World War II has long passed. The heroes and the villains remain in the memories of a dying generation which will soon have vanished, though it will have left a rich body of archived films, records, historical fiction, and nonfiction about that time. Films and books like The Rape of Europa (book 1994 and film 2006), The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel (book 2009, film in 2014), and Women in Gold, the film (2015), starring Helen Mirren about the true story of an elderly Austrian women who reclaims a painting from the Austrian government that belongs to her family, all have dealt with the recovery of precious paintings and artifacts stolen by the Nazis.
What has not been examined until Cassie Hay’s intriguing documentary The Liberators, written by Cassie Hay and Cassie Bryant, is that some of the priceless treasures taken from churches might not have been confiscated, stolen, and kept by the Nazis who went underground after the war. What might have happened is something few have considered. Such priceless works of art may have been taken by British or American soldiers as the spoils of war after Germany surrendered. Though Eisenhower commissioned a special team known as the Monuments Men to restore to their rightful owners, cultural artifacts, statuary, paintings, gold, jewelry, etc., in a reversal of previous policies of “keeping the spoils of war,” not all of the treasures were recovered.
Cassie Hay’s documentary examines the mystery of the near priceless lost Medieval treasures known as the Quedlinberg Treasure, which was taken by the Nazis from the abbey/church dedicated to St. Servatius in the city of Quedlinberg during the war. After the Nazis removed the treasures which included magnificent jeweled illuminated manuscripts and reliquary from the 4th century and later, and stored them in a bank, they feared they would be destroyed by allied bombing. Nazis removed them again and hid them in a cave where they remained until Germany surrendered. Some of the Quedlinberg treasures were recovered. Other treasures have not been recovered to this day.
Hay’s exhaustive and prodigious investigation of what happened to the Quedlinberg Treasure is an amazing account which began when a graduate student Willi Korte was hired by German museum officials to search the National Archives to divine what might have happened to the treasure. The more Korte researched what was missing, the more obsessed he became until he eventually was immersed in a decades long hunt for individuals who might have been responsible for taking the treasure. When New York Times investigative reporter Bill Honan who was familiar with the international art market was introduced to Korte, a match was “made in heaven.” Both men encouraged one another and investigated pieces of the puzzle according to their own expertise and backgrounds.
Korte goes into deep research in the National Archives and reviews records again and again. Bill Honan with the gravitas of the New York Times behind him manages to have doors opened for him that never would have been opened for Korte. Eventually, circumstances turn in their favor when one of the pieces of the Quedlinberg Treasure turns up and is sold and this notification is publicized. Thus begins the unraveling of the identity of the thief who was born on American soil and was not a plundering German as many anticipated.
Hays’ documentary is nonlinear. She identifies the priceless treasure with photographs of the objects that are stunningly beautiful, so amazing that one could understand why someone might be compelled to take a religious artifact, especially if no one was watching. She interviews the key subjects, Willi Korte and Bill Honan, and moves back and forth in time to gain their perspective while revealing the events. She includes recreations and interviews with the former mayor of the town where Korte and Honan eventually focus their final investigations before the truth is revealed. She interviews neighbors, friends, and family of the individual who pilfered the treasure. Intermingled with the commentary she edits photographs from the period and footage. Her interview research is exhaustive and she begins with commentary in interviews she conducted with Dr. Charles Little Medieval Art Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dr. Cynthia Hahn, Professor of Art History at Hunter College and Maria Fredericks Book Conservator of the Morgan Library. Her research extends to interviews with attorneys who worked on the criminal case and even Robert Edsel author of The Monuments Men.
Clips of interviews with Friede Manngosslau, former pastor of St. Servatius Church in Quedlinberg, are particularly fascinating. He traces the background of the war up to the point when the treasure was taken by the Nazis. He adds interesting facts about Heinrich Himmler removing the religious artifacts and using the church for his occult ceremonies during which he worshiped the ancestral gods and spirits in a creation of his own occult religion. During the pastor’s accounts Hay intercuts clips from historical black and white archived footage of Himmler going into the church, and numerous photographs to elucidate key points revealing the cave site, the terrain, the town of Quedlinberg past and present, and much more.
What eventually emerges is a clear portrait of the hunters whose overwhelming perseverance brought them triumph, and the hunted, whose sensibilities, interests, and background most probably inspired him to secret away two illuminated manuscripts and other precious objects. Once Hays reveals the identity of the possessor of the stolen treasure, she then delves into whether he was punished and whether the artifacts were restored. Her investigation of family ties, personal motivations, and interviews with grandchildren who offer their perspective on why their relative would take such priceless items which, by the way were in remarkable, preserved condition, is a revelation. She takes us into the heart of the mystery of individual identity and posits suggestions through the varying perspectives of the lawyers who defended family and those who were the prosecutors, as well as Korte, Honan, and family members. Throughout, she allows Willi Korte to carve out the paths of discovery and provide the final analysis of what eventually happened to the treasure.
Cassie Hay’s documentary The Liberators is edited so that one never leaves the thread of events or tires of this amazing restoration of historical treasure to its rightful place in Germany. Many vital details are emphasized. One is that Germany after the war was loathe to punish culprits who stole valuable art. Instead, they ransomed the works and asked few questions, preferring to quietly “make no waves” or cause ill will with allies. This behavior speaks volumes about the guilt of a nation whose punishment was to be associated with a reprehensible criminal leader, who was elected on a minority vote and whose own military attempted to assassinate him a number of times.
But perhaps the most poignant detail is that of the Quedlinberg Treasure and other treasures lost during WWII. Most of the Quedlinberg Treasure was recovered, but 2 % has not been located. Does the family have it? Will it turn up in some obscure thrift shop somewhere in the U.S.? Secondly, Hay concludes with the inimitable fact that hundreds of thousands of works of art and artifacts are still missing today. Some items may have been destroyed, but others are most probably in the private collections of those who know their increasing value as the years move farther away from a time when massive theft was made legitimate by unjust laws and the will to power.