Guten tag von Altaussee,
This is a story about heroism under duress, about refusal to obey dishonourable instructions from above and about rectifying a wrong wrought by Hollywood. We are in the Austrian Alps, where even Linda has exhausted the superlatives about the scenery. It’s also where ‘bad’ means ‘spa’, and the salt has been mined for literally thousands of years.
After passing the turnoff for Bad Aussee (candidates for this epithet must include Darcy Dugan, Christopher Skase and Nick Kyrgios) we stumbled on Altaussee where their salt mine is still a going concern. But the salt mine here also heralds a great story of worker heroics from the Second World War.
artworks in storage underground
Hitler had ordered many valuable artworks – many of which had been won by questionable methods – to be stored for safekeeping. They were stored underground in the Altaussee salt mine. Not only was the temperature and humidity conducive to their preservation but of course they were safe from bombs being dropped from above. Something like 37 000 artworks were secreted there. These included paintings by Vermeer, Michelangelo and Jan van Eyck.
the Nero Decree
As the end of the war became increasingly apparent for the Nazis, Hitler issued the ‘Nero Decree’. This stated that
All military transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within the Reich territory, which could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or in the foreseeable future for the prosecution of the war, will be destroyed.
In May 1945, Germany had lost the war. The local Nazi Gauleitter (a bloke called August Eigruber) gave the order to destroy the artworks in the mine. He authorised eight aerial bombs in wooden crates marked MARBLE DO NOT DROP to be placed in positions deep inside the mine, principally in the vicinity of the artworks. One of these aerial bombs is still on show in the original crate today.
The mine workers had other ideas. At great risk to themselves, they conspired to place much smaller bombs at all of the adits. These were subsequently detonated, when the guards had been cajoled to occupy themselves elsewhere. This action saved the artworks.
The Hollywood film “The Monuments Men” recounts the story. It gave more credit to a group of historians and art lovers and politicians than to the miners. Mark Kermode’s review of the 2014 film said it “wobbled between twinkly smiles and schmaltzy frowns”. It seems like another example of Hollywood distorting the truth to suit their ends. Here is my partial correction to the story, in an effort to afford due credit where it belongs.
credit where it is due
It must be stated that the miners were possibly motivated principally by a desire to save their mine (a reasonable motivation in itself) but their actions undoubtedly were instrumental in saving the artworks. They therefore saved some of the humanity that remained after that hideous conflagration. So the miners deserve some of the credit.
Like the Port Kembla stevedores who refused to load pig iron bound for Japan in the years before that country’s mass mobilisation in Asia, these workers risked their livelihoods for a principle. They were, in effect, disobeying a directive from a superior. They all risked a lot more than censure. These were courageous acts that seem straightforward in retrospect but they would have carried great risk at the time.
In both cases the determination of the workforce was vindicated afterwards. Such courage deserves all the kudos we can muster. It’s stories like these that remind us that courage of conviction is just as important as courage in battle. Such acts also compel us to follow orders only if those orders are reasonable.
Auf weidersein von Altaussee