The Lost Amber Room – Russian Treasure and Nazi Plunder

The Russian Amber Room
The Russian Amber Room

When most people hear the word amber they might think about the popular Jurassic Park movies, where dinosaur DNA was discovered.  But the precious stone has been prized for centuries, most especially by the former Russian Empire. Their famous Amber Room was quite literally made with TONS of it.  After several back and forth “exchanges” between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia over the centuries, both friendly and hostile, it has today quite simply vanished!  Dubbed by historians as “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” where it is today is one of the greatest mysteries of World War II.

Since Roman times, the area of Germany formerly known as Prussia has been one of the world’s largest producers of the golden, fossilized tree sap, amber.  The “Amber Room” was built between 1701 and 1709 by Fredrick I of Prussia in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin as a gift for his wife.  It was designed by a German baroque sculptor and constructed by a Danish amber expert. Craftsmen set colored amber onto gold leaf wall panels to create intricate mosaics, topped off with jasmine, jade, and onyx.  Long before electricity, imagine scores of candelabras lit within, and the golden gallery must have gleamed like a room in God’s heavenly palace.

Russian Tzar Peter the Great greatly admired the exquisitely carved room on a visit to Prussia.

In 1716, the next Prussian King, Frederick William I, presented it to Peter as a gift to cement the new Prussian-Russian peace alliance.  So the glorious Amber Room’s panels were painstakingly disassembled and shipped to Russia on horse carts in 18 huge crates.  There it was installed by the Tzar for his viewing pleasure in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace.

And there is sat for 40 years until in 1755, when Tzarina Elizabeth ordered the room disassembled again and moved to her Catherine Palace in Pushkin.  Italian designer Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli spent the next 10 years, redesigning the room to fit into its new, larger space, adding 6 more tons of amber, shipped to Russia from Berlin.

The room now covered about 180 square feet and positively glowed with brilliance. The wall’s amber panels were backed with gold leaf, making the room worth about $142 million at the time.  Today it would be worth half a billion euros. The Amber Room was used as a meditation chamber for Tzarina Elizabeth, then a drawing room for Catherine the Great, and a finally a trophy room for Tsar Alexander II.  And so it sat again, for the next 200 years, until World War II.

Then in June 1941, Adolf Hitler launched his infamous Operation Barbarossa, sending 3 million German soldiers on an ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union. The Nazis notoriously ransacked every country they invaded, from Holland to France to Poland, looting thousands of priceless art treasures.  In Russia, this would include the illustrious Amber Room.  Hitler believed it was made by Germans for Germans alone and not to be shared. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin disagreed with him.

As Third Reich forces entered Russia, curators at the Catherine Palace realized the Nazis would soon come for the Amber Room.

They first attempted to disassemble and hide the precious walls. But the dry and brittle amber began to crumble!  What could the panicked curators do?  They instead foolishly tried hiding the room behind hastily applied plaster and wallpaperLeningrad fell in 1941, and the ruse didn’t fool the Nazis for long. They knew the room was somewhere in the palace and eventually found it. They disassembled the Amber Room in just 36 hours, packed it up in 27 crates, and shipped it west by train.  The room was reassembled this time in the Königsberg’s Castle on Germany’s Baltic Coast. Within a month, local German newspapers boasted of an exhibition at the castle for Nazi elite.

Then in late 1943, the tables were turned.  Soviet Russian forces were now approaching from the eastern front.  Hitler gave the order that “cultural goods of priority” should be moved from Königsberg for safe keeping.  The castles’s director, Alfred Rohde, was ordered to immediately dismantle the Amber Room once again and place it in crates for immediate transport.

What happened after that remains a tantalizing mystery. In August 1944, Allied bombing raids destroyed much of the city, including Königsberg Castle. Was the Amber Room still inside, but now safely deep in a dungeon? Some think so, others believe the Nazis had ample opportunity to get it out in time.  Others believe witnesses who said they saw the Amber Room’s crates being loaded into the hold of a German naval ship.  That ship however now lies on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, sunk by a Soviet submarine!

And with that, the trail of the famous Amber Room was lost.

Optimists still hope the Amber Room is intact in a dungeon, cave or mine somewhere, awaiting discovery by intrepid adventurers. Since the end of World War II, art historians and treasure hunters alike have searched and searched.  It has never been found.  Most agree it was likely lost in the fires that consumed Königsberg Castle at the close of WWII. The site is now covered by a massive building known as the “House of Soviets,” built in 1960 by the East Germans.  The grounds underneath have never been thoroughly investigated.

In 1997, a gold framed, mosaic marble fragment from the Amber Room was discovered at a German art auction and confiscated by officials. It’s believed to have come from a Nazi officer who stole it while he was transporting the room from Russia to Germany. The fragment and another piece were formally returned to St. Petersburg in the Russian Federation in 2000.

Today over 70 years later, 3 amateur investigators believe they may have found the lost treasure. They think it resides in Prince’s Cave in the Hartenstein hills near Dresden, once used by Nazi scientists.  They claim evidence of a large, unexplored Nazi bunker. The team is attempting to raise enough money for a detailed examination.  We shall see, time will tell.

If the room did somehow survive, it’s likely that the Nazis hid it underground in a cave, mine, dungeon or bunker.  Experts warn that in this prolonged, damp environment, the amber could easily deteriorate.  Even before it was stolen in 1941, the Amber Room was badly in need of restoration as the amber pieces were falling out.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at Amber Room reconstruction dedication in St. Petersburg
Russian President Vladimir Putin at Amber Room reconstruction dedication in St. Petersburg

Rather than continued to search, Soviet Russia decided to rebuild the entire Amber Room in 1979.  Using old photos and original drawings, the Russian government completed a recreation of the Amber Room. Due to a lack of skilled labor, it was not until 2004 however, that the new version was revealed to the public. Ironically, when the Russian organization ran out of money, a German company, EON, raised the remaining funds necessary to complete the project. Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder unveiled it together.

So a German made treasure >> given to a Russia Tzar >> stolen by German Nazis >> recreated by Russians, with help of German money is once again alive, even if not the original.  Such was, and is, the complicated relationship of these two great nations over time.  This new ‘Amber Room’ can be viewed by the public in St. Petersburg’s Catherine Palace.  The original, however, remains lost to history … at least for now.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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