Amber Room

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.

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