The chapel of Jesuit Fathers at Rakowiecka Street 61 in Warsaw before its destruction and looting. Source: Jesuit Fathers' Archive


Destroyed and plundered chapel of Jesuit Fathers at Rakowiecka Street 61 in Warsaw. Source: Jesuit Fathers' Archive

Germany's plans for the conquered Polish territories aimed at the total eradication of Polish culture. All aspects of Polish cultural life, including literature, music, theatre, film, visual arts, as well as museums, historic architecture, and monuments - were subjected to a destructive campaign. It was deliberately and systematically carried out - with the aim of restricting cultural life and ultimately annihilating it entirely. The scale of this operation was exceptional in history, even within the context of World War II, and the cultural losses endured by Poland are incomparable to the destruction and plunder that Germany inflicted on other occupied countries such as France, Belgium, Norway, and the Netherlands. The treatment of Polish culture was significantly different from how the Germans approached cultural heritage in occupied Western Europe. In occupied Belgium and France, the Germans took care of historical monuments and works of art. The specially established "Kunstschutz" was tasked with ensuring adherence to the provisions of the 1907 Hague Convention regarding cultural assets in the Western regions and preventing the looting of public French collections. Exclusively within the Polish territories, the destruction of culture was a crucial element of a criminal plan that aimed at creating living space for the master race. Its execution demanded the active involvement and ruthless actions of the officers of the Third German Reich operating in Poland. The main goal of the occupiers was to reduce the Poles to a "nation of serfs", deprived of their own culture and art, which is why their heritage created over the centuries had to be destroyed as much as possible. The methods employed in the destruction of Polish culture can be categorized into four types:

  1. destruction of Polish cultural assets,
  2. looting them,
  3. extermination of their creators, and
  4. liquidation of organizational foundations.

The initial and most noticeable action was the removal of the tangible achievements of Polish culture, involving their physical destruction. Buildings and monuments of cultural significance to Poland were demolished, precious items made of Polish glass were smashed, and gramophone records containing Polish music were systematically destroyed. Polish books were allocated wholesale for pulping, and valuable library, museum, and archive collections were intentionally set ablaze. The Germans referred to those confiscations as "securing." This applied to entire collections and individual works of art, collectors coins, old prints, religious artefacts, etc., from both state and private collections. During the "securing" operations, reports were not drawn up, and no receipts for requisitions were issued, as a rule, so they all could be considered covert plundering. In contrast, artworks were openly stolen during the liquidation of Polish institutions and private property. In this way, numerous valuable collections, especially paintings, owned by Polish and Jewish owners, were seized by German officials. This also applied to other valuable and artistic objects such as furniture, porcelain, carpets, silver and gold items, and so on.

The looting of artworks was ultimately regulated by: the Regulation on the Confiscation of Works of Art in the General Government of December 16, 1939, and the Executive Order of January 15, 1940. These measures extended the scope of the confiscation of cultural assets to include private and church collections. When it came to churches, only the objects used for liturgical purposes could be exempted.

The artworks confiscated in the General Government were deposited by the Germans in the seized National Museum in Warsaw and in the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków. They were photographed and catalogued. The Germans subsequently destroyed the Polish catalogues and lists related to the confiscated artworks. The most valuable of these works of art were separated and given the Selection I (Wahl I) category. Their list, detailed in the catalogue of the exhibition "Sichergestellte Kunstwerke im Generalgouvernement" ("Secured works of art in the General Government"), included more than 500 items: among the objects were sculptures, paintings, coins, medals, artistic craftsmanship objects and old weaponry.

In Selection II (Wahl II), works of art and cultural goods of lesser importance, not representing a value of "absolute interest to the Reich", were placed. These objects, which had a museum character, were either left at the disposal of Governor-General Hans Frank or were used to furnish and decorate the administrative rooms and private flats of German dignitaries. The largest part of the art collection requisitioned by the northern group was sent back to Kraków and left there.

Some of these were classified as Selection I and some as Selection II. The rest of the objects - labelled Selection III (Wahl III) by scholars - were deposited with the architect Köttgen for the representation purposes of the General Government, or with Feliks Koper, the Polish director of the National Museum in Kraków.

The Germans viciously killed and ill-treated persons having an influence on the development of culture. Terror against scholars, artists and teachers was particularly strong. They were arrested, beaten and tortured, sentenced to death and deported to German concentration camps, where they usually died as a result of inhumane conditions.

The list of personal losses suffered by Polish culture is very long. Furthermore, it should be remembered that the very conditions of occupation inflicted on Poles by the Germans were the cause of increased mortality. The number of deaths among the people of culture during the Second World War was disproportionately higher than in the years leading up to it, due to shortages of food, medicines and, in practice, the elimination of health care.

The final element in the process of the destruction of Polish culture by the Germans was to strike at its foundations. The occupier succeeded in almost completely eradicating all manifestations of cultural life for several years. All Polish cultural institutions were dissolved. Polish citizens living in the General Government were denied access to museums, public libraries, art exhibitions or access to the independent press and uncensored books. Among the publications allowed, there were no outstanding works of Polish literature and many of foreign literature, as well as in the fields of music, theatre and film. Possession of radios was also banned - the population had to hand them in. Higher and secondary education was abolished, leaving only primary and vocational schools with a considerably truncated curriculum. The teaching of Polish, history, geography, foreign languages and Latin was banned. The fight against Polish culture was particularly intense in the lands incorporated into the Reich, where it was forbidden to even talk in Polish on the street. The goal - the destruction of Polish culture - was largely achieved by the Germans. The cultural potential of the nation was weakened, losses were huge, and the possibilities of its reconstruction after the war were hampered. In many areas of cultural life, there was a complete severance of generational continuity. Many older, qualified employees of cultural institutions and creators died without the possibility of raising successors. This has happened in education, music, theatre, literature and museum studies. As a result of the abolition of art education, no students were educated for six academic years. This resulted in a huge gap that was still very difficult to fill many years after the end of the war.

Already at the beginning of the occupation, the Germans assumed that the works of art in public and private collections on Polish soil would constitute their spoils of war. The confiscation of works of art in occupied territories was incompatible with the provisions of the 1907 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property and Works of Art, concerning both general and qualified protection. International law protected objects serving the purposes of science and art as well as historical sights (i.e., monuments) - the prohibition on the seizure, destruction and deliberate diminution of the value of monuments and works of art was absolute. An occupying power was disallowed to destroy works of art or historical objects in order to strengthen its military potential, e.g., by remelting objects into cannons. Unfortunately, the reality of the German occupation in Poland deviated from the legal and ethical norms accepted in the civilised world. Shortly after the occupation of Poland, the Germans issued legal acts stipulating that on Polish lands incorporated into the Reich essentially all property of Polish citizens was subjugated to the will of the German authorities, with compulsory confiscation applying to the property of Jews and displaced or fugitive people. This included all cultural and artistic assets.