S.The doors and bars of Versailles closed on August 26, 1939. The war had not yet been declared and the country had not yet been occupied. When the first German troops marched into Paris after the “France campaign” in May and June 1940, most of the museum facilities, above all the Louvre and the palaces and gardens in Versailles, had long been prepared for an emergency. In 1935 a law prepared “passive defense”, and in 1936 – memories of bad experiences from the First World War were still alive – the threat to the Prado in Madrid confirmed French fears.
Sandbags and wooden cladding to protect the building fabric or sculptural work were outwardly signs that reprisals were expected at the scene of the peace treaty of 1919, which many on this side of the Rhine seemed to be a “dictate”. Behind the facades, expansion, packaging and removal of paneling, furniture and movable art objects went hand in hand. Bombardment, vandalism, robbery and the consequences of unwanted use of buildings in the event of requisitions were feared. In 1940, officials and men actually moved in: castles became command posts or barracks of the Wehrmacht, cabinets and halls became offices, sleeping quarters, hospitals, canteens and officers’ mess. Ceremonies, concerts and festivals were soon held under hoisted swastika flags and parks were used for exercise.
At a two-day symposium in the Palace of Versailles, it was now recapitulated how preparations were made for the outbreak of the Second World War here, but also in the other castles in the capital region of Île-de-France. Despite the appointment of lead organizers and the aim of coordinating measures, the administrations of the castles of Chantilly, Compiègne, Fontainebleau, Rambouillet and Saint-Germain-en-Laye reacted differently to the challenge of protecting nationally and internationally important cultural heritage.
Topographical and structural features
Everyone was subject to the dilemma of having to decide quickly which evil would be the lesser evil, whether works would remain in situ or evacuations – to remote castles in the west and south-west of the country, including private castles – that prevented, but also encouraged damage. Not all of the curators came up with the idea of adding the appropriate inventories for the removal of boxes filled with straw and works of art. Topographical and structural features or those of the equipment designed each starting position differently. In Versailles, attention was paid not only to the interiors, but also to the sculptures of the water features, such as those of the Parterre de Latone and the Bassin d’Apollon. The Grand Canal, visible from afar, was drained and greened to make orientation more difficult. But in retrospect and from today’s perspective, was that the right decision?
The twenty or so speakers at the extremely exciting scientific symposium organized by Claire Bonnotte Khelil (Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon) largely broke new ground with their case studies. Because apart from a few preliminary work, which so far mainly “only” concerned Paris and the Louvre, the activities to protect the castles of the Île-de-France and their treasures in the years 1939–1945 have so far hardly been researched. The speakers from museums and universities now realized how difficult it is to discuss even fundamental questions right away.
They found that in-house documents (documents and photographs) were often not extensive or meaningful enough and therefore had to be compared with the holdings of numerous other archives – there is no place that answers all questions. This is not least due to the historical organization of the respective castle administrations and responsibilities; not infrequently, prefects or mayors had a say, often the German “art protection”. Finally, the analyzes required the interpretation of gaps or inconsistencies and the separation of facts and propaganda or chauvinism.
Around 1950 – the question was who has to pay for repairs – the French were amazed when they compared the damage and pollution caused by the Germans with those caused by American liberators in 1945/46. A post-war report on the situation in Rambouillet comes to the disarming conclusion: “The Germans were impeccable.” Model boys and rowdies? Apparently a minimum of honor and respect had been retained – in places. While the Compiègne Castle can tell the difference between the rain and the eaves, the one at Sceaux not without further ado, because an interim balance was not drawn in 1945, Château de Vincennes laments the worst damage on the part of the occupiers. Here a short preparation time by ignoring the omens took its revenge and directed vandalism, even barbarism in the name of the Wehrmacht, possibly against the use of the facilities by the French military and its members.
The contributions of the symposium “Les châteaux-musées franciliens et la guerre: une protection stratégique (1939–1945)” should be published in 2022.