Patrimony in Peril

Germany’s Survey of Mural Paintings Threatened During World War II

These selected images are part of the historic Farbdiaarchiv zur Wand- und Deckenmalerei (Color Slide Archive of Wall and Ceiling Painting), an official Nazi archive of wall and ceiling frescoes that was produced by order of Adolf Hitler at the height of World War II. The department of image collections has a partial archival set of 3,426 35mm color slides. A more complete set of 39,000 slides can be found in the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, Munich.

In December 1943 Hitler issued the Führerauftrag Monumentalmalerei (Führer’s Order for Monumental Painting), which charged the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda with implementing and administering a photographic survey. The resulting images were meant to serve as archetypes from which to reconstruct war-damaged artworks after the anticipated Endsieg (Nazi final victory). The Ministry officials began by compiling lists of historic buildings within the Third Reich that they deemed to be culturally valuable and worth preserving, and ranked the sites in order of importance starting with those most threatened by potential Allied incursions. They then hired and trained photographers and equipped them with guidelines, cameras, lenses, film, and lighting devices, in some cases military searchlights for oversized ceiling frescoes, and arranged ground transportation. The Ministry anticipated that the program would produce a large volume of images, and so for efficiency they used Agfacolor Neu, a pioneering color slide film developed by the German company Agfa in 1936 that reduced processing from 27 to 5 steps.

At the time, the documentation program was considered prestigious and positions were highly desirable because they offered a degree of economic security and physical safety. The photographers came from a wide swath of German society: university professors, students and prominent art historians, photojournalists, chemists, and professionals from motion picture studios such as Rex-Film and UFA. By April 1945, survey photographers had documented the immovable paintings and wall treatments of 480 buildings dating from the tenth to the nineteenth centuries in Germany, Austria, Poland, and Russia. The campaign continued until the defeat of the Third Reich, although many of the photographers by then could barely cover their expenses, and 60 percent of the sites they photographed had been bombed.

Despite poor documentation of some sites and the loss of many slides in the chaos that followed the end of the war, the archive remains an invaluable resource for images of historic wall and ceiling paintings in central Europe.

This feature presents a selection of exterior and interior views of German patrimony in Berlin, Blaubeuren, Bruchsal, Dresden, Ingolstadt, Köln, Ludwigsburg, Potsdam, and Würzburg, where many monuments became casualties of war. All images are from the department of image collections, and from the Farbdiaarchiv set specifically, unless otherwise indicated.

See the complete list of sites represented in the Gallery’s Farbdiaarchiv.