If you have seen the movie The Monuments Men (which I loved, although the critics didn’t), you know that the Nazis seized the Ghent altarpiece from St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. The movie showed this as evidence of the evil rapaciousness of the Nazis as they mowed their way across Europe.

What the movie doesn’t tell you, although the book upon which it is based briefly does, is that at the time of the First World War, several of the panels from the wings were owned by the German state. In the 19th century, the cathedral had pawned the panels, which after a couple of owners had been bought by the King of Prussia.

During World War I, the Germans seized other panels, but not the entire work. At the end of the war, the Germans were forced to turn over all the panels they had, including panels that they had rightfully owned prior to 1918 to Belgium as war reparations. This act of (arguably) cultural looting by the Allies was part of the driving impetus behind Hitler’s coveting of the work.

I am not trying to exonerate the Nazis for their looting of Europe. But history is strange, and the Treaty of Versailles really was a cruel and unforgiving document.

And it is useful to remember that the sins you commit can come back to you, either as an individual, a nation, or a group of nations.

This entry was posted in Art, Culture (popular and otherwise), History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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