Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Amber Room - World War II's Greatest Mystery

I recently watched a TV show that focused on the hunt for the Amber Room, an ornate masterpiece of Russian craftmanship that was lost during World War II. Worth upwards of a quarter billion dollars in today's money, the Amber Room was built in the 18th century and placed in an imperial palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.

During the German invasion of Russia in 1941, the Amber Room was deconstructed by the Nazis, placed in 26 shipping crates, and taken to a castle in East Prussia (modern-day Poland). It was apparently moved again in 1944 right before the Soviets conquered East Prussia and was never seen again. The whereabouts of the Amber Room now constitutes one of the greatest unsolved mysteries from the Second World War. Here is a short article on it from U.S. News Online:

Not Forever Amber - Treasure Hunters Seek Missing Room


It vanished in the wake of World War II–an 11-foot-square hall walled with amber and other semiprecious stones and worth $142 million in today's dollars. One of the only pieces to be found is a small mosaic of jasper and onyx.

In 1716, the king of Prussia presented the Amber Room, a masterpiece of Baroque art, to Russian Czar Peter the Great. Catherine the Great later commissioned a new generation of craftsmen to embellish the room and moved it from the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to her new summer abode in Tsarskoye Selo, just outside the city. "When the work was finished, in 1770, the room was dazzling," wrote art historians Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov. "It was illuminated by 565 candles whose light was reflected in the warm gold surface of the amber and sparkled in the mirrors, gilt, and mosaics."

This opulent gesture of friendship between Russians and Germans would come to serve as a potent symbol of their divisions. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, his troops overran Tsarskoye Selo, dismantled the panels of the oversized jewel box, packed them up in 27 crates, and shipped them to Königsberg, Germany (today's Kaliningrad). In January 1945, after air raids and a savage ground assault on the city, the room's trail was lost.

After the war, the German official in charge of the amber shipment said the crates were in a castle that burned down in an air raid. A Soviet investigator found a charred fragment from the room. Others think the palace sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea in a torpedoed steamer or was stashed in an abandoned mine in Thuringia. Serious historians of the subject have little hope that the room will ever be found. Nonetheless, the Internet bubbles with Amber Room-related theories. A German film company even made an Indiana Jones-style movie based on the story.

War trophy. Reality caught up with the fantasies in 1997, when a group of German art detectives, including a former Stasi agent, heard talk that someone was trying to hawk a piece of the Amber Room. Police raided the office of a lawyer in Bremen who was trying to sell the work for a client–the son of a German officer who had accompanied the wartime convoy to Königsberg. The son said he had no idea how his father got the mosaic. One theory is that the crates of amber were bombed on the road and the father swiped a chunk of the room as a war trophy, figuring no one would be the wiser. In April, officials from Berlin presented the recovered mosaic to Russian President Vladimir Putin–along with an intricately inlaid chest from the Amber Room that had also turned up–in a goodwill ceremony faintly and oddly reminiscent of that first kingly gift just under 300 years ago.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Netherlands Antilles is Dissolved!

Since my paternal family is all Dutch, I take a great interest in Dutch history as well as important news coming out of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. My wife and I have also spent time in Sint Maarten, which has long been a Dutch-governed territory in the Caribbean. Therefore, I was quite interested in this recent news story coming out of the Dutch news media:

Netherlands Antilles to cease to exist as a country

Published: 1 October 2009 13:17 | Changed: 1 October 2009 15:43

By Radio Netherlands Worldwide

The Netherlands Antilles will cease to exist as a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands on October 10, 2010.

In a meeting on Curaçao on Wednesday, the Dutch-Caribbean islands of Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba agreed to become Dutch municipalities.

On the same date, 10-10-10, Curaçao and the Dutch half of St Maarten will become independent countries within the Kingdom, on an equal footing with the Netherlands proper and with Aruba, which gained its "status aparte" in 1986.

The previous semi-independence arrangement between the Dutch central government and its former Caribbean colonies dated from 1954 and was due for renewal.

Dutch deputy home affairs minister Ank Bijleveld warned that a lot of work remains to be done following Wednesday's Curaçao agreement. The parliaments in The Hague and Willemstad (Curaçao) need to pass a number of laws, and administrative bodies for Curaçao and St Maarten need to be set up.

The Dutch government also wants assurances that rampant crime on Curaçao and St Maarten will be fought harder. Dutch police detectives will continue to be active in the kingdom's new countries.