Pilgrimage to Neuschwanstein

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Rose Valland had assured me that Füssen, south of Augsburg near the Austrian border, was the center for the Einsatzstab Rosenberg activities in Germany. It was there that the great shipments from France were sent during the years of 1940-43, and the archives and inventories assimilated and prepared (J. Rorimer, 160).

On May 1st, word came through that the castles at Füssen had been taken. And now, of all times, I was unable to get a vehicle. Our command expected to move momentarily to Augsburg, or perhaps even to Munich, and all conveyances would be required. In the absence of the chaplain, I unburdened myself to a Red Cross worker in an adjoining office. He told me that he had plenty of vehicles and could lend me a jeep. There was no regular driver available, but I wasn’t going to let this little detail deter me. I did the necessary first echelon maintenance check-up and prepared for the journey. My corporal, John Skilton, volunteered to go along… (J. Rorimer, 163).

The fairy-like castle of Neuschwanstein near Füssen had been built in a fantastic pseudo-Gothic style by the Mad Ludwig of Bavaria. As we approached it from the north through an open valley, it looked in its mountain setting like a prototype of all story-book castles… As the result of a telephone call I had put through to the VI Corps, the castle had been placed off limits, and orders had been issued that no one, regardless of rank, was to enter until I arrived… At the entrance to the castle there were two cannons mounted on armored cars on either side of the great iron doors. The Sergeant of the Guard reported that the castle had not been fortified by the Germans and that we had taken it without difficulty (J. Rorimer 183).

Skilton, a group of representative Military Government and security troops, and I started off to explore the castle… The verticality of the surrounding mountains was repeated in the structure of the castle, so that in going from one series of rooms to another one had the feeling of climbing up the mountainside. When we reached the second level, one of the watchmen produced the usual large cluster of keys, unlocked a door, and we proceeded upwards. At the end of this flight of exterior steps, we came to a room stacked to the ceiling with boxes and crates… The boxes were stenciled with the telltale ERR and other letters and numbers. I wouldn’t have wanted to have been alone; the thick walls with their tiny windowed apertures closed in around us.

We continued our climb up the next winding spiral staircase, and at the top still another door was opened and locked behind us. Except for the throne room and a few other rooms in the state apartments, all available space was used. Works of art were everywhere, most of them marked with Paris ciphers. Confusion indicated that this repository was being emptied when the Nazis had vanished a short time before the arrival of our troops. Here, and on the floors below, racks and specially prepared rooms recently plastered had been partly filled with paintings, rare furniture, tapestries, and other treasures confiscated from France. In addition, there were thirteen hundred paintings which had been sent here by the Administration of Bavarian Castles. These were from the Munich museums and the Residenz and the private collections of the royal Bavarian Wittelsbach family, and had been deposited here before the place was used by the ERR. In several of the rooms we found the art libraries of Paris collectors. Thrown behind and between the books were rare engravings, drawings and paintings. There was no time to look closely at any individual works of art; there were too many extraordinary objects of cultural value.

…In April of 1941 thirty special baggage cars of art objects, and in October of that same year twenty-three carloads more, had been brought here from France. One shipment alone of these objects back to France required 36 freight cars for 1,221 crates which contained 6,000 objects. I passed through the rooms as in a trance… (J. Rorimer, 184-185).

In the planning stages of my trip, I reached out to several of the locations I would be visiting, and one of them was the Castle Neuschwanstein. I soon received a response from the press department at the Bavarian Department of State-owned Palaces, Gardens and Lakes, which manages Neuschwanstein. It turns out that they were very interested in my upcoming trip to the castle. In fact, around the time of “The Monuments Men” movie release, a local reporter had written a story about the history of Neuschwanstein and its connection with the Monuments Men. The press department generously arranged a special tour for me and set up a meeting with the newspaper reporter.

As I approached the castle by bus this morning, I forgot to admire the breathtaking scenery because I had my nose in my book. I was studying my grandfather’s chapter on “The Rosenberg Repositories” and the discoveries at Neuschwanstein in the hopes that I would be prepared to speak intelligently about his experience at the castle.  (This habit has become a common theme on this trip, but I knew I was on a mission, and I would have the rest of the day to take in the scenery – along side hundreds of other tourists).

Before the official tour and my meeting with the reporter, two representatives met me at the information desk. One was a former tour guide at the castle who now worked in a higher up position. The other was a press representative with an art history background who had driven from Munich this morning to meet me. Both representatives appeared somewhere around my age, certainly from the same generation. They accompanied me on the official tour, adding in fun facts and extra details as we trailed at the back of the group.

It’s always interesting to meet people in person having been introduced via email. An official title just doesn’t provide the full picture of an individual. I don’t know who exactly I was expecting to meet, but I had the distinct sense that if I were going to be in Germany for a longer period of time, I would like to know them better. The most interesting part of the whole tour – besides of course viewing the opulent interiors and innovative architecture of the castle – was learning about these two young folks. I asked them if their grandparents had stories from World War II, and they shared a few anecdotes. They said it was hard to get their grandparents to talk about the war. I encouraged them emphatically to ask questions now!

As we talked, I tried to approach the conversation delicately. Having immersed myself in my grandfather’s perspective, I had to remember to disconnect history from the present. Luckily, it wasn’t hard to harbor warm feelings toward these individuals. They were upstanding for multiple reasons – both fluent in English, well versed in art and history, and beyond friendly, they struck me as shining ambassadors for Bavaria and for Germany.

These sentiments were echoed when I met with the newspaper reporter. The first thing he had me do was pose for a picture on the same steps where my grandfather had stood. It was a moving moment for us both. It was that same picture that prompted the reporter to begin investigating the history of Neuschwanstein during WWII, and he had found it difficult to find sources and information. I struck a pose with my own notebook (the one I’ve been using for my blog) and imagined my grandfather. I wonder if he ever had any idea that his future granddaughter would be standing where he stood, honoring his legacy, and learning history through the pages of his book.

After a thorough interview, the reporter bade me farewell, expressing gratitude for the fact that our generation of Germans and Americans feel an openness toward each other and do not harbor resentment for the actions of past generations. While I do not want to jump to conclusions, I can say, that for me, the upshot of today’s tour was a tangible sense of peace and mutual understanding.

I am deeply grateful to the press team at the Bavarian Department of State-owned Palaces, Gardens, and Lakes for going out of their way to make this a very special visit, and I am looking forward to meeting them once more in Munich at the end of my journey.

To paint the picture of Neuschwanstein in 1945, here’s a 30-second clip from the Monuments Men Foundation. You’ll also hear Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger speak about the treasures found within. Harry worked closely with my Grandfather in Germany. Nowadays, he speaks in public frequently about his wartime experiences.

You can also read Harry’s bio on the Monuments Men Foundation website:

Or, you can read about Harry Ettlinger in this recent article from USA Today!