This story does not start with Jacques Jaujard in 1939 in Paris, but in 1907 in Vienna. A young man tried to enter Vienna’s Academy Of Art, thinking it would be “child’s play to pass the examination.” His dreams were crushed, and he ended up barely made a living selling paintings and watercolors as cheap souvenirs. He moved to Germany where he managed to earn commissions, enough to claim “I earn my living as a self-employed artist.”
Twenty-seven years later, he visited Paris for the first time, as a conqueror. Hitler said “I would have studied in Paris had destiny not forced me into politics. My only ambition before the First World War was to be an artist.”
In Hitler’s mind, art, race and politics were related. It led to the plunder of one-fifth of Europe’s artistic patrimony. And the Nazi intention to destroy hundreds of museums, libraries and places of worship.
A Dictator’s Dream, The Führermuseum
After the first world war, the failed artist found in the dark corners of beer halls he actually had a talent. With his political skills he created the Nazi party. Art was in the Nazi party program, in Mein Kampf. When he became Chancellor the first edifice built was an art exhibition hall. Shows were organized to display ‘German’ art’s superiority, and where the dictator could play curator.
Are you enjoying this article?Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
During the opening speech “his manner of speaking became more agitated, to a degree that had never been heard even in a political tirade. He foamed with rage as though out of his mind, his mouth slavering, so that even his entourage stared at him in horror.”
No one could define what ‘German art’ was. In reality it was Hitler’s personal taste. Before the war Hitler dreamt of creating a great museum bearing his name. The Führermuseum was to be built in his home city of Linz. The dictator stated “all Party and State services are ordered to assist Dr. Posse in fulfilment of his mission”. Posse was the art historian chosen to build its collection. It would be filled with artworks purchased on the market using the proceeds of Mein Kampf.
Nazi Art Plunder
And as soon as the conquest started, the Reich armies would engage in systematic plunder and destruction, to realize the dictator’s dreams. Artworks were spoiled from museums and private art collections.
The order stated that “the Führer reserved for himself decision as to the disposition of art objects which have been or will be confiscated by German authorities in territories occupied by German troops”. In other words, the looting of art was done for Hitler’s personal benefit.
The Louvre Is Threatened By A Possible Third German Invasion
First, it was in 1870 when the Prussians starved and bombed Paris. They fired thousands of shells without damaging the museum. It was fortunate, as beforehand they already had bombarded a city and burnt its museum. Before the invader arrived in Paris, the curators had already emptied the Louvre of its most precious paintings.
What could be brought to the reserves was. German chancellor Bismarck and his soldiers asked to visit the Louvre. Wandering the museum, all they saw was empty frames.
To make things worse, a Parisian rebellion led to the destruction by fire of most of Paris’ monuments. Attached to the Louvre, the Tuileries palace burnt for three days. The fire spread to two wings of the Louvre. Curators and guards stopped the spread of the fire with buckets of water. The museum was saved, but Louvre library was completely lost to the flames.
At the start of the first world war the cathedral of Reims had been bombed by the Germans. Monuments could be targets, so most of the Louvre was once again sent away to safety. What couldn’t be transported was protected by sandbags. The Germans bombed Paris in 1918 with heavy artillery, but the Louvre wasn’t damaged.
Jacques Jaujard Helped Save The Prado Museum treasures
During the Spanish civil war Francisco Franco’s planes dropped incendiary bombs on Madrid and the Prado Museum. The Luftwaffe bombed the city of Guernica. Both tragedies foretold the horrors to come, and the need to protect works of art in wartime. For safety the Republican Government sent the Prado artistic treasures to other towns.
With increasing threats, European and American museums offered their help. Eventually 71 trucks carried over 20,000 artworks to France. Then by train to Geneva, so early 1939 the masterpieces were secure. The operation had been organized by the International Committee for the Safeguard of Spanish Art Treasures.
Its delegate was the assistant director of the French National Museums. His name was Jacques Jaujard.
Saving The Louvre – Jacques Jaujard Organized The Evacuation Of The Museum
While politicians hoped to sway Hitler, Jaujard had already planned on protecting the Louvre from the forthcoming war. In 1938 already major artworks were evacuated, thinking the war was about to start. Then, ten days before the declaration of war, Jaujard made the call. Curators, guards, Louvre School students, and employees of a nearby department store responded.
The task at hand: emptying the Louvre of its treasures, all of them fragile. Paintings, drawings, statues, vases, furniture, tapestries, and books. Day and night, they wrapped them, put them into boxes, and into trucks able to carry large paintings.
Before the war had even started, the most important paintings of the Louvre were already gone. At the very moment war was declared, the Victory of Samothrace was about to be loaded on a truck. One need understand the risks involved in simply moving artworks. Aside from the risk of breaking, changes in humidity and temperature can damage artworks. Transporting recently the Victory of Samothrace to another room took several weeks.
Between August and December 1939, two hundred trucks carried the treasures of the Louvre. In total nearly 1,900 boxes; 3,690 paintings, thousands of statues, antiquities and other priceless masterpieces. Each truck had to be accompanied by a curator.
When one was hesitant, Jaujard told him “since the noise of canons frightens you, I will go myself then.” Another curator volunteered.
The Most Important Art Rescue Operation Ever Organized
It wasn’t just the Louvre that was moved, but the contents of two hundred museums. Plus the stained glass windows of several cathedrals, and artworks belonging to Belgium. On top of that, Jaujard had also important private art collections safeguarded, particularly those belonging to Jews. Over seventy different sites were used, most of them castles, their large walls and remote location being the sole barriers against tragedy.
During the German invasion of France, 40 museums were either destroyed or badly damaged. When they arrived in the Louvre, the Nazis gazed at the most impressive collection of empty frames ever assembled. They admired the Venus of Milo, while it was a plaster copy.
A German Helped Save The Louvre’s Treasures: Count Franz Wolff-Metternich
During the occupation Jaujard remained in the Louvre, and received Nazi dignitaries, as they insisted the museum remained opened. To them the Louvre would eventually become part of the thousand years Reich. Paris would be turned into “Luna Park,” an entertainment destination for Germans.
Jaujard found himself having to resist not one, but two foes. First, the occupying forces led by rapacious art collectors, Hitler and Göring. Second, his own superiors, part of a collaborationist government. Yet the helping hand he found wore a Nazi uniform. Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, in charge of the Kunstschutz, the ‘art protection unit’.
An art historian, specialist of the Renaissance, Metternich was neither a fanatic nor a member of the Nazi party. Metternich knew where all the museum artworks were hidden, as he personally inspected some of the repositories. But he assured Jaujard that he will do everything he could to protect them from German army interventions.
Hitler had “issued an order to safeguard for the time being, in addition to objects of art belonging to the French State, also such works of art and antiquities which constitute private property.” And that artworks should not be moved.
Metternich Helped Prevent The Seizure Of Museum Collections
Yet an order “to seize, inside occupied territories, French artworks owned by the State and cities, in Paris museum and provinces” was made. Metternich cleverly used Hitler’s own order to stop Nazis from attempting to seize French museum collections.
Goebbels then asked that any ‘German’ artwork in French museums be sent to Berlin. Metternich argued it could be done, but better wait after the war. By throwing sand in the Nazi plunder machine, Metternich saved the Louvre. One can barely contemplate what would have happened had some of its treasures been in 1945 Berlin.
The Kunstschutz, The German Art Protection Unit, also helped save people
Jaujard and Metternich served different flags, and did not even shook hands. But Jaujard knew he could count on Metternich’s tacit approval. Each time someone feared being sent to Germany, Jaujard got him a job so they could stay. One curator was arrested by the Gestapo, she was released thanks to the travel permit signed by Metternich.
Metternich dared to complain directly to Göring about the illegality of the Jewish art collections spoils. Göring was enraged and eventually ordered Metternich’s dismissal. His deputy Tieschowitz succeeded him and acted exactly the same way.
Jaujard’s assistant had been evicted from her position by the Vichy government anti-Semitic laws, and eventually caught in 1944. The Kunstschutz helped to get her released, saving her from certain death.
After the war, Metternich was given the Légion d’Honneur by Géneral de Gaulle. It was for having “protected our art treasures from the appetite of the Nazis, and Göring in particular. In those difficult circumstances, sometimes alerted in the middle of the night by our curators, Count Metternich always intervened in the most courageous and efficient way. It is in great part thanks to him that many artworks escaped the occupant’s greediness.”
The Nazis Stored Looted Art In The Louvre
While for now the museum treasures were safe, the situation was very different for private art collections. Hitler’s order stated that “especially Jewish private property is to be taken in custody by the occupational power against removal or concealment.”
A special organization was created to conduct looting and destruction, the ERR (Rosenberg Special Task Force). The ERR was even superior in rank to the Army and could anytime ask its help. From now on, people were one day French, the next Jewish, losing their rights. Suddenly there was a lot of ‘ownerless’ art collections, rich for the pickings. Under the pretense of legality the Nazi then ‘protected’ those artworks.
They requisitioned three rooms of the Louvre to store the looted collections. Jaujard thought it would allow to keep a record of the artworks stored there. It was going to be used to store “1- Those art objects regarding which the Führer has reserved to himself the right of further disposal. 2- Those art objects which could serve to complete the collection of the Reich Marshal, Göring”.
Jacques Jaujard Relied On Rose Valland At The Jeu de Paume
As Jaujard refused to give more room in the Louvre, the Jeu de Paume would be used instead. Near the Louvre, empty, this small museum would be the ideal place for them to store the loot and transform it into an art gallery for Göring’s enjoyment. All French museum experts were forbidden entry, except one assistant curator, a discreet and unassuming woman named Rose Valland.
She would spend four years recording the theft of works of art. Not only did she spy surrounded by Nazis, but did it in front of Göring, the Reich’s number two. This story is described in the article “Rose Valland: Art historian turned spy to save art from the Nazis.”
“The Mona Lisa Is Smiling” – Allies And The Resistance Coordinate To Avoid Bombing The Louvre Treasures
Not long before the Normandy landings, Göring proposed to safeguard two hundred masterpieces in Germany. The French Arts Minister, an enthusiastic collaborator, agreed. Jaujard replied “what a great idea, this way we’ll send them to Switzerland.” Disaster was once more avoided.
It was essential that the Allies knew where the masterpieces were, to avoid bombing them. As early as 1942 Jaujard tried to give them the location of the castles hiding the artworks. Before D-Day the Allies received Jaujard’s coordinates. But they needed to confirm they had them. Communication was done by reading coded messages on BBC radio.
The message was “La Joconde a le sourire,” meaning “The Mona Lisa is smiling.” Not leaving anything to chance, the curators arranged for huge signs “Musée du Louvre” be put on the grounds of castles, so pilots could see them from above.
The Louvre Curators Protected Masterpieces In Castles
One month after the Normandy landings, the Waffen-SS was burning and killing in revenge. A Das Reich division had just committed a massacre, slaughtering an entire village. They gunned down men and burnt alive women and children inside a church.
In this campaign of terror, a Das Reich section turned up in one of the castles safeguarding the Louvre masterpieces. They put explosives inside and started burning it. Within, the Venus of Milo, the Victory of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s slaves and more irreplaceable treasures of mankind. Curator Gérald Van der Kemp, guns pointed at him, had nothing but his words to stop them.
He said to the interpreter “tell them they can kill me, but that they would be executed in turn, as if these treasures are in France it is because Mussolini and Hitler wanted to share them, and had decided to keep them here until final victory”. The officers believed Kemp’s bluff, and left after having shot one Louvre guard. The fire was then put down.
In Paris, Jaujard had covered for Resistance fighters, hidden people and weapons in his flat inside the museum. During the liberation, the Louvre courtyard was even used as a prison for German soldiers. Fearing they were about to be lynched, they broke inside the museum. Some were caught hiding inside Ramses III’s sarcophagus. The Louvre still bears the bullets holes shot during the liberation of Paris.
“Everything Is Owed To Jacques Jaujard, The Rescue Of Men and Artworks”
Attempts to dismiss Jaujard failed, as curators threatened to resign altogether if he was sacked. Thanks to Jaujard’s foresight, the greatest art evacuation operation in history had succeeded. And during the war the artworks still had to be moved several times. Yet none of the masterpieces of the Louvre, or two hundred other museums were damaged or missing.
Jacques Jaujard’s achievements were awarded with the Resistance medal, being made Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour and member of the Academy of Fine Arts.
Past retirement age, he was still working as Secretary of Cultural Affairs. But when he was 71 years old, it was decided his services were no longer needed. He was pushed away in the most inelegant way possible. One day, Jaujard entered his office to find his successor at his desk. After months waiting the call giving him a new mission, he resigned. Not long after, he died.
The minister who treated him so poorly made up for it by having his name inscribed on the Louvre walls, the entrance of the Louvre School, Porte Jaujard.
After a visit of the Louvre museum, walking towards the Tuileries Garden, a few people might notice this name written above the door. If they realise who he was, they might ponder the fact that if it wasn’t for this man, many of the treasures of the Louvre they just admired would only be memories.
There was two different types of looting, from museums, and from private collections. The museum part is told in this story with Jacques Jaujard. The privately owned art is told with Rose Valland.
Germain Bazin. Souvenirs de l’exode du Louvre: 1940-1945, 1992
Michel Rayssac. L’exode des musées : Histoire des œuvres d’art sous l’Occupation.
Letter 18 November 1940 RK 15666 B. The Reichsminister and Chief of the Reichschancellery
Nuremberg Trial Proceedings. Vol. 7, Fifty Second day, Wednesday, 6 February 1946. Document Number RF-1301
Documentary “the Man Who Saved the Louvre”. Illustre et inconnu. Comment Jacques Jaujard a sauvé le Louvre