S. Group Control Council, started moving the four hundred unpacked pictures. Once the pictures were aboveground, they were placed in an adjacent mine-owned building and wrapped in long German army sheepskin coats Kirsten had found in a neighboring potash mine at Menzengraben. They now awaited arrival of the trucks the next day.
On April 16 at 7 a.m. the convoy arrived. The move commenced once again, under the watchful eye of Morris, who arrived back at Merkers around 9:30 a.m. The move was accomplished by 357th Infantry Regiment personnel, assisted by the one hundred POWs who arrived with an escort of guards later in the day. The move went quickly, in part because some of the art had been moved to the surface the previous day. Besides the Merkers treasures, a few art objects in forty-five cases were removed from the Ransbach mine and added to the convoy. The move was completed at about 8:30 p.m. With this phase of the operation completed, the 357th Infantry Regiment’s Third Battalion took leave of Merkers and rejoined their Ninetieth Infantry Division comrades. The First Battalion would remain at Merkers, under Corps Control, until the treasure’s disposition had taken place.
On April 17, at 8:30 a.m. the art treasure convoy, named TASK FORCE HANSEN, moved out from Merkers, having a sizable military escort and air cover. The convoy consisted of twenty-six ten-ton trucks loaded with art, two loaded with POWs, and two empty for use in the event that a transfer of loads became necessary. The art convoy arrived at Frankfurt at 2:45 p.m., and an hour later the unloading and storing of the artwork began, supervised by Stout, assisted by Dunn and Kirsten. The unloading was completed at 10:30 p.m. Stout’s inventory listed 393 paintings (uncrated), 2,091 print boxes, 1,214 cases, and 140 textiles being moved into the Reichsbank. At 11 p.m. the infantry guard departed, and the POWs were sent on another assignment. Stout, Posey, and Kirsten would then be off on other adventures to identify, protect, and recover cultural property in Germany and Austria. The artworks would remain in Frankfurt and be subsequently sent to the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point.