Berchtesgaden and the Caché at Eagle’s Nest
“Wine and War: The French, The Nazis & The Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure” by Don and Petie Kladstrup is a remarkable book that illuminates the untold stories surrounding the wine community in France during WWII under the Nazi occupation. My first reaction to this book was emotional shock – why hadn’t I learned about these stories in history classes throughout high school and college? (Oh, I know, because I was educated in America – upstate New York to be precise – and American History is, well, very American.) I was no History major, only learned what we all learn about World War II: America’s stance on Neutrality, America deciding she no longer can remain neutral, invasion of Normandy, death of Hitler, Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Japan. No doubt there are a myriad untold stories from Algeria to Russia, China and Japan as well, however the story of what winemakers throughout France endured during the occupation will astound you.
In short, the German government restricted the sale of French wine to anywhere else in the world but save for Germany. The economic impact this had on winemakers is easy enough to imagine: devastating. Hitler wanted for himself all of France’s treasures with respect to wine, and even appointed weinführers to oversee the activities of Bordeaux and other wine regions to ensure the German army would receive a healthy supply of wine to keep troop moral up and more importantly so that the Third Reich would be well stocked with the best wines France had to offer. And that is where Eagle’s Nest comes into play.
Before Berchtesgaden, permit me, good reader, to encourage you to read this book. Whether you are a wine aficionado, connoisseur, history buff, or none of the aforementioned, it is a must read that reveals personal stories of anguish and triumph in the wake of a very dark period in the history of this modern world.
What concerns our wine-minded thoughts in this article is Berchtesgaden (berkh-tuh s-gahd-n). A town in the German Bavarian Alps where Hitler lived and members of the Third Reich vacationed and had homes as well. Absolutely picturesque in every way, it’s beauty confronts a stark contrast to the inhabitants with which it is associated. The Kehlsteinhaus (aka Eagle’s Nest), a chalet-style building built by the Nazis in the mountains near Berchtesgaden was an official 50th birthday present for Adolf Hitler. It was here, on the fourth of May, 1945, that the French 5th Tactical Group along with the American 21st Army Corps discovered a caché of France’s greatest treasures. The French arrived on the scene first, and a twenty-three-year-old army sergeant from Champagne, was sent up the mountain to Eagle’s Nest, 6,017 feet above sea leve, where he was one of the first persons to set eyes on the treasures Hitler had amassed for himself – in particular: half a million bottles of the finest wines ever made, such as: Château Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, d’Yquem, Romanée-Conti, bottles of champagne including, Krug, Moët, Piper-Heidsieck, and Pommery, on and on.
During the war French Winemakers did what they could to keep as much of their prized wines from the Nazis. They re-labeled plonk wines as the best wines, and poured their finest elixirs into plonk bottles. If ever there is confusion in counterfeit wines between the years of 1939 and 1945, it is a noble confusion, for much of what the Germans received was doctored plonk. This tactic did not always work, and many people lost their lives or were imprisoned for their zealousness, and the Germans certainly drank their fill of magnificent wines. The other side of this story tells how the Resistance found shelter in the wine caves and cellars throughout France, and it was in these darkened places that the men, women, and children of France bravely stood up to the German occupation with determination and diligence even in the wake of utter collapse and ruin. If you have in your cellar any French wines from this era – especially 1945 – be sure to drink that wine with the advice in mind from Jean Hugel, a winemaker who resisted the occupation with all his might, who said, “These wines should only be tasted under the following circumstances: on their own, outside the context of a meal, with your best wine-loving friends, in a respectful atmosphere and without the slightest reference to their price. In such a way, you will do homage to the skill and honesty of the winegrower, and equally to Nature, without whom the production of such jewels would be impossible.”
“Wine and War” is available at all major book outlets and online.