What if Hitler had gone to art school?

Published 9:10 am Saturday, July 21, 2012

Column: Bev Jackson Cotter, Art Is…

What if?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? What if I had said yes. Would it have changed my life? Would I be happier, sadder, more comfortable with who I am?

Bev Jackson Cotter

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Life is full of options, and sometimes decisions are made for us. We make choices all of the time — a chocolate frosted doughnut, a new pair of shoes, the speed we drive on the highway, a different set of golf clubs, visiting a hospitalized friend, a new career, cleaning the neighbor’s yard after our dog has been there. Each choice offers a different outcome affecting our health, our enjoyment, our friendships, our life.

Hold that thought while I tell you about a book I read recently.

“The Monuments Men” by Robert M. Edsel is a fascinating book about a group of soldiers who served with the Allies in Europe from 1943 until 1951. They didn’t carry machine guns or drive tanks. Their original mission was damage control — damage to churches, museums and other important monuments — to protect, if possible, the culture and heritage of the war torn nations. Their mission gradually increased to finding the millions of pieces of art that were stolen by the Nazis and hidden in the most unusual locations.

We are familiar with such names as The Battle of the Bulge, Normandy and D-Day, and books like “The Greatest Generation” and “Schindler’s List,” the heroes and horrors of war. Yet when we visit Europe and are awed by the cathedrals and beautiful paintings in the museums, we can hardly connect them to that horror. This art, stolen, damaged, returned after the war’s end and restored, tells us volumes about the history and culture of each nation.

“The Monuments Men” is the story of museum curators, architects, conservationists and volunteers who risked their lives living under extremely dangerous conditions to protect and preserve the art masterpieces that were threatened in Europe. With Elsenhower’s official proclamation in hand, they reasoned with war-hardened veterans over the protection of damaged churches, they questioned uncertain citizens about secret storage places. With no budget to purchase Jeeps or equipment to make their jobs easier, they walked endless miles on war torn roads and climbed deep down into salt mines through sealed passages searching for the stolen valuables. And, when the war was over, they spent countless hours reviewing extensive German records and their own documents in order to see that these works by artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt were returned to their rightful owners.

As I read this book, my thoughts kept going back to the question. Why was this art all stolen and hidden in the castles, private homes, cathedrals and salt mines in Germany? What was the ulterior motive? When the German army needed every available person to fight for the homeland and the surrounding invaded countries, why was so much human energy, talent and muscle used on finding, recording and storing this art?

Hitler lost his beloved mother when he was young. Though fascinated by art, he failed the entrance examinations of the Vienna Academy of Art and was refused admission to a school of architecture. As an adult he was often jobless, supporting himself by occasionally selling a painting or a few postcards. He served in the military during World War I, and only 20 years later, after his unbelievable rise to power, his goal, after Germany won this second World War, was to build an arts capitol in Linz, Austria, his original home. Berlin was to be the governmental capitol of his empire just as Rome was the capitol of the Roman Empire, and Linz would replace Florence, Italy, as the European center for the arts.

Hitler developed a room-sized model of Linz and spent years designing and perfecting its cityscape with museums, libraries, theaters, cathedrals and monuments to his power. In 1945 when Allied forces were approaching Berlin, and only weeks before his suicide, he continued to spend hours analyzing and revising the model. Linz was to be his heritage. Its beauty and culture would be reminders to future generations of the grandeur and wisdom of his life and his 1,000-year regime.

As I was reading “The Monuments Men,” I occasionally shared excerpts with my husband. I was so amazed at the size of the stolen art collection, millions of paintings, sculptures, books, historical records and monuments, and the expertise involved in their safekeeping. One evening Michael asked, “What would have happened if Hitler had been admitted to that art school?”

What if? And we agreed, it might have changed the history of the world.


Bev Jackson Cotter is a member of the Albert Lea Art Center, 224 S. Broadway Ave., where the exhibit “Adventures in the Outdoors — Minnesota Style” is currently showing.