“Resistance for heritage”: how the French cultural heritage was hidden and protected during WW2

In the wake of the Second World War, the Nazi expansion was already fierce. The Third Reich had already conquered a great part of Western Europe and was looking to expand East, thus France, that was eventually invaded in 1940.


Among the many threats the Nazi invasion represented, one was upon the national and international cultural heritage present in french museums and castles. Indeed, Adolf Hitler had a particular history with the world of Fine Arts. Rejected twice from the Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna, his desire to prove Germany’s supremacy and hegemony was, as well as being military, through the establishment of the greatest collection of European Art in the “Linz Gallery”. This Gallery was one of the Führer’s several projects: he wanted to build his own private collection, and so by stealing the most important cultural treasures from the countries he had invaded and would invade.


However, the french collections were particularly cared for. Thanks to the intelligence, foresight and courage of several curators, the collections of the Louvre, Versailles or Saint-Germain-en-Laye are today complete.

What French castles and artistic institutions were to Nazi Germany

French castles like that of Versailles played a great part in German History of the late XIX and early XX centuries. Indeed, it was in the Mirror Chamber of the castle that the II Reich was declared in 1871, a moment of grandeur for the German Nation. But it was also in Versailles that in 1919 the Armistice of the First World War was signed, a moment of humiliation for Germany. Lastly, Versailles was also representative of French History as it had housed several of its kings, but was also the home to the French Presidents of the III Republic. Therefore, Versailles was (and still is) the symbol of French power. That, Hitler was aware of; and it is one of the reasons why these French Monuments were so important to him and to his conquest. But Versailles is not the only castle Hitler had targeted. The castle of Vincennes for example was a military compound, Saint-Germain-en-Laye housed a great collection of Prehistorical, Ancient and Gallic artifacts, thus an important symbol and house to France’s history. The Führer wanted to mock France, its history and culture, by crushing its national heritage and history and appropriating it to himself.

However, several important French personalities helped to the conservation of France’s treasures, among which was Jacques Jaujard, one of the greatest figures of what I will call “Resistance for heritage”.

Jacques Jaujard (1895-1967), protector and guardian of the museums’ treasures, and the castle of Chambord

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Jacques Jaujard had taken part in the evacuation of the Prado Museum, allowing the works it held to be protected from the consequences of the war.

In France, he was appointed director of the National Museums and the Louvre Academy (Ecole du Louvre) in 1940. The reason he was given such a function is because, starting in 1938, when he was only sub-director, he had began organizing the evacuation of the works present in the collections of Versailles, foreseeing eventual German invasions.

With the Munich Crisis of 1938, Jacques Jaujard felt that the invasion of French Territory by Nazi Germany was imminent and unavoidable. Therefore, the works that were in Versailles were taken out of the castle and of the Paris area and scattered in other French castles.


In 1939, Jacques Jaujard began the evacuation of the collections of the Louvre in Paris. Over three-thousand works were exfiltrated from the Louvre, among more than several tens of thousands present in the collection. The exfiltration had to be quick, for the Nazis were getting closer and closer to the French borders.


The exfiltration of that many works needed organization and speed. The issues of preventive conservation were not taken into account, and solutions had to be found quickly to move the works. Sculptures and paintings were moved as quickly as possible. For example, the Winged Victory of Samothrace was moved thanks to a path plank and a box especially made for it.

For the Axis troops not to be able to know the value of the boxes if they were ever found, J. Jaujard made up a system for the works to be classified and for the curators to recognize them. The name of the work was never written on the boxes. A colour code was made up, with red tablets for the most important works as well as painted letters and numbers. The first letter was that of the place of origin (L for Louvre for example), the second letter concerned the nature of the work (S for sculpture, P for painting), and the number corresponded to the number attributed to the work. For example, the Mona Lisa was “LP0” and had three red tabled on its box.

However, the curators faced several problematics including how to move works that are not possible to disassemble. For that, the Comédie Française lent to the Louvre some of its trucks designed to move the decors for their plays. Overall, 51 convoys were needed to move everything.


Jacques Jaujard chose the castle of Chambord to hide the many works taken away from the Louvre.

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The castle, according to Jaujard who worked hand in hand with Pierre Schommer, had several advantages. The castle had been empty for several years. It had been bought by the French Republic but never opened to the public, and was located far from the frontiers and was therefore protected from enemy invasion. Its large opening allowed the works to be easily placed in the castle. The biggest boxes, coming from the Louvre but also from the collections of Versailles and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, remained on the ground floor, while the others were spread among the several rooms of the castle. Some of them never changed place throughout the entire duration of the war.

However, on June 22nd 1940, France was divided between occupied territory and the Free Zone led by the government of the Marshal Pétain whose capital was in Vichy. Chambord was now in Occupied territory.


At first, as to avoid the Nazis realizing the absence of several works, several molds of the sculptures that had been moved were placed in the Louvre. By doing so, the Germans – who could visit the Louvre for free when French people had to pay one symbolic euro, a way to humiliat the oppressed french population – could still visit the Louvre and see its collection. However, it was discovered that Chambord held several boxes containing works of art (the boxes had to be opened in order to prove that they did not contain weapons). Thus, the German army started guarding the castle. occupation-chambordfBut the Germans were not aware that some of the greatest treasures of French collections were hidden in the castle. Thus, began the peregrinations of the most precious treasures of international cultural heritage such as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The latter left the castle of Chambord for a hectic journey. At first, it went to the castle of Louvignies. It was then moved to the Abbey of Loc-Dieu, than to Montauban, and finally to Montal. The several curators who were responsible for the security of La Gioconda were so scared of it being stolen, that some of them even hid it under their bed. However, Jacques Jaujard had found an ally amongst his enemies, Franz Wolff-Metternich. He wasleader of the Kunstschutz, a german office dedicated to the Preservation of the Artistic Heritage, who turned a blind eye to the hidings that Jaujard organized. Thanks to this German ally, Jaujard was able to keep hidden, by moving them from castle to castle, the works that Hitler’s men coveted.

Simultaneously, the Nazis were beginning to despoil some of the works, or to ask to the French government to send them to the Reich. To block such transactions, French curators tried to delay as much as possible the administrative paperwork, saving several works from being sent to Germany by the end of WWII.

Chambord and the French Resistance, up to the end of WWII

The biggest threat Chambord faced during the entire war were the air raids, without distinction between the Axis and the Allies. When in 1943 the STO (mandatory work service: the french population was sent to Germany without consent to work in german industries and fields) was initiated, many young people started to hide to avoid working for Germany and joined the Resistance. The number of resistants present in the park of the castle increased exponentially. When in 1944 the German troops pulled back in defense, they crossed that park and one of their soldiers was killed. That day, the works present in the castle had a very uncertain future. Indeed, the soldiers threatened to burn down the castle. The soldiers, upset by the murder of their colleague, burnt down the entire village of Chambord. Its inhabitants took refuge within the walls of the castle. Persuaded that the boxes contained weapons, the Nazis threatened to burn the place down. However, once they were shown that the only thing present in these boxes were works of art, they chose to murder twelve villagers and left the place untouched.  1944 was a particularly violent year, for the SS were losing the war and the soldiers present in France were young adults who had only known Nazism and wanted to finish the work through extremely barbaric actions. The castle of Vincennes, for instance, who had been a military compound for the Nazis, was bombed.

Once the Nazis had left the French territory, new occupants (US, UK, USSR…) started to wander about Versailles, the Louvre and other prestigious cultural places, and the threats were the same and included theft, or deterioration of the works. However, the repatriation of the works began in 1945 and Chambord and the other castles were progressively emptied of their hidden treasures. The same methods used in 1939 were used in 1940.

The repatriation took place between 1945 and 1950, and kept going on until the very beginning of the 1960s. The reason it took so long is because the priority was not at refilling the museums. The trucks needed to move the works were used for other purposes and there were several through conditions. One of the biggest symbols of freedom was the return of the Mona Lisa in its original spot in the Louvre.


The repatriation was possible thanks to the help of the American  “Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program” of which the members were called “Monuments Men”. Jacques Jaujard and the Monuments Men went looking for all the artworks that had been hidden all over France and Europe since 1939, as well as for the works that had been stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis.

The project of the Linz Gallery never succeeded. However, Hitler and the Nazis have sent over 30,000 wagons of stolen treasures back to Germany. Among these treasures were paintings, sculptures, artifacts, furnitures and works by some of the greatest artist of the time like Matisse, Renoir, Monet or Picasso, which were hidden in trains, galeries in Germany but also in conquered lands like Poland.

The hunt for all the stolen treasures of the Nazis is still going on today, for some of the works were never found and numerous legends exist around these treasures.