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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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The Rape of Europa
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Hitler plunders on an industrial scale.
Hitler plunders on an industrial scale.

I'd always heard Adolf Hitler referred to as a failed painter, but I'd never realized just how resentful he was about it until I saw The Rape of Europa, a documentary about the role that art and architecture played in his thinking. Winning the war was only the first step in what was to be a thousand-year enshrinement of Germanic culture, with paintings and sculptures of der Führer scattered about, like confetti. Of course, the Third Reich didn't last that long, but Hitler did manage to do quite a bit of damage to the history of Western art during his brief reign, all the damage neatly catalogued in this thoroughly researched film. The Nazis hated modern art, of course, but they loved the old stuff, and they had no qualms about stealing it from private collections and national museums as they made their way across the European continent. Hitler even had a wish list of artworks from countries he hadn't gotten around to invading yet.

It was all supposed to find its final resting place in Linz, Austria, Hitler's small hometown, which he planned to turn into a cultural capital that would make Paris look like Hooterville. Instead, Hitler found his own final resting place in a Berlin bunker, and the art he'd stolen made its way back to its rightful owners - some of it, that is. Some of it's still missing. Some of it's still in dispute. And then there's all the stuff the Nazis destroyed - Slavic art and artifacts, mostly, the Slavs being another one of Hitler's inferior races. Altogether, it's an amazing story, plunder on an industrial scale, with its own bureaucracy. And that can't help but remind us of the Final Solution. But there's no sense in The Rape of Europa that paintings are more important than people, only that it was one more way for a mediocre watercolorist to worship one culture at the expense of all the others. The only art he was ever any good at was the art of war.

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