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75 years after theft by Nazis, Amber Room still not found

Where exactly the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' is remains unknown. Many theories have been advanced, but none have discovered the treasure that enchanted Peter the Great of Russia 300 years ago.

75 years after theft by Nazis, Amber Room still not found
A recreation of the Amber Room in Russia. Photo: DPA

Exactly 300 years ago – on October 14th 1716 – King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia gave the Amber Room as a gift to the Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great. 75 years ago – on the very same day – the world-famous chamber was stolen by German troops, and taken back to former Prussia.

The whole room was dismantled by the German army from the Catherine Palace near St Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, in 1941, from where it was returned to Germany and soon after disappeared, never to be seen again.

The Amber Room, known as the Bernsteinzimmer in German, was a chamber built for the first King of Prussia. Its construction began in 1701 according to the design of court sculptor and architect Andreas Schlüter, whose most famous works also include the equestrian statue of Friedrich Wilhelm I that now stands outside Charlottenburg Palace.

The chamber is so called because the majority of the panels were made from amber, a precious naturally occurring substance, which is formed by the fossilisation of plant resin. Alongside the abundance of amber, the room was bordered with gold leaf, and inlaid with many mirrors.

However, it is its rich history that still fascinates many today, and compels treasure hunters, historians, and archivists alike to continue the search for this unique art piece.

Initially intended to be placed at Charlottenburg Palace, it was eventually installed in the Berlin City Palace, the building currently being restored in the centre of the capital city. Whilst on a state trip to Prussia from Russia in 1716, Tsar Peter the Great visited the newly completed room, and was said to be enchanted by it.

After his trip, as a symbol of the two states’ strong relationship, the Prussian ‘Soldier King’ gifted the room to the Tsar. The room was therefore disassembled and transported to Russia, where it was reassembled and enlarged at the Catherine Palace just south of St Petersburg, in modern day Pushkin.

Over 200 years later, during the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the infamous siege of Leningrad, the treasured room was taken back by the Nazi army. Theft of art and jewellery had become increasingly common as the Wehrmacht extended its fronts, but this was one of the most egregious examples of the war.

Packed up into crates, it was transported back to Königsberg, a former Prussian port city, which is now called Kaliningrad in the Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania. The room was reassembled at Königsberg Castle until the advancing Soviet Red Army began to near the city.

 

Königsberg Castle as seen from the eastern side, 1900. Photo: Unknown – Original image / Wikimedia Commons

Once again, the room was disassembled, packed into crates, and hidden in the cellar. The city was heavily bombed and the castle was almost entirely razed to the ground. Since then, not one sighting has been reported.

A replica of the room was created in the Catherine Palace in 2003, but the whereabouts of the real Amber Room remain a true mystery.

Such a mystery has attracted hundreds of researchers and treasure hunters over the years to try to find this vanished wonder.

All sorts of different theories have been posited, but it seems that the room could either have been destroyed by the bombing, still be hidden in Kaliningrad, or have been taken elsewhere in the last months of the war.

Heinz-Peter Haustein, the mayor or Deutschneudorf in the Ore mountains near the Czech border, is convinced that the Amber Room is hidden somewhere in the labyrinth of old mines there. Documentary evidence was discovered in 1996 that high value goods were transported to the region in the final years of the war. According to Deutsche Welle, his first unsuccessful investigation in 2008 has not deterred him, and excavations continue in the region.

Another treasure hunter, Sergei Trifonov, claimed he knew where the chamber was located in 2010. Using an earth-penetrating radar, he detected a brick-lined room only 300 metres away from the Königsberg Castle, which was demolished in 1967. His theory is also yet to be proved.

As recently as this May, Erich Stenz claimed that the dismantled chamber is hidden beneath Schloss Friedland, a castle now in the Czech Republic. Stenz’s evidence hinges on a cook, who claimed to have seen SS trucks offload crates into the castle in 1945, according to Bild Online. The cook died in 2013, and left no further evidence.

Schloss Frýdlant  in the Czech Republic (Friedland in German), where Stenz believes the Amber Room to be hidden. Photo: Rawac / Wikimedia Commons

These are not the only efforts, and many amateurs are carrying out searches across Germany.

But one factor that might put off prospective hunters is the fate suffered by many people linked to the treasure. Dr. Alfred Rohde, who was in charge of the Amber Room in Königsberg in the 1940s, died of typhus along with his wife in 1945, allegedly the day before they were due to be interrogated by the Soviets.

General Yuri Gusev, who was deputy head of Russia’s foreign intelligence unit, died in a car crash in 1992 whilst supposedly trying to give information to a journalist about the precious room. Georg Stein, another Amber Room hunter from Germany, was found murdered in a Bavarian forest in 1987.

Despite continuing efforts, 75 years to the day after its disappearance from Russia, the world is no closer to finding the real Amber Room.

By Alexander Johnstone

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NAZIS

German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.

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