Why the Nazis fell in love with the Bayeux Tapestry

Shirley Ann Brown examines Nazi attempts to establish a Germanic presence in the celebrated chronicle of the Norman conquest

Norman cavalry on the charge in the Bayeux Tapestry. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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On 1 August 1944, two SS officers drove a pair of trucks into the heart of Nazi-occupied Paris, and headed straight for the Louvre. These men were on a top-secret mission – one assigned to them by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS and one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich.

Himmler had tasked the two men with descending into the bowels of the world-famous art museum, seizing the Bayeux Tapestry and spiriting it away to a “safe place” far from the grasp of the Allies’ rapidly advancing armies.

After 15 years as the head of one of the most feared paramilitary organisations in history, Himmler was used to getting his own way. Yet in this case he was to be disappointed. A few days earlier, a group of local resistance fighters – tipped off by the codebreakers of Bletchley Park – had learned of the SS men’s mission and rushed to the Louvre to protect the iconic embroidery. Warned at the last minute that any attempt to ‘liberate’ the tapestry would be met with a hail of bullets, the SS officers gave up on their mission.

The Nazi proclivity for buying, extorting and confiscating Europe’s greatest artworks is well documented. But there was more to Himmler’s desire to seize the Bayeux Tapestry than an acquisitive lust for one of France’s foremost cultural treasures. In the celebrated images of Norman knights putting Anglo-Saxon footsoldiers to the sword he saw evidence of medieval Germanic supremacy.

The Nazi fascination with the Bayeux Tapestry can, perhaps, be traced back to 1 July 1935 when Himmler – along with fellow Nazi ideologues Richard Walther Darré and Herman Wirth – created Ahnenerbe, the Society for the Study of Germanic Heritage. Ahnenerbe was founded to promote archaeological investigations of sites that could be associated with early Germanic settlement, and to study, in situ, works related to the history of the Aryan race. It wasn’t long before its leading lights had turned their attention to the celebrated 11th-century embroidery depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

The French had claimed the Bayeux Tapestry as a national historical monument since the early 1700s, but the Nazi regime had an alternative theory. In July 1939, a memo written by Franz Altheim, professor of classical philology at Frankfurt University, arrived on the desk of Wolfram Sievers, Ahnenerbe’s general manager. It proposed that a detailed examination of the Bayeux Tapestry would prove that the Normans who conquered England were, in reality, Vikings – and, by extension, Germanic. The idea that they were French, Altheim argued, was based on a 200-year-old lie. At the bottom of his note he wrote: “I emphasise the importance of this study.”

In July 1939, when Altheim penned his memo, the idea of a team of ardent Nazis poring over one of the most iconic artefacts in French history in an attempt to establish its Germanic origins would have been anathema to the people of France. But the fall of their nation to German forces in June 1940 rendered their opinions all but irrelevant.

And so, in the aftermath of the French surrender, Dr Herbert Jankuhn, professor of Viking archaeology at Rostock University – and a loyal Nazi – was appointed to head a team of experts tasked with studying the artefact in the northern French town of Bayeux. Jankuhn offered a clue as to what he hoped to achieve when declaring: “For general Germanic studies, the Tapestry’s visual representations, through the recording of Germanic legends and traditions, provides a very valuable source for this early period.”

Photographic evidence

Jankuhn’s first task as leader of Special Assignment Bayeux was to study the hanging, and gather information so that further studies could be carried out by research scholars after the embroidery had been moved to safe wartime storage. The ultimate aim was to produce a multi-volume publication of their findings, featuring a photographic replica of the tapestry. By examining representations of everything from boats and weapons to costumes, they would provide irrefutable scientific evidence that the tapestry was a testament to Germanic hegemony in early medieval Europe.

Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. Himmler saw the tapestry as a celebration of the “Germanic tradition of great acts of war”, and was determined to claim it as an icon of Aryan history. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. Himmler saw the tapestry as a celebration of the “Germanic tradition of great acts of war”, and was determined to claim it as an icon of Aryan history. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Jankuhn couldn’t complete such a weighty undertaking alone. He was accompanied by Dr Karl Schlabow, textile expert and head of the Germanic Costume Museum in Neumünster, whose job it was to scrutinise the fabric and take careful measurements. Rolf Alber, photographer and war reporter, was to shoot new images of the tapestry, in both black-and-white and colour. Herbert Jeschke, an artist from Berlin, was the only member of the Bayeux team who wasn’t a member of the Nazi party or the SS. His task was to create a series of accurate, full-size drawings and watercolours of details from the Bayeux Tapestry, under Jankuhn’s guidance.

First, though, they had to gain access to the embroidery – and that would prove surprisingly problematic. In September 1939, with war clouds gathering, the French authorities had rolled it up on a bobbin, placed it in a padded, zinc-lined wooden case and deposited it in a concrete bunker in the basement of Bayeux’s Hôtel du Doyen.

The idea that the Normans were French, not Germanic, argued Altheim, was a 200-year-old lie

Since the fall of France, German officers had peppered Bayeux’s authorities with requests to see the tapestry – a process that meant repeatedly manhandling the fragile, 900-year-old artefact. The French were reluctant to allow this to continue and, in a classic delaying tactic, began insisting that all permissions to view the tapestry be signed by the proper authorities in Paris. As a result, following their arrival in Bayeux on 8 June 1941, Jankuhn and his team would have to wait days before beginning their work.

At first, they examined the embroidery in the Hôtel du Doyen’s Bishops’ Gallery – but this entailed unrolling and rolling the tapestry every day. So, on 23 June, it was moved in a truck – accompanied by Rene Falue (the tapestry’s official guardian), three French customs officials and a lone German policeman – to the Monastery of St Martin at Mondaye, five miles south of Bayeux, where a large section could be left unrolled.

Summoned to fight

Working seven days a week, Jankuhn’s team set about studying, drawing and photographing all 70 metres of the embroidery. They hit a stumbling block on 29 June, when Alber returned to military service. A replacement photographer, Ursula Uhland, was summoned but, because women weren’t allowed in the monastery’s cloister, the tapestry had to be transported to its public gallery.

Despite this setback, Jeschke had completed his sketches by the end of July, and the project’s last week was taken up with Uhland’s work and with shooting propaganda films for Wochenschau, a newsreel series released in the cinemas.

On 1 August, the tapestry was returned to its concrete bunker in Bayeux. A few days later it was moved again – to the Château de Sourches, some 100 miles south of Bayeux, where it joined treasures from the Louvre.

The first stage of Special Assignment Bayeux may have come to an end, but the Nazi obsession with the Bayeux Tapestry was showing no signs of abating. Dr Hermann Bunjes, head of the German Art Historical Institute in Paris, now became the project’s guiding spirit, assembling a group of academics to bring the multi-volume book on the artefact to fruition.

They set about comparing Jeschke’s drawings with Germanic and Viking artefacts in museums, and considered the photographs taken by Uhland and Alber. They envisaged a book that would present essays on the past scholarship of the embroidery, its physical details, its historical authority, its significance for the history of culture. The book would also contain a study of the fabric and embroidery, and an analysis of its material and colour.

One study ‘proved’ the early Germanic origin of the wooden houses depicted; another emphasised the similarity of English and Norman boats to Viking vessels.

All of this was undertaken with one overriding ambition: to prove that the Normans were still true, untainted Vikings – representatives of the pure Nordic Aryan race.

Herbert Jankuhn had little doubt that Special Assignment Bayeux had achieved just that. “The Bayeux Tapestry is not only a king’s saga of purely Germanic imprint, but also constitutes the documentary justification of William’s claim to England,” he declared in December 1942. “His actions appear to us… as the execution of his given right and the punishment of unforgiveable perjury and unfaithfulness according to the Germanic viewpoint. The tapestry not only exudes genuine Germanic joy in the tradition of heroic deeds, but also the statesmanlike desire to justify the campaign in England as a legal operation and political necessity.” Propaganda magazines agreed wholeheartedly, running articles that eulogised the tapestry’s celebration of “the joy of the Germanic tradition of great acts of war”.

In short, Special Assignment Bayeux was to reclaim the tapestry as a perfect fit with Nazi pan-Germanic ideology, since it bore witness to the early unification of the Germanic cultures of Scandinavia, Normandy and England. It would also serve as a precedent for the Nazis’ desire to recreate Germania, a homeland for all Germanic peoples.

Glorious warfare

This sentiment would certainly have struck a chord with Heinrich Himmler, who was fascinated by the Bayeux Tapestry’s imagery of medieval knights and glorious warfare. Over Christmas 1942, the head of the SS was presented with a bound volume of photos and drawings of the embroidery – a gift that delighted him so much that he sent a thank-you note to Wolfram Sievers in which he noted “the significance that this Bayeux Tapestry has for our glorious and culturally rich German history”.

Himmler was obsessed with the Teutonic knights and wanted to recreate the Knights of the Round Table

The Allied invasion of western Europe on 6 June 1944 merely sharpened Himmler’s desire to secure the tapestry for the Third Reich. His fear that it would fall into enemy hands became apparent on 27 June, when the Gestapo moved the embroidery – without notice and despite local French protest – from Sourches to the basement of the Louvre. This would be followed, little more than a month later, by the two SS officers’ attempt to spirit the embroidery away to a “safe place”, only to be thwarted by fast-acting resistance fighters.

What had been Himmler’s intentions when he ordered the tapestry moved from Paris? What would he have considered a “safe place” in June 1944? One possibility is Wewelsburg Castle in central Germany, which had been chosen by Himmler as the location for his training centre, the home of the cult of the SS – a place where officers were taught how to recreate the lost world of the ‘Nordic race’.

Obsessed with the idea that the SS was a revival of the medieval Teutonic knights, Himmler imagined the castle as the home of modern Nazi Knights of the Round Table. The crypt, designed to hold the ashes of SS leaders, was named Valhalla. Himmler installed his own collection of ancient and medieval weapons in the castle, and indicated he wanted tapestries hung on the walls. This would have been an apt location for the Bayeux Tapestry, which he considered a great testament to an earlier Germanic-Nordic-Aryan triumph.

If Wewelsburg Castle was a safe place in June 1944, it certainly didn’t remain so. On 31 March 1945, with US forces closing in, Himmler ordered the castle dynamited, along with its contents.

Fortunately, the Allies had already found the Bayeux Tapestry safe in its temporary home in the basement of the Louvre. On 2 March 1945, after going on display in an exhibition in the art museum, it was returned to Bayeux. And there it has remained since.

Were the Nazis wrong to attempt to divine a Viking presence in the Bayeux Tapestry? No. It has long been accepted that the Scandinavian influence on both English and Norman societies was significant – seen, for example, in ships, ship-building tools and some decorative elements. This influence can be traced back to the Viking occupation of vast swathes of England (the so-called Danelaw), and the ceding of what became Normandy to the Vikings in 911.

All three groups – English, Normans and Scandinavians – may be considered, to some extent, Germanic. But surely Ahnenerbe would have had finally to admit that, even if the Normans were still Vikings in 1066, they were French-speaking ones.

Shirley Ann Brown is professor emerita of art history at York University, Toronto, a member of the Bayeux Tapestry Advisory Committee, and author of The Bayeux Tapestry: A Sourcebook

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Book: The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks (Chatto & Windus, 2006)