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Did the Bayeux Tapestry prove the existence of a lost Aryan master race?

William Duke of Normandy defeated Anglo-Saxon King Harold II at the battle of Hastings in Oct 1066, a triumph famously recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry. Duke William became the first Norman king of England and transformed the face of Anglo-Saxon England: he secured his hold on the lands he had invaded, replac­ing the English ruling class with Norman counterparts and building defensive fortresses at strategic points. The feudal system was introduced; the church was re­organised and England’s links to Europe were strengthened.

King William’s half-brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, became the Earl of Kent. Odo was amassing an immense fortune coming from Eng­land, and continued rebuilding the Bayeux cathedral at his own expense. Odo had greatly admir­ed the wall hangings which were used to adorn Kentish sanctuaries. And knowing the splendid celebrations that would accompany the consec­ration of his French church, he commissioned a hanging that glorified King William’s exploits in England. The Romanesque cathedral Notre-Dame de Bayeux was complet­ed and dedicated in 1077, soon after the conquest of England.

Bayeux Tapestry, 70 ms long
Exhibition Centre in the French city of Bayeux

This stunning art work told the story of a historic and bloody war between the French and the English in 1066. The 70-metre long textile depicted the events leading to the Battle of Has­t­ings and after. So why would this ancient Norman relic be of great int­er­est to modern German scholars and to Nazi art collectors during World War Two?

In 1935 Gestapo boss Commander Heinrich Himmler established a re­search arm of the SS, the Ahnenerbe-Society for the Study of German Herit­age. Its role was to promote archaeological investigations of sites that might have been associated with early German settlement i.e. devoted to proving the existence of a lost Aryan master race and Germany’s descent from the Vikings. Ahnenerbe projects included experiments with high altitude and with freezing... on the inmates of Dachau, and Dr August Hirt’s collection of skulls from various races.

Ahnenerbe art historians focused on establishing the Tap­estry’s credentials as an Aryan art work, on the grounds that the Normans were descended from the Vikings. But other interest groups wanted to keep the Ahnenerbe’s hands off the Tapestry, not just the French. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg was the body responsible for the regime’s collecting of art works from every country they conquered. This organisation, headed by Adolf Hitler’s leading ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, was one of the main Nazi agencies engaged in the plunder of cultural valuables in Nazi-occupied countries.

As Hitler’s armies marched into Poland, France went on alert re its national treasures. Following the occupation of Paris in June 1940, the Bayeux Tapestry was taken off display by French museum workers. It was wrapped in sheets, dusted with protective powder, packed into a zinc-lined crate and hidden in the Louvre’s cellars for safekeeping.

The Nazis admiring and planning to study the Bayeux Tapestry.
June 1941
Credit: The Bayeux tapestry : the life story of a masterpiece
In 1940 Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels discussed the propaganda value of Germany bringing home a work which showed an Aryan people conquering Britain. Goebbels ordered a team of art historians to analyse the Tapestry, to demonstrate that it was a purely Nordic and Aryan treasure that celebrated the Germanic virtues of warfare. How apt, then, that in Oct 1941 Lord Haw Haw gloated on German radio that the Tapestry would be toured around neutral nations to warn of yet another imminent invasion of England!

In Aug 1944, with Allied forces marching back into France, Heinrich Himmler urgently wanted the Bayeux master­piece. So he ordered SS men to grab it from the Louvre before Paris was totally pulverised by Hitler’s withdrawing forces. The stated goal was to open a National Socialist art museum in Germany, but apparently Himmler had reserved a space for the great Aryan artwork in his own, renovated medieval Wewelsburg castle in Westphalia. Himmler sent the head of the SS chiefs in Paris a coded order reading: “Do not forget to bring the Bayeux Tapestry to place of safety.” And take it back to the heart of the Reich: Berlin.

Himmler was so obsessed with the Arthurian legends and the Knights of the Round Table that he created Camelot in Wewelsburg Castle. The castle would be the home to the Holy Grail, the chalice from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, whenever it might be found by Himmler’s SS researchers who had been shipped to Tibet.

National Archives files revealed Bletchley Park in Bucks was intercept­ing messages to Nazi police stations and SS barracks, even before war broke out. It amassed thousands of intercepts from police units on the eastern front and police headquarters in Germany. And code breakers at Bletchley Park opened a dossier on the Nazi art looting operations, after receiving urgent messages sent by the Russians in the late 1942.  A Military Intelligence officer wrote: “The work of plundering is carried out by a special SS battalion. “Their task was to rob churches, museums and galleries and bring their booty to Germany. “These prizes were reserved for the use of the higher Nazi bosses in their villas. Lesser bosses had to be content with rare books and vases.” 

But it wasn’t until re­cently that wartime documents reveal­ed how the Allies uncov­ered the plan of Heinrich Himmler, decrypting the radio message at Bletchley Park. The British decod­ers warned the French Resistance who were able to occupy the Louvre before Himmler’s men turned up to steal the Tapestry. When the Nazis arr­ived at the Louvre 48 hours later, with two trucks and filled petrol drums to get back to Germany, they were met with bullets. When Paris was liberated just days later, the fragile embroidered linen was found safely in a crate in the Louvre cellars.

Wewelsburg Castle in Westphalia was rented/bought by Heinrich Himmler 
Used for the study of ancient history and archaeology, it was a training facility for the SS.

So thanks to the great work of the Russians and British, the precious textile was saved from becoming just another piece of the Nazis’ plundered artworks. A year later, in Nov 1945, the Tapestry return­ed to the Louvre for an exhibition coinciding with Churchill’s visit to Paris. Then it returned to Bayeux where it has been displayed and protected ever since... in the special Bayeux Exhibition Centre.

Decades later the Bayeux Tapestry will leave France for the first time in 950 years when it goes on display in the UK. The French president announced at an Anglo-French summit that the artefact depicting the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 will be loaned to the UK in 2022.


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