The Amber Room
The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg is a complete chamber decoration of amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors. It was created in the 18th century, destroyed during World War II, and recreated in 2003.
Before it was lost, the Amber Room was sometimes dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World"
due to its singular beauty. The original Amber Room represented a joint
effort of German and Russian craftsmen. Construction of the Amber Room
began in 1701 to 1709 in Prussia. The room was designed by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter and constructed by the Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram and remained at Berlin City Palace until 1716 when it was given by Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I to his then ally, Tsar Peter the Great of the Russian Empire.
In Russia it was expanded and after several renovations, it covered
more than 55 square meters and contained over six tons of amber. The
Amber Room was looted during World War II by Nazi Germany and brought to Königsberg. Knowledge of its whereabouts was lost in the chaos at the end of the war.
In 1979 efforts began to rebuild the Amber room at Tsarskoye Selo.
In 2003, after decades of work by Russian craftsmen, financed by
donations from Germany, the reconstructed Amber Room was inaugurated in
the Catherine Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The creation of the Amber Room
The Amber Room was made from 1701 onwards in order to be installed at Charlottenburg Palace, home of Friedrich I, the first king of Prussia, at the urging of his second wife, Sophie Charlotte. The concept of the room and its design was by Andreas Schlüter. It was crafted by Gottfried Wolfram, master craftsman to the Danish court of King Frederick IV of Denmark, with help from the amber masters Ernst Schacht and Gottfried Turau from Danzig (now Gdańsk).
Although originally intended for installation at Charlottenburg Palace, the complete panels were eventually installed at Berlin City Palace. The Amber Room did not, however, remain at Berlin Castle for long. Peter the Great admired it on a visit and in 1716, Friedrich Wilhelm I, the first king's son, presented it to him, and with that act cemented a Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden.
The Amber Room represented a joint effort of German and Russian
craftsmen. After several other 18th-century renovations, it covered more
than 55 square meters and contained over 6 tonnes (13,000 lb) of amber.
It took over ten years to construct.
The evacuation of the Amber Room during World War II
Shortly after the beginning of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II (Operation Barbarossa), the curators responsible for removing the art treasures in Leningrad
tried to disassemble and remove the Amber Room. Over the years the
amber had dried out and become brittle, so that when they tried to
remove it, the fragile amber started to crumble. The Amber Room was
therefore hidden behind mundane wallpaper, in an attempt to keep Nazi forces from seizing it. However, the attempt to hide such a well-known piece of art failed.
German soldiers disassembled the Amber Room within 36 hours under the
supervision of two experts. On 14 October 1941, Rittmeister Graf
Solms-Laubach commanded the evacuation of 27 crates to Königsberg in East Prussia, for storage and display in the town's castle. On 13 November 1941, the newspaper Königsberger Allgemeine Zeitung reported on an exhibition of part of the Bernsteinzimmer in Königsberg Castle.
The last days of the Amber Room in Königsberg
Orders by Hitler given on 21 January 1945 and 24 January 1945 allowed the movement of possessions. From that day onwards, Albert Speer's administration could move culture goods of priority "I (o)". Erich Koch
was in charge in Königsberg. Eyewitnesses claimed that crates had been
sighted at the railway station. They might have been put aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff which left Gotenhafen (Gdynia) on 30 January 1945, and was sunk by a Soviet submarine.
In the summer of 1944, Königsberg was heavily bombed by the Royal Air Force.
It suffered further extensive damage at the hands of the advancing
Soviets before and after its fall on 9 April 1945. It remained
thereafter under Soviet control, eventually renamed Kaliningrad. As part
of a wider government campaign to obliterate all vestiges of "Prussian
militarism", the remains of the castle were destroyed in 1968.
The disappearance and mystery of the Amber Room
The Amber Room was never seen again, though reports have occasionally
surfaced stating that components of the Amber Room survived the war.
Indeed, two elements of the room's decoration (but not the amber panels
themselves) were eventually rediscovered (see below).
There have been numerous conflicting reports and theories, among them
that the Amber Room was destroyed by bombing, hidden in a now-lost
subterranean bunker in Königsberg, buried in mines in the Ore Mountains, or taken onto a ship or submarine which was sunk by Soviet forces in the Baltic Sea.
Many different individuals and groups, including a number of
different entities from the government of the Soviet Union, have mounted
extensive searches for it at various times since the war, without any
success. At one point in 1998, two separate teams (one in Germany, the
other in Lithuania) announced that they had located the Amber Room, the
first in a silver mine, the second buried in a lagoon; neither produced the Amber Room.
However, in 1997 one Italian stone mosaic that was part of a set of
four which had decorated the Amber Room did turn up in western Germany, in the possession of the family of a soldier who had helped pack up the Amber Room.
The Amber Room destruction theory
Recently, British investigative journalists
Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, conducted lengthy research on
the fate of the Amber Room, including extensive archival research in
Russia. In 2004 their book, The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure,
concluded that the Amber Room was most likely destroyed when Königsberg
Castle was burned down, shortly after Königsberg surrendered to
occupying Soviet forces.
Documents from the archives showed that that was also the conclusion
of the report of Alexander Brusov, chief of the first formal mission
sent by the Soviet government to find the Amber Room, who wrote in June,
1945: "Summarizing all the facts, we can say that the Amber Room was
destroyed between 9 and 11 April 1945".
Some years later, Brusov gave a contrary opinion; the book authors
insinuate that this change of opinion was likely due to pressure from
other Soviet officials, who did not want to be seen as responsible for
the loss of the Amber Room.
Among other information from the archives was the revelation that the
remains of the rest of the set of Italian stone mosaics were found in
the burned debris of the castle.
The authors' reasoning as to why the Soviets conducted extensive
searches for the Amber Room in the years after WWII, even though their
own experts had concluded that it was destroyed, is that it served the
differing motives of several elements in the Soviet government: some
wished to obscure (even from other branches of the Soviet government)
the fact that Soviet soldiers may have been responsible for its
destruction; others found the theft of the Amber Room a useful Cold War propaganda
tool, and did not want to let go of a grievance that could be aired
advantageously; still others did not want to share the blame for its
destruction (through their failure to evacuate the Amber Room to safety
at the start of the war).
Russian officials have denied the book's conclusions - angrily, in
some cases. According to Adelaida Yolkina, senior researcher at the
Pavlovsk Museum Estate: "It is impossible to see the Red Army being so
careless that they let the Amber Room be destroyed." Other Russian
experts were less sceptical, and had a different emphasis in their
responses. Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum,
was very cautious in his comments, and said: "Most importantly, the
destruction of the Amber Room during the Second World War is the fault
of the people who started the war". In reply, Catherine Scott-Clark, one
of the authors, indicated that they only came to their conclusions with
reluctance: "when we started working on this issue we were hoping to be
able to find the Amber Room."
Since the book came out, a Russian veteran has given an interview in
which he confirmed their basic conclusion as to the fate of the Amber
Room, although he denies that the fires were deliberate. "I probably was
one of the last people who saw the Amber Room", said Leonid Arinshtein,
a literature expert with the nongovernmental Russian Culture
Foundation, who was a Red Army lieutenant in charge of a rifle platoon
in Königsberg in 1945. "The Red Army didn't burn anything", he said.
A variation of this theory is common currency amongst present-day
residents of Kaliningrad. This is that at least part of the room was
found in the cellars after WWII by the Red Army, in relatively good
condition. This was not admitted at the time, in order that blame should
continue to rest upon the Germans. To preserve this story, access to
the ruins of the castle, which were substantial after WWII, was
restricted, even to historical/archaeological surveys. During the 1960s,
access to the site was suddenly withheld and the ruins were blown up by
the Army in 1968, sealing any access to the underground area. The Dom Sovetov
was built over the central area. The remains of the room may still be
sited underground; however, as mentioned above, amber which is not cared
for will crumble into dust. It is presumed that this is what has
happened and that the Russian authorities, even after Communism, have
been unwilling to admit this.