Americans' war crimes of greed


This indignant accounting of the looting of Europe's art, crafts, precious metals and jewels by World War II American military personnel and civilians employed in the occupational government adds a sour, revisionist footnote to histories of our last "good" war.

Author Kenneth Alford, a Richmond banker, has made an VTC obsession out of listing these crimes of craven greed. Focusing on incidents that range from the deliberate devaluation of a sumptuous Oriental rug so that an officer could furnish his living room, to the theft of $200 million in valuables that had, in turn, been stolen by Nazis, "The Spoils of World War II" establishes without the possibility of contradiction that, as bad as the Nazis were in glomming Europe's treasures for themselves, we, the conquering heroes with a moral imperative to heal the wounded continent, were not much better.

True, we didn't have concentration camps that salvaged mountains of gold fillings from the mouths of the dead. And, it must be acknowledged, the tradition of looting a defeated nation's treasures is as old as war itself. Some of the art and artifacts that ended up gracing the offices and homes of American troops had been carried to and fro by so many conquering armies over the centuries that establishing original ownership was moot.

After reading Mr. Alford's scrupulously, if at times tediously, detailed accounts of American thievery, you have to ask why so many could be so sleazy so often. Mr. Alford admits that rotten apples ruin the bushel, and that it is entirely possible that most Americans patrolling war-torn Germany and Austria were reasonably honest in their intentions.

But he also acknowledges that looting and black-market activity were so blatant and common that even the highest-ranking officers considered it their privilege to appropriate the best art, furnishings and valuables for their personal use, or for profit. Though an attitude persisted, both at home and in Europe, that Germany must pay for waging the war, this was no justification for America's small-town, middle-class heroes depriving the war's victims of their rightful possessions, many of which have never been recovered.

Among those victims were Hungarian Jews, robbed of everything of value, including their gold wedding rings, by the Gestapo. As the war ended, these stolen goods, as well as items belonging to Nazi collaborators fleeing the advancing Russian army, were loaded on a train that headed west. The train, with artworks, furniture, jewelry, gold and silver, valued in excess of $200 million, eventually came under American control. After cases of gold rings, watches and jewelry were confined in a guarded Salzburg warehouse, none other than Maj. Gen. Harry J. Collins, 42nd Infantry Division commander, became one of the first to furnish his office and his confiscated residence with choice selections from the hoard, while other soldiers, including the warehouse guards, made off with items large and small.

One can argue that, given the immensity of the train's treasures, there could be little harm in "borrowing" a few castles, trains, vehicles, paintings, bottles of wine and other items of finery until their owners could be located. Sadly, American agencies responsible for locating owners made little effort to do so. Only when the original owners raised a ruckus were efforts made to return material, and even then, those efforts were rarely successful because so much had been stolen.

Mr. Alford deplores the boorish, slovenly fashion in which Americans abused not only property, but personnel, flagrantly violating regulations to satisfy acquisitive and sexual lusts. Castles requisitioned for American military use were looted and vandalized. Women who had no administrative talent -- who may have even been members of the Nazi party -- were given lucrative jobs when they became mistresses of American personnel.

Mr. Alford notes that the Army's Criminal Investigations Unit did pursue allegations of impropriety and even arrested some of the perpetrators. But those who acted responsibly suffered the consequences. Evelyn Tucker, a civilian assigned to track down European valuables, was fired when she made the mistake of investigating General Collins' possessions.

Those who were brought to trial were frequently acquitted due to technicalities in military law, a need to shield high-ranking superiors and an effort to defer negative publicity about American activities. Some did go to jail, the most celebrated being Capt. Kathleen Nash and her husband, Col. James Durant, who, with accomplices, stole, broke up and sold off the priceless Hesse family jewels.

What little loot investigators recovered was found in such odd locations as suburban American dining rooms, attics and bank vault boxes. Some of the stolen art found its way into New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (which returned the paintings after claiming no responsibility). Mr. Alford dutifully notes incidents in which thousands of government files that would lead to more stolen items were destroyed or conveniently lost.

"The Spoils of World War II" is not popular history. In his effort to create a document of record about this disagreeable aspect of American military misadventure, Mr. Alford refuses the modern tendency to analyze, sensationalize, or make pronouncements about American innocence abroad. His detailed, just-the-facts narrative suffers dry spells.

Still, we share his frustration as so many of the bad guys -- and gals-- behaved terribly and escaped punishment. We also feel the historian's sense of loss. Because the heritage of civilization is in its objects, America's mismanagement of Europe's treasures is a crime, not against a specific nation, but against the world. We are all poorer for it.

Mr. Kent lectures on the history of crime. His novel "On a Blanket With My Baby" will be published in April by St. Martin's Press.

Title: "The Spoils of World War II"

Author: Kenneth D. Alford

Publisher: Birch Lane Press

Length, price: 292 pages, $19.95

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