Sarah Bower on the Nazis and the Bayeux Tapestry

Part of the 1066 guide

October 14th 2011 marks the 945th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. At least one reason why this date stays in our minds is its commemoration in the Bayeux Tapestry. The Tapestry is remarkable for its longevity, its unique style and the light it sheds on the social and military mores of the early medieval period in Europe. It is also a piece of shameless Norman propaganda.

Nor were the Normans the only people to see its propaganda value. When the Nazis overran France in 1940, several of Hitler’s deputies became very interested in this unique and charismatic art work.

What ensued is a story of fantastic intrigue and adventure, and ultimately of survival against all the odds. As Hitler’s armies marched into Poland, the Bayeux Tapestry was taken off display and packed into a zinc lined crate, wrapped in sheets and liberally sprinkled with moth powder. The crate was stowed in a bomb proof shelter especially constructed for it in the cellars of its home, the Hotel du Doyen. And there it might have remained for the next five years had it not been for the peculiar obsessions of Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler.

Himmler had established a ‘research’ arm of the SS, the Ahnenerbe, the ‘Ancestral Heritage’ unit, devoted to proving the existence of a lost Aryan master race and German descent from it. Ahnenerbe projects included experiments on the effects of high altitude and freezing on the human body, carried out on the inmates of Dachau, and Dr. August Hirt’s collection of skulls, acquired through the execution of various different racial types at Auschwitz. In 1942, its art historians turned their attention to establishing the Tapestry’s credentials as an Aryan art work, on the grounds that the Normans were descended from the Vikings.
 
A number of interest groups wanted to keep the Ahnenerbe’s hands off the Tapestry, not just the French but also the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the body responsible for Goering’s wholesale looting of art works from conquered countries. The Reichsmarschall had a particular liking for tapestries and carpets. Goebbels could see the propaganda value, in 1940, of Germany ‘bringing home’ a work which showed an Aryan people conquering Britain. But Himmler was so keen for the SS to acquire the work he had even allocated a space to hang it in his own renovated medieval castle in Westphalia.

Wrangled over constantly by these different interest groups, this ancient, fragile strip of embroidered linen made no less than five journeys over open roads with little to protect it from Allied bombing raids other than its devoted custodian, M. Falue, and a couple of fire extinguishers. One journey, which would not have seemed out of place in an episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo, took place in a 10cv van converted to run on gas produced by burning wood or charcoal in order to get around petrol rationing. Even now, knowing the Tapestry to be safe in its purpose-built home in Bayeux, the thought is horrifying!

It seems hardly surprising that a celebrity like the Tapestry should have been present at the liberation of Paris. It was en route to Germany before the Allies could gain possession of it. The Allies, however, were alerted to Himmler’s plans via coded messages intercepted by Bletchley Park. Even so, it was the last Nazi commander of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, who probably saved it, by telling the two SS men charged with taking it out of the Louvre that the palace was already in Allied hands and he could offer them no back-up to get into the building and get the Tapestry out. Von Choltitz was later awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his refusal to carry out Hitler’s command to ‘reduce Paris to rubble.’
 
In November 1945, the Tapestry was put on show in the Louvre, to coincide with Churchill’s visit to the city. Doubtless Churchill appreciated the significance for a resurgent France of this great display of a French conquest of the English. Once again, the Tapestry had a role to play in a propaganda war.
 
I am immeasurably indebted to the work of the late and much lamented Carola Hicks in her book, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece for the information in this article. Any errors are mine not hers.

 © Sarah Bower
 8th October 2011