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Greek Antiquities Removed by Occupying Germany, US Archives Reveal

Germany Greek antiquities
German soldiers in Athens, 1941. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-164-0389-23A / Theodor Scheerer / CC-BY-SA 3.0

A 47-page document in the US National Archives recently unearthed by an English historian reveals the damage caused to Greek antiquities during Germany’s occupation of the country in 1941-1944.

The document, by the Directorate of Civil Affairs of the United States War Office was written between November 1944 and March 1945. It was discovered by Graham M. Simons, an English historian and author who has written well over sixty books on aviation history.

Among others, it reveals that German occupying army made regular excavations at the ancient site of Olympia and that all the Greek antiquities found had been taken to Germany.

Simons tells Greek Reporter that on January 27, 1945, the Directorate of Civil Affairs of the United States War Office issued one of a series of weekly reports from the Headquarters Land Forces and Military Liaison (Greece) on the status of Classical and Byzantine Monuments in Greece, following the liberation of the country from German occupation.

“The reports, which were discovered at NARA – the National Archives and Records Administration, in College Park, Maryland USA, are brief and decidedly militaristic in tone but do make fascinating reading,” Simons says.

“NARA is slowly digitizing the entire national archives that had been previously placed on photographic microfilm from the ‘original’ carbon copies, and I visit there online daily, just to see what I can locate for my books. It was in the process of my research for my Olympic Airways and it’s predecessor airlines that I stumbled across quite a large set of documents relating to wartime Greece,” Simons adds.

Germany has returned to Greece more than 10,600 artifacts dating from Neolithic times that were removed illegally by Nazi archaeologists during World War II. Most of the artifacts that were returned came out of excavations in the Thessaly region in 1941 during an operation organized by Hitler’s chief ideologist Alfred Rosenberg.

Survey for Greek antiquities after the liberation from Germany

The exact text of the January 27, 1945 report follows:

“Reports have been received from the Department of Fine Arts and Antiquities covering the period from the time of the landing of British troops up to 31 December.

“The first report was necessarily of a provisional character; it announced that the major antiquities were generally speaking unharmed, the contents of the greater museums safely stored, and rumours that had been spread of looting or destruction either exaggerated or altogether false, For example, the bronze charioteer from Delphi, reported to have been stolen, was in safekeeping in the National Museum at Athens. German troops were ordered to respect the classical antiquities and these orders were on the whole obeyed.

“A number of cases of minor theft and one or two of more important acts of looting were reported with due reserve pending a more thorough investigation. The second report virtually covers the period of hostilities and describes such damage as resulted therefrom.

Classical Greek Antiquities/Athens. The Acropolis.

“Thirty-two ELAS mortar bombs or shells had exploded on the Acropolis area, but very few had succeeded even in bruising the marble. The Parthenon received two direct hits, one on the stylobate in the centre of the south side, which scarred the vertical surface over an area of four square feet, the other on the third column of the Western peristyle from which a splinter of about two square feet was detached.

“No damage was done to the Erechtheum, Propylaea and Temple of Nike Apteros other than a few minor splinters two or three inches across, which were flaked off by adjacent explosions. In the preparation of defense works, our troops piled up round the perimeter a number of the loose blocks scattered over the area; they also took one slab from the floor of the western peristyle and some pieces from the adjacent wall. These can, of course, be replaced.

The Acropolis Museum.

“All the more valuable objects had been walled up in caves under the Acropolis near the ‘prison of Socrates‘, or deposited in the vaults of the Bank of Greece. Of those left in situ, one metope of the Parthenon and a clay figure (6th cent. hydrophoros) had been smoke-blackened and a funerary stela with bas relief had been stained by spilt ink; a few small terracottas may possibly be missing, but this is not yet certain. The Museum buildings, which had been occupied by the troops, were dirty but undamaged.’

The buildings in the city

“The Theseum, the Tower of the Winds, the Agora, Ceramicus, the Arch of Hadrian and the monument of Lysicrates, were reported intact on 30 November; the report of December 31st states that any damage to them is, so far as is known, negligible.

“The National Museum has received only slight damage and its contents are all safe. The Lion Gate at Mycenae and the Treasury of Athens are reported to be undamaged.

“During their occupation, the Germans carried out regular excavations at Olympia; all finds were removed to Germany.

Byzantine Monuments

“At Athens the Byzantine Museum is in excellent order.

“The three important Byzantine churches in Athens (Ag. Eleutherios, Karnikarea and Ag. Theodori) are all intact except for a few bullet-chips in the brick work; none of the reliefs or inscriptions built into the wall have been damaged.

“The church at Daphnae requires some repairs to its dome, but the mosaics are perfectly preserved. The 5th century mosaics in the floor of the ruined basilica at Ag. Isidhoros in Khios are exposed to the elements and are in a bad state of preservation.

“Some damage is reported to Ag. Apostolos and Krina at Khios, to the Byzantine city of EISTRA and to the churches of Agia Laurla and of Kalambaka, of Kastoria (the dome of the Koubelitissa) and Nicopolis, and to the Meteors monasteries, which are said to have been saluted by the Germans at the time of their withdrawal with bursts of machine gun fire which damaged the dome of Ag. Stefanos.

“At Salonica the church of Agia Sofia was hit in 1941 but has been restored. The monastery of Osios Loukas near Levadhia was accidentally bombed by the Germans and its mosaics and frescoes somewhat flaked.

“The British, American and French Schools of Classical studies were safeguarded during the German occupation.

The circulation of the report was very limited, says Simons. “As far as is known, one copy lay in the US National Archives until it was transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration at College Park, Maryland and was declassified on July 23, 2001,” he tells Greek Reporter.

Access the full documents.

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