Maryland University Europe

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Former Professor Helped Save History in Post-WWII Europe

by Liam Farrell | Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In the early spring of 1946, a University of Maryland professor and a Polish exile traveled to a manor in the fairy-tale forests of lower Bavaria to see what dark secrets were hidden in its walls.

Over two days at Schloss Zandt, a 14th-century house about 125 miles northwest of Munich, Harold J. Clem and Maj. Karol Estreicher searched for pieces needed to rebuild a culture nearly extinguished by the Nazis in World War II.

They discovered about 10, 000 books in the manor, each with markings from the Institut für Deutsche Ostarbeit, or Institute for German Eastern Studies. The organization, founded in 1940 in German-occupied Poland, had taken over offices in a university where many professors were sent to their deaths in a concentration camp. The institute was researching a racial and cultural hierarchy in Europe—in the words of Clem’s March 27, 1946, report—“for the purpose of rooting out Polish art and culture.”

“But, at the same time, ” he wrote, “almost every book contains the marking of some department of Cracow University, and which the Germans had not removed.”

The trove at Schloss Zandt, which also included Polish carpets, paintings, laboratory equipment and chemicals, was just part of the Nazis’ campaign to remake Europe in preparation for a new thousand-year rule. These artifacts were tracked down following the war’s upheaval and bloodshed by hundreds of men and women in the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section, and their work is being honored in the new George Clooney movie “The Monuments Men.”

Rembrandt_1200pxAs described by Robert M. Edsel in his book of the same title, the effort to assess damaged buildings and artifacts, recover pieces hidden from advancing armies and reclaim the more than five million cultural objects seized by the Germans—including paintings by da Vinci and Rembrandt and sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello—was initially overseen by only a dozen people in the months following D-Day.

Eventually, about 350 men and women from 13 nations would serve in the effort to reclaim the heritage of the battered continent. And one of them, Harold J. Clem, was a Terp.

Culture at Gunpoint

About 13 years before Clem went to Schloss Zandt, Adolf Hitler celebrated his 44th birthday by attending a play at the State Theatre in Berlin. The play, Schlageter, celebrated German resistance to French occupation following World War I, and featured arguments about the primacy of race and country over the individual pursuits of the arts and intellect.

“When I hear ‘culture, ’” one character says, “I release the safety catch of my Browning!”

This piece of dialogue, as described by Richard J. Evans in “The Coming of the Third Reich, ” came to summarize the Nazi attitude toward art.

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