Worryingly, I first had the idea for The Black Sun in a dream. A man, an Auschwitz survivor, was murdered in his hospital bed, his killers hacking off his arm to get hold of his concentration camp tattoo. The next morning I jotted down what I could remember on a scrap of paper, stuffed it in a drawer, and thought nothing more of it.
Then a few years later I came across the story of the Hungarian Gold Train, an armed convoy commandeered by Adolf Eichmann in the dying days of the war and loaded with the fruits of the Nazis’ murderous campaign in Hungary. They say the wedding bands alone filled three crates. It was bound for Switzerland but never reached its destination, American troops eventually found it abandoned in a tunnel near the border. The value of its contents was put at $200 million - several billion dollars today.
What if two of the train’s carriages had been missing when the Americans found it? What if there had been a fabulous treasure hidden in them? What if the stolen concentration camp number was the first of a series of clues as to the location of these carriages? What if someone was trying to follow these clues now for their own nefarious purposes? Wouldn’t that make a great story?
It is a story that has as its backdrop the greatest theft in history. Over 600,000 works of art were ripped from museum walls and suddenly empty houses during Hitler’s rule. The Nazis stole with the same ruthless efficiency with which they dispatched six million people to their deaths.
They were not the first. A quick walk around the British Museum will show you that conquering armies have a habit of carting cultural, artistic and religious trophies back home. What set the Nazis apart, however, beyond the horrific manner in which these objects came into their possession, was the sheer scale of their undertaking. Entire ministries were devoted to the effort. Trained squads of art specialists were embedded within front line troops. Retrospective laws were passed to justify the looting.
As I discovered when I dug a bit deeper, none of this was an accident. Hitler, famously a failed artist himself, understood the cultural significance of art. In his hands it became a political weapon, a tool with which to forge a shared belief system and underline the absolute superiority of the Aryan race. This was why German museums were purged of “degenerate” art, with the offending works exhibited surrounded by graffiti and hand written labels mocking the artists and their creations. This was why all art critics exhibited in the Third Reich had to be certified by the Propaganda Ministry. Artistic criticism was too serious to be left to the art experts.
Hitler didn’t act alone. He may have been planning an enormous museum of National Socialist art in his home town of Linz, but some of the most notorious names in the Third Reich played their own unique roles in this tale. Goebbels, for instance, sequestered a portrait of Tarquin and Lucretia by Rubens and installed it in his lover’s bedroom. Hans Frank, the Governor of German-occupied Poland, appropriated Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man from the Czartoryski Collection in Cracow for his private quarters – it remains the single most valuable work still missing from the war. Goebbels robbed and bullied his way to a stunning collection of more than two thousand works in little over six years.
Even Himmler was in the hunt, sponsoring teams of experts and archaeologists to search for the ultimate treasure of all – the Holy Grail. He refurbished Wewelsburg Castle in Northern Germany as a modern day Camelot to house it. He even installed an Arthurian round table in the castle and then selected twelve SS officers to serve as his followers. As you will see if you visit it, the Black Sun is in fact a runic symbol inset into the floor of the main ceremonial chamber where the table would once have stood.
But the Nazis weren’t the only ones lining their pockets. Even today, huge underground bunkers and storage rooms, or Spetskhan, are rumoured to be filled with items taken by the Red Army during their victorious march to Berlin. A secret bunker under the Berlin Zoo was thought to be a specific target of Stalin’s “trophy squad.” Many items are now finding their way into the hands of the Russian mafia.
These are fascinating stories for a thriller writer to explore. But they are dangerous too. While writing The Black Sun, I was always conscious of the risk of underplaying the horrors of the war, of ignoring the shattered lives and individual suffering that every stolen painting represented, of in some way glamorising what the Nazis did.
The truth is that if anything, writing this book hardened my views, my research showing me to see how far their actions still ripple across the still waters of time. Growing anti-Semitism in the UK and Austria, desecrated Jewish graves in Northern France, skinheads hurling insults on Italian football terraces, white supremacists slowly stockpiling weapons in the Idaho mountains - these are the Nazi’s bastard children.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t all just ancient history. Tens of thousands of works remain lost to this day, occasionally surfacing like a body floating up from the sea bed. In fact the cruelest legacy of the Nazi’s art crimes is that every time another painting or statue is identified and a family seeks to reclaim what was once theirs, they have to relive those years again. For them the fight continues, the wounds refusing to heal.
Recently, a private bidder paid $135million, a world record, for Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer at the culmination of a decade long restitution battle between the Austrian government and the descendants of the painting’s original owners. A few months before, a Dutch court ordered state museums there to return 202 paintings to the family of a Jewish art collector killed as he fled. Thousands more have not been so fortunate.
As I discovered, the Nazi plunder walked hand in hand with their genocide, revealing them in all their sadistic thuggery. It is a story that is still being written today. The Black Sun may have started with a dream, but what I uncovered was a recurring nightmare.
The Black Sun is the sequel to James Twining’s bestselling debut novel, The Double Eagle. Both feature retired art thief Tom Kirk.
For more information on The Black Sun or the art and history that lie behind it, please visit www.jamestwining.com.
© James Twining, 2006
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