AuthorRoza, Anna


The looting of Greece's art treasures and the pillage of its archaeological sites did not start with the Nazi invasion on 8 April 1941. Instead, such acts date back to the second century BC when Greece's cultural treasures were pillaged by the Roman Empire. When the Romans conquered the Greeks in 146 BC, they looted their sculptures to decorate Rome and celebrate its political and cultural superiority. A similar offensive strategy was repeated by Napoleon Bonaparte during the Napoleonic Wars and gave France the wealth of treasures contained in the Louvre in Paris. Napoleon believed that these cultural treasures would contribute to the universal rise of France's prestige, considering that France--as opposed to other European countries which he believed had lower status--enjoyed the political and cultural position of the ancient Rome.

It was this Napoleonic mentality that the Nazi Party was expressing when looting the Greeks and destroying the Jewish cultural heritage. On the one hand, the Nazis planned the spoliation of Greece's cultural artefacts, aiming to identify those that represented Nazi superiority and on the other they sought to destroy the monuments and the civilisation of 'degenerate national groups'. More precisely, the cultural heritage of the Jews had to be destroyed and the Jewish Communities extinguished, leaving neither material nor cultural evidence of their existence since their national memory would have been erased. In this way, the Nazis would emphasise the greatness of the German spirit.


    1.1. Greece's Pre-Emptive Precautions for the Protection of its Antiquities

    During the Second World War Greece took significant measures to protect its treasures, going beyond the requirements of the international treaties in force at that time. (1) Semni Karouzou, an antiquities archaeologist, wrote in 1946 in the Greek newspaper New Epicenter that on 28 October 1940, Committees of 'Hiding and Securing' had been set up for the protection of the exhibits housed in Greek museums and their activities lasted until 8 April 1941, when the Germans invaded Greece. (2) The Greek Government had succeeded in raising funds for this necessity and Ministerial decrees required the creation of these committees, so that Greece's cultural heritage would be protected and secured for posterity.

    George Oikonomou, the Professor and Secretary of the Archaeological Olfice at the time, was the chief co-ordinator of the committees. Archaeologists, museum curators, technicians and guards were all working frantically to hide the cultural artefacts. They dug deep holes beneath museums in order to create chambers where they would hide antiquities. Figurines, pots or other small artefacts were placed in boxes in the museums' underground chambers, while the large sculptures were placed unwrapped, before being covered with sand and stones (below, Figures 1-3). Moreover, according to the article 'The Antiquities of Greece During the War 1940-1944', written by Vasilis Petrakos, General Secretary of the Archaeological Museum and published in Mentor newspaper, it was the Ministry of Culture that issued guidelines to the committees on how to plan the concealment procedures. (3) Karouzou stated that among the people who helped to hide the artefacts were international antiquities' curators, including Alan Wace, Professor of the University of Cambridge, former Deputy Keeper in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Robert Young, the American archaeologist, Gabriel Welter, the German archaeologist and Otto Welter, the Director of the Austrian Institute. Petrakos also claimed that Otto Welter was in the underground chambers of Athens' National Museum cataloguing with a high degree of accuracy the precious artefacts which were to be buried for years. (4) In Athens, the Mpenaki Museum artworks were hidden by the founder of the Museum, Antonis Mpenakis himself, something which left everybody deeply impressed. In Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city, it became a common practice to place artefacts in excavations or caves, with precious and golden objects being hidden in the Bank of Greece in Athens.

    As time was running out before the invasion of the Nazi occupying forces, these committees managed to hide the majority of the artworks of Athens, Thessaloniki and Delphus. (5) At the end of the Second World War it was concluded that this detailed and accurate cataloguing and hiding had been quite successful, and Nazi efforts to open the chambers had in most cases failed.

    After the end of the War and following the liberation of Greece in 1945, the procedures for retrieving the secreted antiquities lasted until 1950. Once unearthed, the buried artworks needed conservation as they had emerged covered in dust and with some surface damage. In addition, they were missing their numbers which had been scratched out by rodents, so their identification with the protocols of their boxes had to be be cross checked up to seven times, with accurate identification aided by descriptions or photographs that had been published in newspapers, magazines and books. After this identification procedure, all artworks were re-exhibited in new exhibition locations and small artefacts were put on new bases before being placed in new display cases.

    1.2. The Recorded Operations of Nazi Propaganda against Greece's Cultural Heritage

    In contravention of its obligations under the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, Germany set up two committees in Greece with a view to looting museums and archaeological sites, conducting illegal excavations, stealing thousands of its priceless heritage treasures and transferring them abroad illegally, mainly to Germany. The first was the Special Military Service for the Protection of Art (Kunstschutz), headed by the archaeologist Dr Hans-Ulrich von Schonebeck. The stated aim of the Kunstschutz was to protect the occupied nation's cultural heritage, but in reality it was in many ways on the hunt for treasures to loot. Staffed by University professors, art historians and archaeologists, it was a non-war military force, incorporated in the military administration and reporting to the leader of the Wehrmacht or to each local Third Reich leader. The second was the Einsatzstab Reichleiter Rosenberg (ERR), or Sonderkommando Rosenberg represented by Hermann von Ingram and restricted to illicit excavations. (6) The Rosenberg Committee was founded by the exponent of National Socialism Alfred Rosenberg, aiming not only to loot art in the occupied territories, but also to support the cathode of Indian-German race to the South. (7) The idea was that if they conquered it, they would continue searching for their Greek roots. These were not the only perpetrators of illegal excavation activity that dismantled Greece's cultural heritage. Soldiers and officers also inflicted individual spoliation, pillaging archaeological sites for their own interests.

    'Zimiai ton Archaeotiton Ek toy Polemoy kai ton Straton Katohis' (Damages to Antiquities From War and the Occupation Military Forces) is a 1946 official report of 164 pages, published by the Ministry of Culture, signed by its Minister of the time, A. Papadimos and drafted by Greek archaeologists. It provides details of artworks looted throughout Greece during the Second World War by the Axis Power. Although it is a report which catalogued the pillage of the museums and sites with a high degree of accuracy, it clarifies that it is incomplete because before and after its publication, the Ministry was constantly receiving further reports from archaeologists throughout Greece regarding its heritage spoliations (Figure 4). (8)

    From pages 9 to 20, the report elaborates on 46 cities which were culturally pillaged by the National Socialists alone. More precisely, it presents Athens and the findings in the German Archaeological Institute, nine provinces of Athens, Thessaloniki, 28 regions (Lakonia and Knossos among them) and seven islands including Kythira, Samos and Mytilene. The cataloguing is not comprehensive or detailed, as it neither includes photographs of the artefacts nor any reference to the exact number of looted pieces. For instance, it uses phrases such as 'many pieces' and 'many boxes'. Individual descriptions of stolen artworks throughout Greece are given for only approximately 330 pieces. Nonetheless, both the general and individual descriptions refer to ceramics, brass vessels, marbled sculptures and pots of the Minoic Period (3000-1000 BC). It also refers to paintings, graves, frescoes, Cycladic effigies, bracelets, rings, spears, anaglyph stones, golden wreaths, shells, golden and brass coins, wine cups and helmets, all heirlooms from Ancient Greece. Last but not least, it mentions Nazi-looted cars, ecclesiastical relics and episcopal thrones of churches.

    1.3. Successful Repatriations of Greece's Stolen Treasures, from 1946 to the Present Time

    1.3.1 The Case of the Heracliotissa Statue

    The most renowned, as well as the largest, antiquity looted by the Nazis is Heracliotissa from Thessaloniki, a third-century AD Roman statue, 2.11 metres high, which represents an important personality of the city's society, presumed to be Vevia Alexandra, a third-century AD archpriest. (9) Its name reflects the arts crafting technique of Heraclea, Southern Italy (Figure 5).

    In March 1944, on the orders of the Sonderkommando Rosenberg, Nazi soldiers were illicitly digging in the 'Dikastirion [Court] Square', when they unearthed the statue. Although it is assumed that the statue had not been deliberately hidden as described above, there is no compelling evidence to the contrary. Besides, it was found not far from the Roman Monument Rotonta, a perfect exhibition match for this statue. A few days later, they published photos of the statue in local newspapers, accompanied with propagandising texts. The Nazi administration delivered...

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