Various European World War II heroes and heroines gave their lives for the antifascist struggle, whether through organized cells of resistance movements or as solo actors. Numerous are the stories of the ones who saved hundreds of Jewish lives, helped sabotage Nazi operations, and participated in various actions, but there were also a few who paid enormous efforts to keep art safe from destruction, one of them being the French art historian/curator Rose Valland.
Namely, in 1933 the leader of The National Socialist German Workers' Party Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg. At that time there was hardly anybody thinking there will be any other big global conflict after the atrocities of the First World War, but as the time passed Hitler’s vision of establishing the Third Reich became much clearer, culminating with the annexation of Poland in 1939, and Germany's official declaration of war to France and the United Kingdom.
Just one year after Warsaw was seized by the Nazis, Paris experienced the same; the French army was quickly defeated and the city was taken over. As the occupations started rearranging Paris according to their own agenda, the museums which owned immense art collections became a much-desired prey. One of them, the Jeu de Paume Museum, even became a specially crafted organization or the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR, the Nazi art-looting organization created by Hitler). Various paintings and other artifacts were stolen from private French collections, many of them belonging to the Jews, and were stored there to be facilitated to the new owners – the Nazi party officials.
Jeu de Paume is where Rose Valland worked throughout the occupation and was secretly gathering all the possible information about the artworks, essentially preventing them to leave the country. After the war, she played a leading role in returning missing paintings to their owners and the French institutions and was honored by the country for her truly heroic deeds.
Rose Valland was born in a little town of Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs in 1898. She was a gifted pupil and for her hard work she received a scholarship to an école normale, a teaching school. After graduating in 1918, Valland wanted to become an art teacher, so she attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, obtaining a diploma in art history from École du Louvre and Sorbonne. Valland then started volunteering at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris.
As mentioned, the museum became headquarters of the ERR where various looted artworks were stored. The director of the French National Museums Jacques Jaujard almost immediately instructed Valland to keep the position and spy on the Nazi theft. Her modest appearance and quiet behavior were not at all suspicious, although she understood German well despite the fact she never formally studied this language.
Valland managed to send one hundred and seventy-two sheets which show how Germans organized the whole action in France, and in the Benelux countries as well, to the Resistance. These documents also showed the destinations and the train and car shipments to Germany, which enabled the return of the artworks after the war ended. It is important to mention that Valland witnessed the frequent museum visits of Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who used to select artworks for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, as well as for his personal collection. These important reports also show the competition and the conflicts of interest taking place within the ERR, not only through Goering’s acquisitions but also through the disappearance of the artifacts such as furniture, furs, and silverware, from the museum warehouse undertaken by the soldiers, and the wife of the German director.
Just a few weeks before the Liberation of Paris in 1944, Valland found out that the Nazis were planning to send a final shipment full of art. After she contacted the Resistance, they stopped the train from leaving Paris.
After Paris was liberated by the American troops, the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies called upon the members of The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program which was established in 1943 to protect cultural legacy during and after the war. As the atrocities came to an end, the Monuments Men became active in finding and returning the stolen artworks.
Since Valland owned a great deal of information about the artworks, Monuments Man Capt. James Rorimer pursued her to turn the documents and join their efforts in locating them. These indicated that the stolen art was located in the Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps belonging initially to the private collectors and art dealers such as the Rothschilds, David-Weill, Kahn, Rosenberg, and Bernheim-Jeune. Furthermore, Valland’s secret documents were crucial in the restitution process of returning objects to their rightful owners.
Eventually Valland became a member of the Commission for the Recovery of Works of Art (Commission de Récupération Artistique), and slightly later in 1954 was appointed a conservator of the French Musées Nationaux and a Chair of the Commission for the Protection of Works of Art (Chef du Service de protection des oeuvres d'art).
Rose Valland gathered all of her experiences in the book, Le Front de L’Art (1961), which was republished in 1997 and 2014 by the editions of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. In 1968 the great heroine retired, but she continued helping the French archives with the restitution matters. Reasonably Valland was honored by the state for her brave deeds with the Légion d'honneur and the Médaille de la Résistance, and was made a Commandeur of the Order of Arts and Letters. In 1948 the United States awarded her with the Medal of Freedom, while in 1951 she was honored by the Federal Republic of Germany with the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit. Rose Valland passed away in 1980 and is buried in her hometown of Saint-Etienne-de-Saint-Geoirs.
There are several novels and movies based on her character, starting with John Frankenheimer’s 1964 feature film The Train slightly based on her book. Valland’s domains were discussed as well in the book and documentary, The Rape of Europa, as well as in the biography Rose Valland: Resistance at the Museum written by Corinne Bouchoux in 2006.
The Monuments Men, a 2014 movie directed by George Clooney features the character of Claire Simone based on Valland, performed by Cate Blanchett; the movie is based on Robert M. Edsel's book The Monuments Men from 2009.
Rose Valland heroically managed her espionage while putting her own life to enormous risk; secretly, behind the doors, she carefully recorded all the possible details she found useful. She also sketched portraits of Nazi leaders, their visitors, noted down all the addresses. She was a meticulous observer who had a strong memory and an iron will.
Therefore, it is not strange that today she is celebrated as the unprecedented figure who saved an entire artistic legacy. Valland’s deeds should be celebrated as a careful reminder that fascism is a real threat in the contemporary moment as well, and a genuine disruption of any progress.
Featured images: Rose Valland, Andre Dezarrois and a goalkeeper during the clash or the stall, 1935 © All rights reserved / Archives of National Museums; Rose Valland on the art front. All images via atelierjudith.com