To the victor belong the spoils, and as the Nazis were taking control of Europe, they seized untold plunder. Their wholesale looting included the systematic theft of one-fifth of all known artworks in Europe.

Adolf Hitler, a failed painter in Austria before his rise to power, ordered the pillaging of galleries and museums in Paris, Florence and St. Petersburg and had the prized artworks of condemned Jews shipped home. He planned a colossal Fuhrermuseum to house the stolen treasures, making his little hometown of Linz, Austria, a greater cultural capital than Paris.

"The Rape of Europa," an engrossing film based on Lynn Nicholas' 1995 book of the same name, offers a fascinating new perspective on an era that sometimes seems as if it has no more secrets. The documentary, directed by Bonni Cohen, Nicole Newnham and Richard Berge, tells the story of the Nazis' cultural scavenging with remarkable archival material, newly shot footage and interviews. In city after city across the Soviet Union, Poland, Holland and France, elite troops entered with itemized lists of masterworks to impound for Hitler's vast private collection or to be shipped back to museums in Germany.

One historian notes that as a youth, Hitler was turned down for art school in Vienna the same year that Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka were admitted. Hitler apparently bore the Jews on the admissions committee a deadly grudge from that day on. (Kokoschka later joked that Hitler could have done much less damage as a bad painter, while he would have been a much less harmful dictator.)

With the German army advancing, the French and Russians painstakingly concealed masterpieces of the Louvre and the Kremlin. The removal of the Winged Victory of Samothrace from its lofty perch in the Louvre is a sequence of mouth-parching tension; the slightest drop could have shattered it beyond repair. The "Mona Lisa" was spirited away in a getaway vehicle so airtight that the curator accompanying it blacked out.

As the Allies invaded Europe, there was collateral damage to many historic sites, such as the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Nazi propagandists used the bombing of the site to paint Americans as uncultured savages. Official U.S. policy was to save important cultural materials whenever possible. The Monument Men, a corps of cultural specialists, were assigned to safeguard threatened works and discourage Americans from mistreating priceless artifacts. Soviet troops had different orders, stealing from the Germans and shipping the works to Russia.

Decades later, scholars are trying to locate and repatriate thousands of valuable pieces, and the film devotes a lot of attention to those efforts. The surviving relatives of Jewish art dealers and collectors whose holdings were targeted by the Nazis offer touching testimony about the injustice of their inheritance being held in private and national museums.

With the opening of the archives of Eastern Europe following the end of the Cold War, and the Internet, however, some works of art now are being reunited with their rightful owners. In Austria, ownership of Klimt's "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer" -- valued at more than $100 million -- was until just recently a tug of war between the Austrian government and the niece of the original owner. Some, as with Francois Boucher's "The Young Lovers," which was looted by Goering and eventually found its way to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, were returned without hesitation once their true ownership was established. As museum director David Carroll put it, by returning something stolen, we "confer a little humanity back on us all."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186