The Amber Room (English sometimes Amber Chamber, Russian: Янтарная комната Yantarnaya komnata, German: Bernsteinzimmer) in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg is a complete chamber decoration of amber panels backed with goldleaf and mirrors. Due to its singular beauty, it was sometimes dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World“.
Before it was lost, 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 Charlottenburg Palace until 1716 when it was given by Prussian kingFriedrich 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. It took over ten years to construct.
World War II evacuation
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 Zeitungreported on an exhibition of part of the Bernsteinzimmer in Königsberg Castle.
Last days 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 theWilhelm Gustloff which left Gotenhafen (Gdynia) on 30 January 1945, and was sunk by a Soviet submarine.
Later in the war, 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. The remains of the castle were destroyed by the Red Army during the 1960s.
Disappearance and mystery
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 latest discovery, as reported in February 2008, is of a 20-metre pit in Deutschneudorf, a small town near the German-Czech border. The site reportedly matches intelligence from survivors who helped loot the fabled room, and initial probe reports are said to indicate the presence of a large quantity of gold or silver. Hans-Peter Haustein, mayor of the town, said “We’re confident it’s part of the Amber Room”.
On 20 February 2008, German treasure hunters claimed to have found the Amber room. The discovery of an estimated two tons of gold or silver was made at the weekend when electromagnetic pulse measurements located the man-made cavern 20 meters underground near the village of Deutschneudorf on Germany’s border with the Czech Republic.
According to a recent article in Der Spiegel, Heinz-Peter Haustein – who has been leading the most recent searches into the Erzgebirge/Ore Mountains region of Germany – believes that he has found the Amber Room. Digging resumed 26 February 2008 at a site in the southeastern German town of Deutschneudorf, where treasure hunters believe there are close to two tons of Nazi gold and possibly clues to the whereabouts of the legendary Amber Room. Treasure hunter Christian Hanisch said on 28 February 2008 that the hunt for Nazi Gold and possibly the legendary Amber Room will end 29 February 2008 after the two men leading the expedition disagreed.
Another recent discovery was made by the Amber Room Organization in the mountains about 50 kilometres (31 mi) east of Weimar. Henry Hatt, the German spokesman told the media that he knows where the Amber Room is hidden. According to him, it was brought to Weimar together with a treasure of the Hohenzollern and Prussian Crown Insignia. From Weimar, it was transported to the county of Saalfeld and hidden in an old underground mining chamber. Currently, the group is searching for a production company to make a movie about the discovery. The ARO claims to have solved the “biggest mystery of WWII”.
As of July 2010, none of these discoveries have proven true, and with no new verifiable leads surfacing, new claims are met with a great deal of skepticism.
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 Warpropaganda 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 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 part at least 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, 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.