Why were the Nazis fascinated by the Bayeux Tapestry?
The Bayeux Tapestry is unique in the world. Stretching 68 meters long, it recounts the story of the conquest of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror. The first comic strip in history, incredibly modern for its time, became an object of fascination for the Nazis during the Second World War and narrowly escaped destruction.
For centuries, this enormous embroidered woolen work on linen canvas has been the main attraction in the town of Bayeux. Now displayed in a museum entirely dedicated to it, it is admired annually by around 250,000 visitors. This graphic novel from the Middle Ages has inspired numerous artists. It has been parodied, copied, reinvented to comment on current events, serving both satire and propaganda. This “graphic novel from the Middle Ages” depicts in 58 scenes the story of the conquest of England by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy.
From the outset, the tapestry was conceived as a tool of propaganda, intended to solidify William’s power over his new kingdom. Despite its enormous size, from its origin, it was rolled up to be transported and displayed. Breaking from the tradition that religious and heroic frescoes should be painted on the walls of churches or palaces, the tapestry reached out to the people to persuade them.
It survived plunder, fires, the Middle Ages, and the Revolution. From 1812, it was kept within the town hall of Bayeux and presented to the public 30 years later.
Object of fascination for the Nazis:
In 1935, Himmler, leader of the SS, established a research institute called the “Deutsches Ahnenerbe” (German Ancestral Heritage) dedicated to studying the “great achievements” of the Aryan civilization. By 1940, a group of soldiers, historians, and photographers from Germany traversed occupied France. Together, they photographed the “Germanic cultural heritage” to preserve traces in case of war damage.
In 1941, a detachment of the Wehrmacht led by the German archaeologist Herbert Jankuhn arrived in Bayeux. Since the beginning of the war, the tapestry had been rolled up and stored in the cellars of the Dean’s House. The Nazi experts retrieved it despite protests from local authorities, unrolled it, and photographed it.
Their worldview divided the world into two categories: the Aryans, of which the Germans were the most extreme example, possessing genius, producing exceptional works of great beauty and intellectual and aesthetic quality, and the other races, who only knew how to copy. And for the Nazis, apart from the German emperors of the Middle Ages, the greatest genius in history was William the Conqueror, this extraordinary strategist who defeated England and founded a new kingdom. The Bayeux Tapestry was what Hitler lacked to legitimize, in the eyes of the world, the invasion project of England he had been plotting since 1940.
Himmler had arranged a niche in his castle in Wewelsburg, Germany, to display the Bayeux Tapestry. Everything was ready, constructed. But when he ordered it to be brought to Berlin, it was too late. The tapestry had been transferred to a castle in Sarthe, then to the reserves of the Louvre… recovered by the Resistance just two days earlier. It was a narrow escape. Himmler ordered the dynamiting of his Wewelsburg castle on March 31, 1945. Only the north tower was not destroyed.