BBC History Magazine

The Nazi tapestry?

ShirleyS Ann Brown examines Nazi attemptss to establish a Germanic presence in the celebratte­d chronicle of the Norman conquest

- Shirley Ann Brown is professor emerita of art history at York University, Toronto, a member of the Bayeux Tapestry Advisory Committee, and author of The Bayeux Tapestry: A Sourcebook

Shirley Ann Brown chronicles German attempts to claim the Bayeux Tapestry as an icon of Aryan history

On 1 August 1944, two SS officers drove a pair of trucks into the heart of Nazi-occupied Paris, and headed straight for the Louvre. These men were on a top-secret mission – one assigned to them by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführ­er of the SS and one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich.

Himmler had tasked the two men with descending into the bowels of the worldfamou­s art museum, seizing the Bayeux Tapestry and spiriting it away to a “safe place” far from the grasp of the Allies’ rapidly advancing armies.

After 15 years as the head of one of the most feared paramilita­ry organisati­ons in history, Himmler was used to getting his own way. Yet in this case he was to be disappoint­ed. A few days earlier, a group of local resistance fighters – tipped off by the codebreake­rs of Bletchley Park – had learned of the SS men’s mission and rushed to the Louvre to protect the iconic embroidery. Warned at the last minute that any attempt to ‘ liberate’ the tapestry would be met with a hail of bullets, the SS officers gave up on their mission.

The Nazi proclivity for buying, extorting and confiscati­ng Europe’s greatest artworks is well documented. But there was more to Himmler’s desire to seize the Bayeux Tapestry than an acquisitiv­e lust for one of France’s foremost cultural treasures. In the celebrated images of Norman knights putting AngloSaxon footsoldie­rs to the sword he saw evidence of medieval Germanic supremacy.

The Nazi fascinatio­n with the Bayeux Tapestry can, perhaps, be traced back to 1 July 1935 when Himmler – along with fellow Nazi ideologues Richard Walther Darré and Herman Wirth – created Ahnenerbe, the Society for the Study of Germanic Heritage. Ahnenerbe was founded to promote archaeolog­ical investigat­ions of sites that could be associated with early Germanic settlement, and to study, in situ, works related to the history of the Aryan race. It wasn’t long before its leading lights had turned their attention to the celebrated 11th-century embroidery depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

The French had claimed the Bayeux Tapestry as a national historical monument since the early 1700s, but the Nazi regime had an alternativ­e theory. In July 1939, a memo written by Franz Altheim, professor of classical philology at Frankfurt University, arrived on the desk of Wolfram Sievers, Ahnenerbe’s general manager. It proposed that a detailed examinatio­n of the Bayeux Tapestry would prove that the Normans who conquered England were, in reality, Vikings – and, by extension, Germanic. The idea that they were French, Altheim argued, was based on a 200-year-old lie. At the bottom of his note he wrote: “I emphasise the importance of this study.”

In July 1939, when Altheim penned his memo, the idea of a team of ardent Nazis poring over one of the most iconic artefacts in French history in an attempt to establish its Germanic origins would have been anathema to the people of France. But the fall of their nation to German forces in June 1940 rendered their opinions all but irrelevant.

And so, in the aftermath of the French surrender, Dr Herbert Jankuhn, professor of Viking archaeolog­y at Rostock University – and a loyal Nazi – was appointed to head a team of experts tasked with studying the artefact in the northern French town of Bayeux. Jankuhn offered a clue as to what he hoped to achieve when declaring: “For general Germanic studies, the Tapestry’s visual representa­tions, through the recording of Germanic legends and traditions, provides a very valuable source for this early period.”

Photograph­ic evidence

Jankuhn’s first task as leader of Special Assignment Bayeux was to study the hanging, and gather informatio­n so that further studies could be carried out by research scholars after the embroidery had been moved to safe wartime storage. The ultimate aim was to produce a multi-volume publicatio­n of their findings, featuring a photograph­ic replica of the tapestry. By examining representa­tions of everything from boats and weapons to costumes, they would provide irrefutabl­e scientific evidence that the tapestry was a testament to Germanic hegemony in early medieval Europe.

Jankuhn couldn’t complete such a weighty undertakin­g alone. He was accompanie­d by Dr Karl Schlabow, textile expert and head of the Germanic Costume Museum in Neumünster, whose job it was to scrutinise the fabric and take careful measuremen­ts. Rolf Alber, photograph­er and war reporter, was to shoot new images of the tapestry, in both black-and-white and colour. Herbert Jeschke, an artist from Berlin, was the only member of the Bayeux team who wasn’t a member of the Nazi party or the SS. His task was to create a series of accurate, full-size drawings and watercolou­rs of details from the Bayeux Tapestry, under Jankuhn’s guidance.

First, though, they had to gain access to the embroidery – and that would prove surprising­ly problemati­c. In September 1939, with war clouds gathering, the French authoritie­s had rolled it up on a bobbin, placed it in a padded, zinc-lined wooden case and

deposited it in a concrete bunker in the basement of Bayeux’s Hôtel du Doyen.

Since the fall of France, German officers had peppered Bayeux’s authoritie­s with requests to see the tapestry – a process that meant repeatedly manhandlin­g the fragile, 900-year-old artefact. The French were reluctant to allow this to continue and, in a classic delaying tactic, began insisting that all permission­s to view the tapestry be signed by the proper authoritie­s in Paris. As a result, following their arrival in Bayeux on 8 June 1941, Jankuhn and his team would have to wait days before beginning their work.

At first, they examined the embroidery in the Hôtel du Doyen’s Bishops’ Gallery – but this entailed unrolling and rolling the tapestry every day. So, on 23 June, it was moved in a truck – accompanie­d by Rene Falue (the tapestry’s official guardian), three French customs officials and a lone German policeman – to the Monastery of St Martin at Mondaye, five miles south of Bayeux, where a large section could be left unrolled.

Summoned to fight

Working seven days a week, Jankuhn’s team set about studying, drawing and photograph­ing all 70 metres of the embroidery. They hit a stumbling block on 29 June, when Alber returned to military service. A replacemen­t photograph­er, Ursula Uhland, was summoned but, because women weren’t allowed in the monastery’s cloister, the tapestry had to be transporte­d to its public gallery.

Despite this setback, Jeschke had completed his sketches by the end of July, and the project’s last week was taken up with Uhland’s work and with shooting propaganda films for Wochenscha­u, a newsreel series released in the cinemas.

On 1 August, the tapestry was returned to its concrete bunker in Bayeux. A few days later it was moved again – to the Château de Sourches, some 100 miles south of Bayeux, where it joined treasures from the Louvre.

The first stage of Special Assignment Bayeux may have come to an end, but the Nazi obsession with the Bayeux Tapestry was

The idea that the Normans were French, not Germanic, argued Altheim, was a 200-year-old lie

showing no signs of abating. Dr Hermann Bunjes, head of the German Art Historical Institute in Paris, now became the project’s guiding spirit, assembling a group of academics to bring the multi-volume book on the artefact to fruition.

They set about comparing Jeschke’s drawings with Germanic and Viking artefacts in museums, and considered the photograph­s taken by Uhland and Alber. They envisaged a book that would present essays on the past scholarshi­p of the embroidery, its physical details, its historical authority, its significan­ce for the history of culture. The book would also contain a study of the fabric and embroidery, and an analysis of its material and colour.

One study ‘proved’ the early Germanic origin of the wooden houses depicted; another emphasised the similarity of English and Norman boats to Viking vessels.

All of this was undertaken with one overriding ambition: to prove that the Normans were still true, untainted Vikings – representa­tives of the pure Nordic Aryan race.

Herbert Jankuhn had little doubt that Special Assignment Bayeux had achieved just that. “The Bayeux Tapestry is not only a king’s saga of purely Germanic imprint, but also constitute­s the documentar­y justificat­ion of William’s claim to England,” he declared in December 1942. “His actions appear to us… as the execution of his given right and the punishment of unforgivea­ble perjury and unfaithful­ness according to the Germanic viewpoint. The tapestry not only exudes genuine Germanic joy in the tradition of heroic deeds, but also the statesmanl­ike desire to justify the campaign in England as a legal operation and political necessity.” Propaganda magazines agreed wholeheart­edly, running articles that eulogised the tapestry’s celebratio­n of “the joy of the Germanic tradition of great acts of war”.

In short, Special Assignment Bayeux was to reclaim the tapestry as a perfect fit with Nazi pan-Germanic ideology, since it bore witness to the early unificatio­n of the Germanic cultures of Scandinavi­a, Normandy and England. It would also serve as a precedent for the Nazis’ desire to recreate Germania, a homeland for all Germanic peoples.

Glorious warfare

This sentiment would certainly have struck a chord with Heinrich Himmler, who was fascinated by the Bayeux Tapestry’s imagery of medieval knights and glorious warfare. Over Christmas 1942, the head of the SS was presented with a bound volume of photos and drawings of the embroidery – a gift that delighted him so much that he sent a thankyou note to Wolfram Sievers in which he noted “the significan­ce that this Bayeux Tapestry has for our glorious and culturally rich German history”.

The Allied invasion of western Europe on 6 June 1944 merely sharpened Himmler’s desire to secure the tapestry for the Third Reich. His fear that it would fall into enemy hands became apparent on 27 June, when the Gestapo moved the embroidery – without notice and despite local French protest – from Sourches to the basement of the Louvre. This would be followed, little more than a month later, by the two SS officers’ attempt to spirit the embroidery away to a “safe place”, only to be thwarted by fast-acting resistance fighters.

What had been Himmler’s intentions when he ordered the tapestry moved from Paris? What would he have considered a “safe place” in June 1944? One possibilit­y is Wewelsburg Castle in central Germany, which had been chosen by Himmler as the location for his training centre, the home of the cult of the SS – a place where officers were taught how to recreate the lost world of the ‘Nordic race’.

Obsessed with the idea that the SS was a revival of the medieval Teutonic knights, Himmler imagined the castle as the home of modern Nazi Knights of the Round Table. The crypt, designed to hold the ashes of SS leaders, was named Valhalla. Himmler installed his own collection of ancient and medieval weapons in the castle, and indicated he wanted tapestries hung on the walls. This would have been an apt location for the Bayeux Tapestry, which he considered a great testament to an earlier Germanic-Nordic-Aryan triumph.

If Wewelsburg Castle was a safe place in June 1944, it certainly didn’t remain so. On 31 March 1945, with US forces closing in, Himmler ordered the castle dynamited, along with its contents.

Fortunatel­y, the Allies had already found the Bayeux Tapestry safe in its temporary home in the basement of the Louvre. On 2 March 1945, after going on display in an exhibition in the art museum, it was returned to Bayeux. And there it has remained since.

Were the Nazis wrong to attempt to divine a Viking presence in the Bayeux Tapestry? No. It has long been accepted that the Scandinavi­an influence on both English and Norman societies was significan­t – seen, for example, in ships, ship-building tools and some decorative elements. This influence can be traced back to the Viking occupation of vast swathes of England (the so-called Danelaw), and the ceding of what became Normandy to the Vikings in 911.

All three groups – English, Normans and Scandinavi­ans – may be considered, to some extent, Germanic. But surely Ahnenerbe would have had finally to admit that, even if the Normans weree still Vikings in 1066, they were French-speaking ones.

DISCOVER MORE BOOK The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiec­e by Carola Hicks (Chatto & Windus, 2006)

Himmler was obsessed with the Teutonic knights and wanted to recreate the Knights of the Round Table

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 ?? BBC History Magazine ?? RIGHT (MAIN PIC): Heinrich Himmler presents Hitler with a painting as a birthday gift. Himmler created the Nazi organisati­on that studied the tapestry
BBC History Magazine RIGHT (MAIN PIC): Heinrich Himmler presents Hitler with a painting as a birthday gift. Himmler created the Nazi organisati­on that studied the tapestry
 ??  ?? ABOVE AND RIGHT: Two of Herbert Jeschke’s sketches of details of the Bayeux Tapestry – one showing a mythologic­al ant-eating serpent from the upper border of the tapestry, the other a Norman knight, possibly William the Conqueror himself
ABOVE AND RIGHT: Two of Herbert Jeschke’s sketches of details of the Bayeux Tapestry – one showing a mythologic­al ant-eating serpent from the upper border of the tapestry, the other a Norman knight, possibly William the Conqueror himself
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 ?? BBC History Magazine ??
BBC History Magazine
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 ??  ?? FROM L TO R: Berlin artist Herbert Jeschke, Herbert Jankuhn (head of Special Assignment Bayeux) and textile expert Dr Karl Schlabow examine the tapestry in Bayeux in the summer of 1941
FROM L TO R: Berlin artist Herbert Jeschke, Herbert Jankuhn (head of Special Assignment Bayeux) and textile expert Dr Karl Schlabow examine the tapestry in Bayeux in the summer of 1941
 ??  ?? Herbert Jankuhn presents a section of the Bayeux Tapestry to German officers. His studies of the embroidery led him to the conclusion that it was a “king’s saga of purely Germanic imprint”
Herbert Jankuhn presents a section of the Bayeux Tapestry to German officers. His studies of the embroidery led him to the conclusion that it was a “king’s saga of purely Germanic imprint”

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