10 September 2016
On a recent visit to Germany, I was delighted to meet the distinguished art historian, Professor Johann Michael Fritz, an elderly gentleman, now 80 years old, who is an expert on medieval metalwork and an Honorary Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Professor Fritz told me that his father, Dr Rolf Fritz, had been the director of Dortmund Museum from 1936-1966. The museum building was completely destroyed during the war, but the collection was removed for safe-keeping and stored in various locations around Germany.
After the end of the war, the collection was recovered, with the assistance of a number of British officers who worked for the ‘Monuments and Fine Arts’ branch of the Control Commission. The objects were taken to a nearby stately home, Schloss Cappenberg, where Dr Rolf Fritz organised exhibitions so that the collection was once again open for display to the public.
Some of the medieval works of art from Dortmund churches had also been removed and placed in storage depots. One of the most notable pieces recovered and displayed in Schloss Cappenberg was a late gothic masterpiece dating from 1420, a winged altar by Conrad von Soest, from the Marienkirche (St Mary’s Church) in Dortmund.
The left wing of the Marienaltar by Conrad von Soest in Dortmund church (from Wikipedia).
Many years later, in 1990, Schloss Cappenberg was itself in danger after severe damage was identified, due to subsidence caused by extensive mine-workings underneath the building. It is located in the heart of the coalfields of the Ruhr. It has since been restored and is due to be reopened in 2017, after further renovation works have been completed.
In January 1991, a year before he died, Rolf Fritz wrote a letter published in the newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In the letter, he reminded readers of the role, now largely forgotten, of the British officers in recovering the collection and finding a home for it at Schloss Cappenberg, where it was displayed to thousands of visitors over the following years, before the museum re-opened in 1983, in a restored 1920s Art Deco building in the city of Dortmund.
The letter is reproduced below, together with excerpts from an article by Professor Fritz, describing how some of the relatives of the British officers involved heard about the letter and contacted his father, to thank him for remembering and acknowledging their contribution to preserving the museum’s collection of works of art, and enabling it to be displayed again at Schloss Cappenberg.
When I met Professor Fritz, I was impressed by two things he said. I asked him why it was important to spend so much time and effort recovering works of art, when the great majority of people at that time had more immediate needs; all were hungry, some starving, and many had nowhere to live. He replied, indirectly, by saying that he remembered visitors coming to the exhibitions organised by his father in Schloss Cappenberg, seeing works they remembered from years earlier, and saying ‘Die Sachen haben wir noch’ (these things – at least – we still have). When so much had been destroyed, and people had lost so much, they were grateful that some things, at least, had been preserved.
Professor Fritz also told me that, in his experience, a common interest in art is an excellent way of achieving international understanding (and reconciliation), as there are no language barriers and, sometimes at least, a shared love of the arts (or music) can bridge national, political, economic, and even cultural barriers.
The following is an excerpt from an article, to be published later this year, written in German by Professor Johann Michael Fritz. The article starts by reproducing the letter his father, Dr Rolf Fritz the former director of the Dortmund Museum, wrote to the newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in January 1991. The article also includes extracts from letters Dr Rolf Fritz received from relatives of the British Monuments and Fine Arts officers, who discovered his letter to the paper and wrote to thank him for remembering their contribution to the preservation of works of art in postwar Germany.
A reader’s letter and its consequences: on the work undertaken by English Monuments and Fine Arts officers in Westphalia after the end of the war, 1945.
By Professor Johann Michael Fritz
The events which are recounted here happened nearly seventy years ago. They took place in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War. But they were not entirely forgotten in the subsequent decades, thanks to an unusually long reader’s letter which was published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine on 16 January 1991. The author was Dr Rolf Fritz (1904–1992), then aged nearly eighty-seven. The letter reads:
‘The Saviours of Schloss Cappenberg
The essay in Bilder und Zeiten [the Frankfurter Allgemeine’s cultural section] “Seeing what our forebears once saw” in the issue of 8 December 1990, moved me deeply. I should explain who I am. I was from 1945 to 1966 Director of the Dortmund Museum of Art and Cultural History at Schloss Cappenberg. Recently there has been much discussion about the threatened destruction of the church and castle at Cappenberg through mining activity. But no one realises that after the war it was the English who prevented damage to the castle. This is what happened. Shortly after the end of the war, in May 1945, I had the difficult task of recovering and reassembling the extensive collections of the Dortmund museum, which were then at risk of further damage in the repositories to which they had been evacuated. The town of Dortmund was totally destroyed and nothing could be stored there, but an attempt had to be made to find a suitable place nearby. While searching I came across Schloss Cappenberg. Astonishingly, it remained undamaged, so I endeavoured to acquire it as a store for the museum collections. Opposition to this came from the English military government which wanted to requisition the large building as accommodation for mineworkers from the coalmines at Lünen, [whose houses had been destroyed in the war] while the local authority of Kreis Lüdinghausen urgently required it to accommodate its quota of refugees from Silesia. Against these demands the wishes of a museum hardly stood a chance. But the English military government had a Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Department. It included Lieut. Col. Christopher Norris, an art collector and connoisseur, and the officers of his division: Major Robertson, in civilian life a lecturer in history of art at the University of Edinburgh, Major Murray Baillie, a member of an aristocratic family, and Major Mrs Westland, widow of an English general. All these officers were enthusiastically engaged in helping to rescue German monuments lying in the rubble, and rapidly joined forces with German museum and historical monument protection officials, as soon as these had returned from the war.
These English officers set to work with great energy, involving wearisome negotiations with English and German officials, and succeeded firstly in removing an English military unit, then in preventing the occupation of the building by refugees and miners, which, given the conditions at that time, would have involved serious damage to the fabric. Eventually [at the end of 1946] the entire castle (that is the central block and the west wing) was handed over to the museum as a depot and, as will be revealed below, as an exhibition space.
With their help it was also possible to organise the return of the collections from repositories scattered over the countryside. These men paid from their own pockets for the chemicals needed for the conservation workshop, which could only be acquired from abroad. This made it possible to begin work, even if only on a limited scale. With the officers’ help the altarpiece to the Virgin Mary [Marienaltar] by Conrad von Soest, which owing to its timely removal and storage had escaped the destruction of its church [the Marienkirche in Dortmund], was brought from the Lahn [in the French zone of occupation] to Cappenberg. It laid the foundations for the Conrad von Soest Exhibition in 1950, followed by numerous further exhibitions in the next decade. So one can rightly say that the survival of Schloss Cappenberg goes back to the initiative of those English officers - nearly all of them professional art historians - who regarded it as their duty to care for works of art and who felt such close links with their German colleagues that they energetically supported this difficult work in the first years after the war. Thanks to this support Schloss Cappenberg remained a site commemorating the Freiherr von Stein [its former owner, a Prussian statesman and administrative reformer] and became in addition a place for numerous and very varied exhibitions over many decades. Together with its precious church, it thus became a destination attracting many thousands of visitors.
Since then many years have passed and I can scarcely hope that those that gave their help at that time are still alive. I am all the more compelled to think of them with gratitude, as this help was offered at a time of great hardship, and particularly because what were then rescued – the castle and its jewel, the church of St Norbert – are today in the greatest danger.
Dr Rolf Fritz, Münster’
The article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, to which the letter referred, and which prompted this letter, concerned the threat to Schloss Cappenberg and to the Romanesque church of St Norbert in its courtyard. A coalmine 1,000 metres below the building had caused such severe subsidence that there were fears that the church vaults might collapse. The letter which praised the English officers who had offered help immediately after the war, had mentioned four of them by name. Now something astonishing happened. Soon afterwards, several letters from Great Britain arrived, forwarded by the Frankfurter Allgemeine, from relations of the officers.
The first letter, dated as early as 13 February 1991 came from Lady Chapman, who had received a copy of Dr Rolf Fritz’s letter from the sister of Hugh Murray Baillie. Lady Chapman was the sister of Mrs Westland. Then on 7 April came a letter from Eleanor Robertson, the widow of Giles Robertson, and on 8 May 1991 a letter from Susan Hunting, the daughter of Christopher Norris. Some time later a letter arrived from Jerry Granger-Taylor, whom Rolf Fritz had no longer remembered. In these letters the English writers expressed their thanks and were clearly most delighted that some forty years later the work in post-war Germany by their relations, now all dead with the exception of Granger-Taylor, was so highly regarded by a German colleague.
Rolf Fritz replied fully to these moving letters, adding further details about their shared efforts to protect works of art.
His letter to Lady Chapman: 22 April 1991: ‘I well remember the collaborative work with the small group of English officers who had a small office in Münster and from there did all that was in their power to rescue old works of art, often in the face of incomprehension on the part of German and English officials. When the views of our English colleagues eventually prevailed, it was only due to their unwearying readiness to help. …. We always used the opportunity, in tours of the exhibitions and of the Romanesque church, to mention how grateful we were to the English officers for their help at Cappenberg. Despite all the difficulties, it was a fine time of shared activity. … It all happened more than forty-five years ago and most of the helpers are no longer among the living. But the memories of them and the feeling of gratitude for their help are still alive….’
His letter to Mrs Robertson gave further details:
‘Your husband then, that is in 1945, had an office in Münster in the building of the German army military intelligence, a building I knew well from the war years. I visited it often in my search for support for Cappenberg. It was by no means simple. But your husband managed to obtain a pass for me from the military government, with which I was able to travel in the luggage vans of the few trains then running. On one occasion the two gentlemen took me by car to Iburg, about 40 km from Münster as they wanted to see the castle and church. My wife lived there in a summer house in the wood, very primitive, but safe from bombs. In our poverty we had nothing to offer the visitors save for a few raspberries from the garden and some milk begged from a farmer. But they obviously enjoyed it more than the uniform army mess-food.
And I remember something else. The two officers came with me and a German driver to Burg Langenau an der Lahn, in the French occupation zone, where the museum had a depot. This was where the Marienaltar by Conrad von Soest from the Marienkirche in Dortmund was stored. The request from the two gentlemen that the French should return the altarpiece was successful and this made the later exhibition of the altarpiece at Cappenberg possible. I know that we drove to a French officers’ mess, where the English officers wanted to have lunch, while the driver and I had to make do with a piece of bread, as we were not allowed in the mess. But your husband was able to smuggle out a packet of sandwiches from the kitchen, which he brought to us in the car. At that time that was a big present…’
His letter to Mrs Hunting includes an account of a much appreciated study visit to England which Christopher Norris organised for Rolf Fritz and his colleague Dr Cornelius Müller Hofstede from Brunswick to see the ‘Cleaned Pictures’ exhibition at the National Gallery in London (1947-8).
‘It was a big discovery for us and an invaluable stimulus for our work. In addition, visits to other London museums and the hospitality of a club were most useful. During the war years and their aftermath we had lost contact with old works of art. Mr Norris was most helpful over all these visits, including one to the Director of the National Gallery, Mr Philip Hendy. But one of the very best memories of that time is of a trip with Mr Norris to Polesden Lacy, where he had a beautiful apartment with antique furniture in a delightful country house set in a large park. We found a table laid with valuable china and silver; Mr Norris had brought a roast chicken from London which was tastefully presented. After the celebratory meal we all went into the kitchen to do the washing up so that the china would not be handled by the cleaning woman. For us coming from a destroyed Germany, it was like a fairy tale, and quite unforgettable.'
I am grateful to John and Bridget Cherry, long-standing friends of Professor Johann Michael Fritz, for introducing me to this story and to Professor Fritz, and for translating the excerpt from his article from German into English.
Professor Johann Michael Fritz’s illustrated article will be printed and published in German later this year.