During World War II, the Nazis stormed across Europe, plundering the material and cultural wealth of the lands they occupied or assaulted. Gold reserves, money, material goods, and other items of use to the Third Reich were stolen and cached by the marching hordes.
Among the Nazi treasures looted were many valuable and irreplaceable artworks. Statues, paintings, drawings, and etchings by some of Europe’s finest artists were systematically sought out and taken. Many of these were stashed in caves or warehouses under Nazi control. Others were intentionally destroyed. And many great pieces hypocritically (“hypocritically” because Adolf Hitler had declared certain works as subversive, decadent, or not aiding the good of the German cause) found their way into the personal collections of Nazi leaders, including the Fuehrer himself.
One of the art treasures stolen was an entire royal room from an early Tsarist-age Russian palace in St. Petersburg. This was the celebrated Amber Room. This palace showcase, designed by a German sculptor and built by a Danish artisan in the early 1700s, was made entirely of warm-hued amber: walls, fixtures, and sculptures were carved from the semi-precious material, accented with gold and precious stones. It was worth millions.
Jewelry and art objects are other things that can be made from such resinous material. However, the tree resins must undergo thousands of years of fossilization to create the warm-hued prized solid known as amber. This material was formed by different tree species of pre-history, most predominantly among the evergreen groups, such as pine. The resultant lumps occur as irregular nodules, rods, or teardrop shapes.
Amber has been known since antiquity for its beauty and for its unusual physical properties. For example, it retains heat, warming in the hand. The Greek word for amber was elecktron, and the ancient Greeks knew of its curious property of “attraction”: a piece of elecktron rubbed with fur magically attracted light objects, such as feathers. This early, but little understood, demonstration of static electricity in action was the precursor to later explorations into the nature of electricity.
It comes in all shades of yellow with nuances of orange and brown. Rarely, amber pieces can be found that are red. There is a fairly common variety of milky-white opaque amber called “bone” amber. As curiosities – and of great value among scientists as well as collectors of amber – are pieces that include insects (ants, wasps, flies) or plants trapped in the resin eons ago and encased in perfect states of preservation within the material. Living things of greater sizes – a small frog or a large, prehistoric dragonfly – can be found in amber sometimes, too. For those wanting amber’s warm glow, it is the most richly-colored translucent to transparent kinds that are prized as gem materials. Over the millennia, numerous ornamental carved objects and beads have been made from amber; such objects, though predominantly found in the Mediterranean cultures and Europe, are also found elsewhere in the world.
Amber lumps have collected across the globe. The largest deposits, though, occur along the shores of the Baltic Sea. And it is along the Baltic Sea that the story of Russia’s Amber Room begins.
To the south, the only other egress from land-locked Russia was via the Black Sea (through its inlet, the Bosporus, then into the Sea of Marmara, then the Mediterranean, and finally out into the Atlantic). But this, too, was claimed: it was defended by the belligerent Turks, and the lands around the Black Sea were controlled by them.
Russians lived in a feudal backwater compared to Western Europe. The upper classes dressed in the style of their earlier Tartar conquerors, maintaining that style for centuries after Tartar rule was thrown off in 1480 by the first Russian tsar (or “czar”, a bastardization of the word “Cæsar”), Ivan the Great (1462-1505). Literature and art were rudimentary. All citizens were subjects of the state, ultimately answerable to its king.
Russia suffered politically and culturally from want of access to the rest of the world. Blocked by China, the Turks, and the Swedes, Russians had virtually no room for trade or expansion, though the country itself was enormous. Poland and Sweden had been briefly subdued. Ivan IV, known in history as Ivan the Terrible, however, lost both during his reign, and a protracted conflict from 1558-1583 failed miserably to secure Russia the much-coveted northern corridor to the Baltic Sea.
In 1613, Michael Romanov, a grand nephew of Ivan IV, was elected czar. This established the Romanov family line of czars that lasted until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family.
Peter I, born in 1672 in Moscow, son of Tsar Alexis and his second wife, became an agitator in Russia for modernization, education, and European-style culture. He assumed the throne at the age of 10. His half-sister, Sophia, instigated an insurrection, however, so that the boy shared joint rule with his half-brother, Ivan. She, of course, retained regency over both, in effect making her the leader of Russia.
In 1689, Peter, now 17 years old, forced Sophia to resign as regent and had her sent to a convent. He assumed sole power that year (his half-brother Ivan V had little to do with politics and died in 1696). Peter also married Eudoxia Lopukhin the same year he gained sole control of the throne. They had a son named Alexis. [Peter divorced Eudoxia and had her locked up in a nunnery less than ten years later in 1698. The boy, Alexis, grew to hate his czar father and his politics. He was later implicated in an assassination plot against his father; though condemned to death, Alexis died before the sentence could be carried out, probably from the abuses of torture applied during his “confession”.]
Peter I (as his predecessors had been) was balked by the lack of access to the world’s oceans. In 1696, he chose what he thought was the easiest route and attacked a Turkish stronghold near t
But having access to this one point of maritime shipping meant little. Russia had no navy, and the fortress gained had to be protected by ground. Peter formed a plan to change that. In 1697, he traveled incognito into Western Europe; in Holland and later in England, he studied ship-building and navigation. He enticed hundreds of skilled craftsmen and artisans of the shipbuilding trade to return to Russia with him (after revealing his true identity). From there, he had a naval academy, a nautical school, and a school for mathematics established. The Russian Navy was on its way.
His problems of a southerly sea route solved, Peter turned his attentions to gaining access to the Baltic. In 1700, he went to war with Sweden. He was roundly and badly beaten by the Swedes who had modern equipment and better trained soldiers. Retreating to reflect and regroup, Peter began building the city of St. Petersburg in 1703 (although he was encroaching – willfully – on Sweden’s soil in doing so). He did this with manpower forcibly brought from other Russian provinces to slave on the city’s construction. He also populated his new city with forcibly relocated people.
Learning from his humiliation by Sweden, Peter upgraded and modernized his army. Finally, on his next attempt in 1709, he managed to defeat Sweden’s Charles II’s forces. Spotty skirmishing finally led to a treaty (1721) that gave over certain of Sweden’s mainland European holdings, thus opening a way for Russia to access the Baltic.
Charles II, though, smarting from his defeat, agitated among the Turks against Russia. An additional skirmish and the Treaty of Azov forced the reversion of the fortress at Azov back to the Turks in 1711. Peter cared little for that southern route as he now had access to the more convenient Baltic Sea.
Through her wheedling, Frederich commissioned the building of a grand room, one never before seen. It was her wish to have a showcase made completely of amber, abundant as it was along the Baltic shore.
It was an amazing feat of design work by German baroque sculptor, Andreas Schlüter. Schlüter’s plans for the room were turned over to the Dane, Gottfried Wolfram, master craftsman to the court of the Danish king, Frederick IV. Wolfram was involved in the project from its inception in 1701 until 1707. Afterward, the work was continued by two amber-carving masters, Ernst Schacht and Gottfried Turau, both from GdaÅsk (Danzig), Poland. Turau and Schacht directed the work to its finale.
The Amber Room took ten years to complete. It used several tons of native amber to make its glowing walls and fixtures. Thin gold leaf was applied to the walls’ panel backs to reflect light. Finishing touches were added with precious gemstones and other fine materials, including gold and silver inlay. In 1711, it was completed but sat in storage for a time. It was installed not in Charlottenburg Palace as originally intended but in the Berlin City Palace in Prussia’s western territory instead.
Peter I, meanwhile, had made many forays into Europe, absorbing its culture, literature, and lifestyle. He forged diplomatic relations with many of Europe’s crowned heads. He brought Western culture, its ways of dress, and its mannerisms to the Russian people (who did not early embrace the imposition of European ideals on their native ways). The boyars (Russia’s landed gentry and members of which formed a legislative body that Peter replaced with a European-style senate), for example, by 1700 had been coerced into adapting western garb – pantaloons, shirts, girdled waists, etc., instead of wearing their long tunics left over from the Tartar influence. Other reforms were put in place by Peter. The Russian alphabet was simplified. He founded Russia’s first newspaper. He had many foreign books translated into Russian, and he planned an academy of sciences. On a quirkier note, like many in his day, he was fascinated by those physically different from the norm, and he “collected” little people – dwarves – lavishing a wedding banquet with 70 of them in 1710.
Peter the Great, as he came to be known, continued to be a frequent visitor to the courts of Europe. In a classic engraving, he is shown jovially hoisting France’s 5-year-old king, Louis XV, off the floor on one
While staying in Frederich I’s Prussian kingdom, Peter the Great was given a view of the newly installed Amber Room in Berlin. He marveled at its craftsmanship, and he expressed that admiration to his host. Frederich I, wanting to sweeten his political alliance between his tiny country and the giant Russia’s potential might against Sweden, made a gift of the Amber Room to Peter. [History does not record Prussian queen consort Sophia Charlotte’s reaction to having “her” room given away.]
Back in Russia, in 1716, the Amber Room was shipped in 18 crates to Peter I’s palace in St. Petersburg (still technically sitting on Swedish soil). It was installed in an area he had designated as a showcase for European art.
During the skirmishing of the early 1700’s when Peter had sought a direct line to the Baltic Sea, a Livonian peasant woman named Marfa Skavronskaya had been captured in 1702. In 1712, Peter had married her, and upon their wedding, she adopted the Russian Orthodox faith (something all czars from the first, Ivan the Great, zealously protected against influence by Roman Catholicism and Islam). She changed her name to Catherine.
Catherine was not happy with the current manor in St. Petersburg around the time of the Amber Room’s installation there. She contracted a German architect to build a summer pleasure palace for her own use (as Marie Antoinette did in France a several decades later) in a town roughly 15 miles southeast of St. Petersburg in 1717. This left the original structure on the Baltic Sea known thereafter as the Winter Palace. The new Summer Palace was opulent and ridiculously decorated in the style of the times.
Peter I, meanwhile, declared himself Emperor over Russia in 1721. He also issued a decree that sitting emperors could hand-select his successor. Unfortunately, when he died in 1725, he had failed to make such a choice. The palace guards elevated his Livonian peasant wife, Catherine, to the position, and she assumed the title of Catherine I. After her death in 1727, she was succeeded by a 12-year-old grandson of Peter I who died in 1730. The daughter of Ivan V (Peter the Great’s half-brother) and also the aunt of Peter II, Anna Ivanova, was then named empress. She moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg, thus ensuring a Western idealist connection of that land to Europe.
Empress Anna added onto the Catherine Palace and had much of it redesigned. She died in 1740, naming her one-year-old nephew (Ivan VI) as her heir to the throne. The infant was replaced quickly in 1741 by the palace guards – their choice for leader was Elizabeth, one of Peter the Great’s daughters by Catherine. Empress Elizabeth, finding her mother’s original structure old-fashioned and not large enough to suit her, had the original demolished and replaced with one of Rococo design. The work started in 1752. [Catherine II (known as Catherine the Great) later likened Elizabeth’s version of the palace to a fancily decorated cake, calling it “whipped cream” architecture.] In 1755 (before the new palace was opened in 1756) Elizabeth ordered the fantastic Amber Room to be dismantled, taken from the old Winter Palace, and shipped to its new Summer Palace home. The architect working on the palace fitted out a new room (about 180 square feet) to receive it. To accommodate its more spacious quarters, the Amber Room was supplemented with more of the fossilized “gold” shipped from Berlin, bringing its weight up to six tons. The amber surface area was a magnificent 580 square feet.
Elizabeth used the room as a meditative space. Catherine the Great used it later as a conference room. And Alexander II, himself a great amber collector, treated it as the ultimate trophy room for amber. Historians estimate that in today’s dollars the room was worth anywhere from $140 million to $160 million. Eyewitnesses who had occasion to see this splendor reported the room – lit by nearly 600 candles – “glowed a fiery gold”. Even the few extant black-and-white photos of the room from the early 20th Century capture this luminescent quality. It must have been truly “The Eighth Wonder of the World” (as it was later dubbed). The room was quietly enjoyed for the next nearly two centuries as a Russian, and then Soviet (after 1917), national treasure until an obscure little man with a funny mustache came to power in Germany in 1933.
He could not, however, execute the human face artistically. His portraiture was awkward and amateurish; his inability to do life drawings well caused his rejection twice from a prestigious art school in Vienna in 1907 and 1908 to which he had applied.
His mother had been his sole means of support, giving him a stipend from a small pension she had. She died in 1908 around the time of Hitler’s last art school rejection. He worked a few manual labor jobs, but mostly he painted cheap postcards that a friend of his sold to tourists. Finally, disaffected and broke, he left Vienna and moved to Munich in 1913. There he made a small living designing commercial posters before joining the German Army. He served in World War I, achieving the rank of corporal; in the wake of being gassed, he was hospitalized and earned the Iron Cross for bravery.
Along with similarly-minded disaffected Germans, Hitler joined a nationalist organization later renamed the Nazi Party. He rose to power within that group and in 1933 became the dictator of Germany under the Nazi Party flag. The Sudetenland was a piece of real estate formerly held by Austria that had come under Czech control. Hitler wanted the “Germans” of the Sudeten repatriated to the Fatherland. An international appeasement effort – by giving him the area –
In non-military matters, Hitler never got over his rejection by the Viennese art scene of his early adulthood. He claimed great insight into what constituted finer artworks. He was insanely jealous of other artists, particularly those engaging in “modern art”, abstracted forms and works that he denounced as decadent and perverse. These, he mostly ordered destroyed where found by his advancing armies during their pillaging. Other art treasures of occupied countries were plundered in World War II. Hitler knew the value of removing such works as it helped bolster his own private collection and served to demoralize his vanquished enemies.
In September 1941 he launched a massive invasion of the Soviet bloc with 3 million Germans marching toward Russia.
Hitler knew of the Amber Room and its location. He also was of the false belief it was German in origin. [Though designed by a German artist, it was crafted by Danes and Poles; Berlin – its original place of installation – was not in Germany then, either.] Regardless, he certainly thought of it as German by right because East Prussia – its place of birth – was a province of Germany by the time of World War II. It had to be “repatriated”.
The protectors of Leningrad’s art knew it was only a matter of time, though, before the Nazis reached the Summer Palace grounds. Racing against the clock they attempted to remove the Amber Room to hide it from the German scavengers. The amber, dried out over time, had become brittle; the effort of taking the walls down caused some of the precious material to crumble. Rather than remove it, staffers tried to hide it – a thin layer of wallpaper was hastily pasted over it.
Nazis storming the Catherine Palace quickly discovered the Amber Room beneath its poor camouflage. Within 36 hours, with typical German efficiency and with the supervision of two experts, the invaders had the Amber Room disassembled and ready for transport. The 27 crates containing the several tons of carved and polished amber walls and adornments were ordered shipped to Königsberg in East Prussia (by then an eastern principality of Germany) on October 14, 1941. And on November 13, 1941, a Königsberg newspaper reported that part of the Amber Room was on display for exhibition in Königsberg Castle. The rest of the Amber Room remained in storage at the castle, however.
Meanwhile, in the same month and hundreds of miles to the northeast, Leningrad was nearly encircled by enemy forces. It was effectively cut off from Soviet interior supply lines. More than 650,000 citizens died from starvation, disease, and shelling from distant German artillery. Scanty food and fuel supplies were smuggled in over nearby Lake Ladoga (to the northeast) by barge in the summer and by sled in the winter as the siege wore on. The city’s arms makers scraped by on what resources made it into Leningrad, and 2 million of its people barely avoided starvation. Another one million children, sick, and elderly were evacuated.
The Soviets partially broke the German encirclement in 1943. A successful offensive drove the Nazis southwestward in January 1944, ending the Siege of Leningrad.
With the German army unsuccessful in Operation Barbarossa – the Nazi codename for its Russian invasion ploy – Hitler, already sensing as early as 1943 the tide of the war had turned, perhaps realized the advancing Soviet forces would be unstoppable.
The director of the Königsberg Castle museum, Alfred Rohde, was advised in late 1943 to dismantle the part of the Amber Room on display, crate it up, and store it with the rest of the room already stashed. Königsberg took heavy damage from the British Royal Air Force in August 1944, and the castle museum was reduced to rubble (though most of the castle proper remained unharmed).
In late January 1945, Hitler finally issued general orders to Albert Speer (his Armaments Minister and closest confidante) that allowed movements from endangered territories of any material possessions of value. Particularly important were the cultural artifacts of not only the nation of Germany but those items stolen from other countries during the war.
Speer gave directions, and with the highest Nazi priority appended to his work orders cultural goods were packed up and stowed away across Germany and the occupied areas. Advancing Soviets did not bode well for the German city of Königsberg; Speer’s man-on-the-ground in the coastal town was Erich Koch. Koch was charged with clearing out valuables from the city.
The Soviets advanced on Königsberg, shelling the city as it moved forward. On April 9, 1945 (less than a month before Hitler and his paramour Eva Braun committed suicide in his Berlin bunker), the city fell into the hands of the Red Army. In addition to sacking it, the Soviets put the medieval Königsberg Castle to the torch, burning it to nothing more than a dried husk. The Amber Room had been in the castle’s storage area. All of it was presumed burned up in the conflagration set by the Red Army. With the destruction of the castle, the great treasure of the Amber Room was lost forever. Further wiping clean the memory of Königsberg, the Baltic Sea coastal city was later renamed Kaliningrad by the Soviets. And in 1968, following a Soviet government policy of cultural destruction, the remains of Königsberg Castle were razed – the vestiges of what the Soviets snarlingly called “Prussian Imperialism” had been eradicated.
Losing such a treasure – first, by Hitler’s absurd acquisitive policy, then by the Communist doctrine of destroying “imperialist” artifacts, vis a vis, the 1945 burning of Königsberg Castle – is criminal just as much as Hitler’s “Final Solution” was criminal.
The Amber Room, however, like many such lost treasures has a mythos of its own that developed in the wake of the war. Many armchair conspiracists liked to believe the Amber Room perhaps survived, with the Nazis successfully crating it and squirreling it away somewhere.
Fuel to this fanciful belief was found in coincidence. Erich Koch, assigned to clear out the valuables of Königsberg, was known to be engaged in that activity by the locals. Eyewitnesses claimed crates had been seen ready for shipping at Königsberg’s railway station shortly after he set to work. A ship, Wilhelm Gustloff, left a nearby port on January 30, 1945, and was sunk by a Soviet submarine. Some people think the Amber Room had been put aboard this ship, implying that it is now sitting on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, awaiting discovery. Others still think the Nazis secreted the Amber Room away by rail at the time.
In recent years, documentation was found reporting that during an air assault on February 4, 1945, on the marshalling yards of Breslau (then a German holding, now the Polish city of Wroclaw) 40 “waggons [railcars]” from Königsberg were undamaged in the attack. The train was observed traveling toward Auerswalde “under conditions of the greatest secrecy.” [Auerswalde is a small town near Chemnitz in eastern Germany roughly 40 miles SW of Dresden.] This observation is of course meaningless – not knowing the contents of said railcars, only random conclusions can be drawn. And how anyone could determine, from the air, that a train was traveling “under the greatest secrecy” is absurd on its face.
Tied in with that air raid report of mysterious “waggons”, allegedly there is recently discovered documentation that claims a hundred Soviet POWs were detailed to offload crates from a Königsberg train and store them in an underground facility near Auerswalde. And, purportedly there was a Nazi SS detachment sent to oversee and guard the operation. The Muna Forest reportedly was the site of a massive German subterranean munitions shelter. Claims were made it was big enough for trucks to turn around in. Discovery of a ventilation shaft in the area led many to believe this is the place of the old underground shelter. Still unexcavated, for many it holds the promise as being the final resting spot of the Amber Room. Again, this is nothing more than useless conjecture. [A source dated March 23, 2011, claimed the excavation permits were due to be granted “next month”. This apparently never happened.]
Other equally enticing guesses surfaced. The Amber Room was stashed in a bunker – the location of which is now lost – beneath Königsberg. Another story has the Amber Room being buried in mines in Germany’s Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge), also near Chemnitz. And, most absurdly, is the crackpot “theory” that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had a fake Amber Room made and installed before the Germans discovered it; it was the fake the Nazis took away.
It did not help finalize the fate of the Amber Room when one of its ornaments was later discovered in the hands of a civilian. A group of German art detectives got a tip in 1997 that someone was trying to sell a piece of the Amber Room. Raiding the office of the seller’s lawyer led them to a stone mosaic panel (part of a set of four which had decorated the Amber Room) in Bremen. The would-be seller turned out to be the son of a deceased soldier who had assisted in packing up the Amber Room. The son claimed he had no idea of the medallion’s origin, though that is almost certainly a lie (since his sales pitch claimed it was a piece of the famous Amber Room). [Whether taken from the Summer Palace or later in Königsberg is irrelevant – this seller’s father stole that mosaic while helping dismantle and crate the room. Had Nazi authorities gotten wind of the theft he would have been executed for the offense.]
And in 1998, a German team and a Lithuanian one (working independently) each claimed it had found the location of the Amber Room. The Germans swore a silver mine was the cache location; the Lithuanians cited a lagoon in which it was either buried or merely submerged. Neither spot upon physical inspection and excavation brought forth the lost treasure of the Nazis, Russia’s Amber Room.
The simple reality, as investigated to exhaustion by Soviet experts, German investigators, and other private parties alike is also the saddest. In the aftermath of the Soviet takeover of Königsberg, and the Soviet burning of its landmark castle, the precious Amber Room was obliterated. Arguments asking, “Why would the Soviets look for something they knew was destroyed?” can be answered in terms of Cold War politics. No one – not the Soviets nor the Germans, for that matter – would want to take blame for depriving the world of such a priceless artwork. Any Soviet pretense of “looking” for the Amber Room was nothing more than an international face-saving ploy (also with frank hopes on their part of finding evidence to lay the Amber Room’s destruction at the door of the Germans).
Financial issues were resolved with donations from the United States ($3.5 million) and from major contributions by a German concern, Ruhrgas AG. The room was built in Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin) near St. Petersburg (Leningrad, reverting back to its true name after the fall of the Soviet state in the 1990s) in which Catherine I’s Summer Palace stands (also under renovation and restoration starting in 2003).
This monumental task – working from photographs and piecemeal memoirs – was completed with but a few finishing touches needed in 2003 in time for the Tercentenary of St. Petersburg. The new Amber Room was dedicated in a ceremony jointly by Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
video of the reproduced Amber Room (2010)
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