Bonn honours US war hero for art's sake

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The Independent Online

Associated Press

Bonn - Walter Farmer fought the Germans during the Second World War. Tomorrow, the former US Army officer is getting a hero's medal from his former enemies.

In November 1945, the then Captain Farmer protested against his superiors' orders to pack up 202 precious paintings that were under his guardianship in Wiesbaden and ship them to the United States. The protest was ignored and the art works were sent anyway. But his resistance created a huge stir and the items were returned to Germany after four years.

"Back then, I thought the Lord had reached down, touched my head and said: 'Walter, save art,' " the 84-year-old Mr Farmer said at this week at his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Many people in the art world hold Mr Farmer in high esteem because of his belief that, evil as the Nazis were, German museums and the German public had every right to keep their art treasures.

The German government agrees, and that is why, tomorrow, the Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel is giving Mr Farmer the Large Service Cross, a coveted award for foreign civilians, at a ceremony in Bonn.

"Walter Farmer decisively protested to his own military superiors against taking cultural goods as war booty and appealed for respect for the cultural identity even of the enemy," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement last week. It was, however, a statement that revealed some ulterior motives.

Ever since unification, Germany has sought to retrieve 200,000 museum pieces removed by Soviet troops during the Second World War. Officials will not say so on the record but Bonn hopes that making a role model out of Mr Farmer will put a dent in Russian resistance to giving up the art loot.

Mr Farmer's engineering unit landed at Normandy in July 1944. He transferred to a military "monuments" unit responsible for locating and safeguarding thousands of works of art that the Nazis had hidden in salt mines, castles, cowsheds and other sites and was appointed director of the Wiesbaden collecting point, a 300-room disused museum.

To make the building habitable for works by Botticelli, Durer, Bosch, Rembrandt and others, he replaced the windows, got the furnace working and hung up wet blankets to provide the humidity needed by old paintings.

Captain Farmer was fond of his charges. "I used to go over and pat a crate that held" a favourite Botticelli.

He and his colleagues fretted that they would be court-martialed for their protest against orders. That never happened. But they helped to provoke an uproar that led to the eventual return of all the paintings to Germany. They can now be seen at the Gemaelde Galerie in Berlin.