War museums across the Netherlands are scrambling to tighten their security after raids by highly organised thieves targeting memorabilia linked to Adolf Hitler’s Waffen-SS and other parts of the Nazi regime.
Amid huge global demand for second world war memorabilia, museums in Ossendrecht, in north Brabant, and in Beek, Limburg, have been ransacked in recent days and months.
In response, a series of Dutch institutions have removed their most valuable exhibits from display or implemented stricter security measures over fears that the thefts are being carried to order.
The 1940-1945 War Museum in Loon op Zand has removed forks from the personal cutlery of both Adolf Hitler and the SS leader Heinrich Himmler from their exhibition. The museum said a new secure door had also been built.
“Yesterday I took stuff from the Hitler Youth, and uniforms of the SS are also being removed,” said the museum’s owner, Frans van Venrooij.
Arnhem War Museum said last week it would be installing roadblocks so large vehicles could not enter the site.
The Overloon War Museum said it was returning two rare books from the Nazi period, including the Book of the Dead from Auschwitz, which it had on loan from the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in Amsterdam.
Two weeks ago, thieves stole items worth hundreds of thousands of euros during a night-time raid on the Oorlogsmuseum in Ossendrecht. The stolen memorabilia included SS uniforms, parachutes and firearms, including a German Fallschirmjägergewehr, a rifle that was used by German paratroopers, worth €50,000 (£45,000).
Jan de Jonge, owner of the museum, who lives next door to the site, said: “They drilled holes in the door to get the handle down from the inside. I didn’t hear anything while I was sleeping on the other side of the wall.
“SS uniforms, daggers, helmets, emblems, caps, parachutes, firearms, binoculars, you name it. There’s nothing left. The firearm is very rare, but I was able to display it in this museum.
“[It was all] German stuff, they didn’t take anything from the allies. A French corner, English, Canadian: all intact. German material, especially clothing, is rare.”
The thieves had cut glass from the display cases to access the items, which were then spirited away in the early morning.
“They took items that can be traded internationally,” De Jonge said. “The collection was private property and not insured. At least 15 dressed mannequins with military uniforms were taken.”
About €1.5m-worth of property was also stolen in August from the Eyewitness Museum in Beek.
The museum’s owner, Wim Seelen, said the front door had been rammed by six men. They smashed all the display cases but had a clear plan as to what to steal during the six-minute raid, he said.
“The collection consists only of original pieces and a number of masterpieces that are very rare and precious,” Seelen said. “They knew what they were looking for. The only thing I can come up with is that someone ordered it. Many of the stolen items are so unique that you cannot sell them. Our world is a small one. As soon as something emerges from Beek or Ossendrecht, it will be immediately known.”
“It is very disturbing, every museum has its concerns,” said John Meulenbroeks, the director at the Museum De Bewogen Jaren in Hooge Mierde, in north Brabant. “It seems like this is on request. Maybe [the items] are already with a collector who is wealthy.”
Detectives investigating the cases are yet to make any arrests.