Roberts Commission - Protection of Historical Monuments
NARA M1944, Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, 1943-1946, is also known as the Roberts Commission.
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The following background information is taken directly from the descriptive pamphlet published by NARA for this title, M1944.*
The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, also known as the Roberts Commission, was established by Presidential approval on August 20, 1943. It operated until June 30, 1946. Commission members worked with the U.S. military, museum officials, art historians, and international commissions to protect European art, monuments, institutions, and records of cultural value from war-related damage or theft. In addition, the Commission aided in the restitution of public and private property appropriated by the Nazis and their collaborators.
The idea of establishing the Roberts Commission grew out of discussions among American educators and museum officials about the potentially dangerous impact of the European war on historic works of art and artifacts. In the fall of 1942, the American Defense–Harvard Group, established by a group of Harvard University faculty two years earlier, began working with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) to devise plans for protecting cultural property in European areas that would soon be occupied by Allied military forces. Representatives of these groups plus officials of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art approached Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone, who was also a National Gallery of Art board member, with a proposal for a Federal commission that would protect and restitute Nazi-looted art.
After discussing the matter with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Chief Justice Stone wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1942 to solicit his support. In April 1943, the President responded to Justice Stone that he had discussed the proposal with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as the commission would need to work closely with the U.S. military. By June, specialist officers at the School of Military Government in Charlottesville, VA, were being trained to locate and protect works of artistic and historic significance in war zones.
On June 23, 1943, President Roosevelt approved the creation of a Federal commission to assist the U.S. Army in protecting cultural property in Allied-occupied areas and to formulate restitution principles and procedures. Two months later, the State Department announced the official establishment of the Commission, under the chairmanship of Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. A budget of $25,000 was allocated from the President’s emergency fund to cover clerical and travel expenses during the first year of the Roberts Commission’s existence. Thereafter, Congress made appropriations to the Commission as an independent executive agency. To facilitate contact with the Departments of War and State, the Commission’s headquarters was located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. A Roberts Commission office was established in the American Embassy in London from April 1944 to October 1945. All members were appointed for three-year terms and served without compensation.
At its first meeting in August 1943, the Roberts Commission established seven committees. Over the next two years, the committees met frequently, and the Commission’s administrative staff spent much of their time consulting with committee chairmen by telephone, telegraph, or letter. Although the work of the Commission was highly centralized (only a few folders among its records are identified as the work of the committees), the committees often held meetings in response to urgent questions presented to the Commission by other Federal offices.
- The Committee on Definition of Works of Cultural Value and Property defined the goals of the Commission.
- The Committee on Administration made recommendations regarding the Commission’s organization.
- The Committee on Books, Manuscripts, and Other Printed and Written Material of Cultural Value determined the types of textual materials the Commission would attempt to protect and salvage.
- The Committee on Collection of Maps, Information, and Description of Art Objects worked closely with two groups that had been instrumental to the Commission’s establishment, the ACLS’s Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas and the American Defense–Harvard Group. During the several months preceding the Commission’s establishment, the Harvard Group had worked with a wide circle of scholars to compile lists of monuments needing protection. In July 1943, the ACLS Committee used these lists and additional information to create maps that identified cultural treasures Allied armies were likely to encounter. The Roberts Commission channeled the lists and maps to the War Department throughout the war.
- The Committee on Personnel submitted to the War Department names of armed forces personnel qualified to serve in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Section of the Civil Affairs Division (CAD). The Commission was instrumental in the establishment of the MFAA (described below) during the fall and winter of 1943. After the war, this committee identified civilians to oversee the restitution of identifiable objects to their countries of origin and to develop plans for restoring monuments and reactivating art institutions and libraries.
- The Committee on Art Instruction in Military Government Schools conferred with the Provost Marshal General’s office and, when requested, supplied the names of volunteers to instruct Army personnel on the protection and restitution of art objects and artifacts.
- The Committee on Axis-Appropriated Property compiled a record of enemy art looting. Through this committee, the Commission worked closely with the Treasury Department to prevent looted art from being imported into the United States. For example, the Commission reviewed applications sent to the Customs Bureau for the importation of cultural material. The Committee on Axis-Appropriated Property also oversaw the Commission’s receipt of individual claims for looted art objects prior to the State Department’s establishment, within the Foreign Service Administration, of the Special War Problems Division in the summer of 1945. (The Commission transferred all private claims to this division but retained records of such correspondence in its files.)
These committees are explained in the NARA descriptive pamphlet which can be downloaded here.
Kurt von Behr, Nazi looter
"Kurt von Behr, the autocratic chief of the Einsatzstab Paris office, universally regarded today as the person most responsible for the organized looting of France, gave dramatic evidence of awareness of his own guilt by committing suicide at Schloss Bans at the instant of its investiture by the American forces. When the proud Baron was found, he was seated next to his wife, an aristocratic Englishwoman, in the library of a family estate. A few minutes before, the Baron and his lady had toasted each other in poisoned champagne, delicately writing finis to an extraordinary career."
Excerpt from "Loot for the Master Race," The Atlantic Monthly; September 1946; Volume 178, No. 9. More can be read here.
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These images are digitized from 187 rolls of microfilm that make up NARA publication M1944, Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (The Roberts Commission), 1943–1946. They comprise most of Record Group (RG) 239. The table of contents for each roll of microfilm is provided on pages 12-26 of the descriptive pamphlet.
*Some of the information on this description page is taken directly from the NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1944, published in 2007. A PDF version may be viewed or downloaded here.