During the Second World War, the tunnels of the salt mine Altaussee were used to store invaluable works of art, including masterpieces by Michelangelo, Dürer, Rubens and Vermeer. A prize-winning multimedia exhibition documents the courage and commitment of the miners to save these art treasures in April 1945.
Come and visit the original site of the film "Monuments men" with George Clooney! In summer are special guided tours on these exciting topics: "Bombs on Michelangelo"
This spring Hollywood is sending its best men to track down the works of art confiscated by Hitler. George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray are the “Monuments Men” who, in spring 1945, were sent to Hitler's disintegrating Third Reich. The mission of this platoon of art experts is to search out the masterpieces of European culture that the Nazis have stolen and have placed in shelter from Allied bombing raids.
While the cities of Germany burn beneath the bombs, the art collections are held safe in mines. The mine that holds the largest collection of treasures is at Altaussee, in the Styrian Salzkammergut in Austria. During the last few months of the war, one of Hitler's dreams ends dramatically on Mount Sandling overlooking the lake of Altaussee, where rock salt has been mined for centuries. His personal collection – destined to grace the Führermuseum, which was one day supposed to be built in Linz – is stocked in the galleries of the salt mine: paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt, a Madonna by Michelangelo, the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers, and perhaps even Leonardo's Mona Lisa.
Visitors to the salt mine Altaussee today follow the same route these masterpieces of European art were transported along seventy years ago. Come and discover the gallery in which the shelving in the Führermuseum still remains as it was installed by the miners and learn why the total destruction of these artworks was avoided by just a whisker.
August Eigruber, the governor (Gauleiter) of Salzkammergut, was a Nazi fanatic, one of those men who had believed in and contributed to the greatness of the Third Reich. So for him there was no other solution than to destroy everything in spring 1945. Hitler, now in the last phase of his madness, had sent out an order from his bunker in Berlin: if the Third Reich was to be defeated, then the German people and everything they had created was to be destroyed with him: factories, bridges, roads and, of course, works of art collected for a future that would now never arrive, therefore, destroy the Führermuseum in Altaussee Salt Mine too.
Shortly afterwards, the revocation of Hitler's order also arrived. But was it really sent by the Führer? Eigruber refused to believe so. He intended to complete the task of total destruction that he had chosen for himself and his region. He had sworn not to allow any of these artworks to fall into enemy hands, so he ordered eight American plane bombs, which had fallen on Linz but not exploded, to be transported into the mine. To avert suspicion, the bomb cases were marked “Vorsicht Marmor, nicht stürzen” (Take Care: Marble, Do Not Drop) but the men working in the mine had had their doubts for some time. During the last days of the war, a race against time began. The mine's management tried desperately to convince Eigruber to give up on his plan and planned countermeasures: to blow up the entrances to the mine to prevent the team of SS bomb specialists, who had already arrived in the Salzkammergut, to reach the bombs and explode them.
At the same time, the art experts responsible for the works stored in the mine tried to save at least some of the most precious objects, either by shifting them into deeper galleries or out of the mine and hiding them elsewhere. Some paintings ended up in the back rooms of the local hotels. Walking along the corridors of Altaussee Salt Mine today, you can look into the dark depths where the art experts hid the works.
However, the move that saved the masterpieces was made by two miners who decided to act on their own. One night in early May, Alois Raudaschl and Hermann König opened the bomb cases to discover that their suspicions had been right: destruction was only a few days away, perhaps less. Raudaschl had an idea. Through a friend, he managed to get in touch with the only man able to stop the Gauleiter. This was Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Austrian Gestapo, the ruthless overseer of deportations and mass extermination, who had taken refuge in Altaussee during the collapse of the Third Reich. Even today the house in Altaussee – where Kaltenbrunner was living with his mistress and where Raudaschl went to find him on that May night – still stands. It was a winning move: Kaltenbrunner gave permission to remove the bombs from the mine and blow up the entrance as had been planned by the mine's managers. The Gauleiter's resulting anger brought no consequences. The artworks were saved and with them the galleries in Mount Sandling which the public can visit today to see the huge underground rooms where the objects intended for Hitler's museum were stored.
An award-winning multimedia display brings this story to life in the largest storeroom, among the original shelves and cases.
When the American “Monuments Men” arrived in Altaussee, the masterpieces were already safe, thanks to the local miners whose daring story will be told to you during the 90-minute visit through Altaussee Salt Mine. The adventure in the original places where these events occurred is even more exciting than Hollywood's “monumental” movie.
Further information and background details on the events of 1945 can be found in the book Mission Michelangelo by Konrad Kramar, published in 2013.