The Amber Room, Lost Spoils of War

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Detecting.org.uk Home > Nazi Gold > The Amber Room

The Amber Room (German Bernsteinzimmer, Russian Янтарная комната) in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoe Selo near Saint Petersburg is a complete chamber decoration of amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors. Due to its singular beauty, it was sometimes dubbed the 'Eighth Wonder of the World'.

It was created in the beginning of 18th century in Prussia. Soon after its creation, it was given by the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm I, to his then ally, Tsar Peter the Great of the Russian Empire.

The Amber Room was looted during World War II by Nazi Germany, and knowledge of its whereabouts was lost in the chaos at the end of the war. Its exact fate remains a mystery to this day, and the search for it has been one of the greatest treasure hunts of all time.

It was made in 1701 in order to be installed at Charlottenburg Palace, home of Friedrich I, the first king of Prussia, at the urging of his second wife, Sophie Charlotte. The concept of the room and its design was by Andreas Schl�ter. It was crafted by Gottfried Wolfram, master craftsman to the Danish court of King Frederick IV of Denmark, with help from the amber masters Ernst Schacht and Gottfried Turau from Danzig (Gdańsk).

It did not, however, remain at Charlottenburg for long. Peter the Great admired it on a visit and in 1716, Friedrich Wilhelm I, the first king's son, presented it to him, and with that act cemented a Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden.

In 1755 Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna had it transferred and installed, first in the Winter Palace, and then in the Catherine Palace. From Berlin, Frederick II the Great sent her more Baltic amber, in order to fill out the originals in the new design by the tsarina's Italian court architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli.

The Amber Room represented a joint effort of German and Russian craftsmen. After several other 18th-century renovations, it covered more than 55 square meters and contained over six tonnes of amber. It took over ten years to construct.

Looted by Nazis

Shortly after the beginning of German invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II (Operation Barbarossa), the curators responsible for removing the art treasures of Leningrad tried to disassemble the Amber Room, so it could be removed to safety. However, over the years the amber had dried out and become brittle, so that when they tried to remove it, the fragile amber started to crumble. The Amber Room was therefore hidden behind mundane wallpaper, in an attempt to keep Nazi forces from seizing it.

However, these attempts failed: the Nazis disassembled the Amber Room, and removed it to K�nigsberg, (renamed Kaliningrad in 1946), in East Prussia, for storage and display in the town's Castle.

Disappearance and mystery

Later in the war, K�nigsberg was heavily bombarded by the Royal Air Force, then further very heavily damaged by the advancing Soviets before and after its fall on April 9, 1945. The Amber Room was never seen again, though reports have occasionally surfaced stating that components of the Amber Room survived the war.

There have been numerous conflicting reports and theories, among them that the Amber Room was destroyed by bombing, hidden in a now-lost subterranean bunker in K�nigsberg, buried in mines in a mountain range on the Czech / Polish - German border not far from Berlin, or taken onto a Nazi ship or submarine which was sunk by Soviet forces in the Baltic Sea.

Many different individuals and groups, including a number of different entities from the government of the Soviet Union, have mounted extensive searches for it at various times since the war, with little result. At one point in 1998, two separate teams (one in Germany, the other in Lithuania) announced that they had located the Amber Room, the first in a silver mine, the second buried in a lagoon; neither produced the Amber Room.

However, in 1997 one Italian stone mosaic that was part of a set of four which had decorated the Amber Room did turn up in West Germany, in the possession of the family of a soldier who had helped pack up the Amber Room.

Destruction theory

Recently, a pair of British investigative journalists conducted lengthy research on the fate of the Amber Room, including extensive archival research in Russia. In 2004, their book concluded that the Amber Room was most likely destroyed when K�nigsberg Castle was burned out, shortly after K�nigsberg surrendered to occupying Soviet forces. [1]

Documents from the archives showed that that was also the conclusion of the report of Alexander Brusov, chief of the first formal mission sent by the Soviet government to find the Amber room, who wrote in June, 1945: 'Summarizing all the facts, we can say that the Amber Room was destroyed between 9 and 11 April, 1945'. [2]Some years later, Brusov later gave a contrary opinion; the book authors intimate that this change of opinion was likely due to pressure from other Soviet officials, who did not want to be seen as responsible for the loss of the Amber Room. [3]

Among other information from the archives was the revelation that the remains of the rest of the set of Italian stone mosaics were found in the burned debris of the castle. [4]The authors' reasoning as to why the Soviets conducted extensive searches for the Amber Room in the years after WWII, even though their own experts had concluded that it was destroyed, is that it served the differing motives of several elements in the Soviet government: some wished to obscure (even from other branches of the Soviet government) the fact that Soviet soldiers may have been responsible for its destruction; others found the theft of the Amber Room a useful Cold War propaganda tool, and did not want to lose a valuable 'talking point'; still others did not want to share the blame for its destruction (through their failure to evacuate the Amber Room to safety at the start of the war). [5]

Russian officials have denied (some of them angrily) the book's conclusions. Said Adelaida Yolkina, senior researcher at the Pavlovsk Museum Estate: 'It is impossible to see the Red Army being so careless that they let the Amber Room be destroyed.' Other Russian experts were less sceptical, and had a different point to make; Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, was very cautious in his comments, and said: 'Most importantly, the destruction of the Amber Room during the Second World War is fault of the people who started the war'. In reply, Catherine Scott-Clark, one of the authors, indicated that they only came to their conclusions with reluctance: 'when we started working on this issue we were hoping to be able to find the Amber Room.' [6]

Since the book came out, a Russian veteran has given an interview in which he confirmed their basic conclusion as to the fate of the Amber Room, although he denies that the fires were deliberate. 'I probably was one of the last people who saw the Amber Room', said Leonid Arinshtein, a literature expert with the nongovernmental Russian Culture Foundation, who was a Red Army lieutenant in charge of a rifle platoon in K�nigsberg in 1945. 'The Red Army didn't burn anything', he said. [7]

A variation of this theory is common currency amongst present-day residents of Kaliningrad. This is that part at least of the room was found in the cellars after WWII by the Red Army, in relatively good condition. This was not admitted at the time in order to keep blame on the Germans. To preserve this story access to the ruins of the castle, which were still pretty substantial after WWII, was restricted, even to historical/archaeological surveys. During the 1960s, access to the site was suddenly withheld and the ruins were blown up by the Army, sealing any access to the underground area. The still uncompleted Dom Sovietov was built over the central area. The remains of the room may still be sited underground; however, as mentioned above, amber which is not cared for will crumble into dust. It is presumed that this is what has happened and that the Russian authorities, even after Communism, have been unwilling to admit this. [8]

In 1979 a reconstruction effort began at Tsarskoye Selo, based largely on black and white photographs of the original Amber Room. Financial difficulties were helped with money donated by a German company. By 2003 the titanic work of the Russian craftsmen was mostly completed. The new room was dedicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schr�der at the 300-year anniversary of the city of Saint Petersburg.

In Kleinmachnow, near Berlin, there is a miniature Amber Room, fabricated after the original. The Berlin miniature collector Ulla Klingbeil had this copy made of original East Prussian amber. The exhibit fee at Europarc Dreilinden is donated to the Arilex-Verein Foundation to aid handicapped children.

In 1991, during a visit to Germany, Russian president Boris Yeltsin demanded the return of the Amber room, apparently believing that it still lay hidden somewhere within Germanys borders. This intrigued me because I had heard that what's left of the Amber room is in a vault under the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Further reading

  • Peter Bruhn, International bibliography of publications about the Amber Room. Berlin 2004. 468 pages (ISBN 3-86155-109-8)
  • Catherine Scott-Clark, Adrian Levy, The Amber Room (Atlantic Books, London 2004) ISBN 1-84354-340-0
  • Suzanne Massie, Pavlovsk: The Life Of A Russian Palace (Little Brown, Boston, 1990)

Notes

  • Note 1: Scott-Clark and Levy (op cit.), pp. 356-357
  • Note 2: Scott-Clark and Levy (op cit.), pp. 330, 309
  • Note 3: Scott-Clark and Levy (op cit.), pp. 322-323, 328
  • Note 4: Scott-Clark and Levy (op cit.), pp. 108-109, 325
  • Note 5: Scott-Clark and Levy (op cit.), pp. 301-313
  • Note 6: Outrage At Amber Room Book St. Petersburg Times, June 15, 2004
  • Note 7: Mystery of the Amber Room resurfaces, MSNBC June 9, 2004
  • Note 8: Conversations by the writer with officials of the Kaliningrad Amber Mine and others in 1993/95.

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