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Von Ripper: Painter with a Gun

By Peter Carlson
3/14/2017 • Military History Magazine

Australian Baron Rudolph Von Ripper’s adventurous life included stints as a soldier in three wars and a legacy of artworks depicting the horrors he had witnessed.

IN THE MISERABLE WINTER of 1944—as American soldiers battled their way up the boot of Italy, fighting in mud so thick the dead had to be carried off by mules—a legend spread among the GIs. They told stories about a shadowy figure they called “the Ripper.” He spoke like a German, but he wore an American uniform. He was a combat artist assigned to paint pictures of the war, but sometimes he’d lead patrols behind German lines in the dark of night, killing enemy soldiers with his gun or knife.

Incredible as the stories seemed, they were true. The mysterious soldier-artist was Baron Rudolph Von Ripper—an Austrian aristocrat who’d been tortured by the Nazis, a soldier who’d fought in three wars, and a brilliant artist who captured the terror and tedium of war in more than 100 powerful pictures.

“He was a bit of John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway and Vincent van Gogh, all wrapped up into one avenging presence,” wrote Colonel Robert J. Berens, who served with Von Ripper in Italy.

Von Ripper didn’t strike a heroic figure. He was born with buckteeth and a walleye. His body had been mutilated in countless battles: Shrapnel had splattered one leg, causing him to list to the left as he walked. One German bullet had sliced off the tip of one finger, while another had split his upper lip, causing him to drool and making his Austrian accent even tougher for his English-speaking Allies to decipher. Despite those wounds— and others—he still loved to fight Nazis.

“Von Ripper is so calm and so bold in battle that he has become a legend at the front,” wrote Ernie Pyle, the famed war correspondent, in late March 1944. “Being wounded four times hasn’t touched his nerve in the slightest. In fact, he has become so notorious as an audacious patrol leader that his division finally forbade his going on patrol unless by specific permission.”

“Rip was a one-man army,” Edward Reep, his boss in the Army’s War Art Unit, wrote decades later. “He was the ultimate soldier-artist in World War II and possibly in all of recorded history.”

“Bravest man I’ve ever seen,” General Lucian Truscott Jr. called him.

Rudolph Charles Von Ripper was born on Jan. 29, 1905, the son of an Austrian baron who served as the last aide-de-camp to the Hapsburg emperor. His father died in 1918, the year World War I destroyed the Hapsburg empire. In the postwar chaos Rudolph, a rebellious teenager, ran away from home, worked in a sawmill and a coal mine, then became a circus clown, his biggest laughs coming when he reached into his baggy pants and pulled out a rubber rat.

Von Ripper studied art at the Dusseldorf Art Academy, then moved to Paris to live the Bohemian life. Eager for adventure, he joined the French Foreign Legion in 1925 and was dispatched to fight Druze tribesmen during the Great Syrian Revolt. Shot in the knee and the chest, he decided he preferred painting to fighting.

“I cannot imagine life without painting,” he wrote in a letter to his mother. “My great problem here is not the life, which is hard but fine. It is that I cannot work, and I must.”

He deserted the legion and fled to Berlin, where he painted and pursued an affair with an actress. Next he bought moviemaking equipment and traveled to China, planning to make documentaries. In Shanghai he took up with a gang of gunrunners led by an American adventurer. One night in 1929 Von Ripper watched as rivals in a Shanghai bar gunned down his American boss, and he decided it was time to go home.

Back in Europe he met and married Dorothea “Mops” Sternheim, the beautiful daughter of a German playwright. The couple settled in Berlin, where they partied with artists, socialites and bigwigs of the ascendant Nazi Party. This was the decadent Weimar-era Berlin depicted in the musical and film Cabaret, and Rudolph and Mops wallowed in it, augmenting their prodigious alcohol intake by smoking opium.

By Oct. 3, 1933, Rudolph Von Ripper had become a caricature of Berlin’s indulgence—a dissipated son of the old aristocracy, wasting his talents pursuing empty pleasures. That night he was sleeping off a binge when two Gestapo agents burst into the room and changed his life forever. They ordered him to get dressed, then shoved him into a car, drove him to a secret prison and led him into the office of Gestapo boss Rudolf Diels. Von Ripper knew Diels from the Berlin party scene, but the party was over.

“I am afraid, my dear Baron,” Diels said, “that we must accuse you both of high treason and of preparations for high treason.”

Diels knew Von Ripper had drawn cartoons satirizing the Nazis. And the Gestapo had found a cache of anti-Nazi pamphlets in his room. Von Ripper denied everything, but Diels knew he was lying and sent him to a stark cell in the Gestapo prison.

“Prisoner 611, you are a swine who has committed high treason,” a guard snarled at Von Ripper just before he and three others gave the artist the first of many beatings.

When they finished, a guard asked Von Ripper if he wanted a cigarette. Von Ripper said yes. The guards knocked him to the floor, yanked open his mouth and jabbed lit cigarettes into it. The burns hurt so bad that tears streamed from his eyes.

“Poor fellow,” a guard said with mock sympathy. “We will put out the flames.” He urinated in a bowl and poured it into Von Ripper’s scalded mouth.

The next day Von Ripper was led back to Diels’ office. Somebody shined a bright light in his face, and then a guard smashed something heavy into his head. He woke up in a hospital bed with a fractured skull and a thick scar.

“You are foolish not to confess,” Diels told him the next time they met. “I am sorry, Baron, but there is nothing more I can do.”

Von Ripper was led away, loaded into a truck with several other prisoners and driven to the site of an old brewery. As each prisoner stepped out of the truck, a guard thrashed him across the face with a whip.

Von Ripper had arrived at Oranienburg, one of the earliest Nazi concentration camps. He endured several horrific months there before the Austrian government secured his release.

A free man again, Von Ripper fled to Amsterdam, then to Paris and, in early 1935, to the Spanish island of Majorca, where he basked in the soft breezes and admired the bright flowers of the Mediterranean spring. Amid that beauty he created a series of horrific artworks satirizing Nazi brutality. He called the series Ecrasez l’infame (“Crush the Infamous”), and when it was exhibited in London, the German ambassador demanded British authorities censor the show. The British refused, and The New York Times reported the exhibit had “created a sensation in the art world.”

Three years later, when Time named Adolf Hitler its “Man of the Year” for 1938, the magazine used one of Von Ripper’s illustrations on the cover. It showed Hitler in a desecrated cathedral, playing a pipe organ while torture victims dangle from a Catherine wheel overhead.

By then war had come to Spain, Von Ripper’s new home. In July 1936 General Francisco Franco led a military coup against the elected Spanish republic, sparking a civil war. Nazi Germany and fascist Italy sent troops in support of Franco’s Nationalist army, while communist Russia and leftists from around the world aided the Republican forces. Eager to fight the Nazis, Von Ripper joined the Republican army.

“I have no particular love for the communists,” he later explained. “I just wanted to get at those Germans.”

Von Ripper became a machine gunner on a Soviet-built bomber. In 1937 German anti-aircraft shot down his plane, and an exploding shell sent 21 chunks of metal into his left leg. He parachuted out, landing in a Madrid courtyard. Doctors told him they’d have to amputate the leg, but he fled before they could perform the operation.

Too beat-up to fight, Von Ripper left Spain, sailing to New York in 1938. Like many artists before him, he rented a cheap room in Greenwich Village. He sold some drawings, won a fellowship to the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and moved into a barn in Connecticut.

He lived there, painting happily, until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Then he volunteered for the U.S. Army.

Problem was the Army didn’t want Von Ripper.

He was 37 years old and a foreigner, and he had a walleye and a heart murmur and 23 battle scars from two previous wars. Incensed, he demanded to fight, telling the Army doctor his heart was fine and his eyes had worked well enough to fight in Syria and Spain. Finally, the doctor agreed to let him enlist, but for “limited service only.”

“One of my greatest humiliations,” he later called it.

Assigned to the Corps of Engineers’ War Art Unit, which employed soldiers to chronicle the war, he was shipped to North Africa in 1943. There he sketched battle scenes and at one point was assigned to paint an officer’s portrait.

“He was pissed off,” Berens recalled. “He didn’t want to paint the damn commander’s portrait. He wanted to get into combat. He was hell-bent to fight the Germans.”

Touting his fluency in German, Von Ripper volunteered to interrogate prisoners, and he was assigned to the 34th Infantry Division, which was preparing for the invasion of Italy. In September 1943 Von Ripper hit the beach at Salerno, and he remained on the front lines during the long, tough fight up the Italian peninsula.

Interrogating prisoners in early November, Von Ripper learned of a small German force near the village of Roccaravindola. He convinced his commander, Lt. Col. Ed Bird, the Germans would be “easy pickings,” and Bird sent him on patrol with a dozen men. Maneuvering to a high point overlooking the village, Von Ripper shouted down to the Germans to surrender. When they hesitated, the patrol lobbed grenades and fired down at them. The Germans answered with a spray of machine gun bullets.

“Von Ripper and one of his men advanced in the face of intense enemy fire and killed two and wounded three of the enemy, took 11 prisoners and captured numerous enemy weapons,” read the citation accompanying the Oak Leaf Cluster for the Silver Star that Von Ripper received for his actions that night.

Promoted to second lieutenant, he continued to lead small patrols and sought any opportunity to ambush Germans. But one night in late November the Germans ambushed him. Machine pistol bullets tore into Von Ripper’s right hand, his left leg and his face, slicing across his upper lip and nose.

“It’s a curious thing when one gets wounded,” he wrote in his journal while hospitalized. “You are surprised at being alive and feel down your body to find out how much of it is there. Then you get goddamn mad at yourself—at least I did this time—that the other guy got the better of you, was faster on the trigger.”

Recuperating in Allied-occupied Naples, Von Ripper chased skirts, drank and played poker with reporters, including Ernie Pyle and New York Times correspondent Cy Sulzberger. But he spent most of his time painting scenes of war, working from sketches he’d made on the front lines.

“He works at a huge drawing board, doing watercolors and pen-and-ink sketches,” Pyle wrote. “He has produced more than 100 pictures.”

Von Ripper told Pyle he was trying to create combat art without bogus heroics or sentimentality. Pyle thought he’d succeeded: “Von Ripper’s dead men look awful, as dead men do. His live soldiers in foxholes have that spooky stare of exhaustion. His landscapes are sad and pitifully torn.”

Visiting Naples, Edward Reep was amazed by his art. “I was in awe of him,” Reep later wrote. “His pen-and-ink drawings were like jewels, virtual masterpieces that could hold their own against much of the greatest art.”

In 1944 the War Department included several of Von Ripper’s works in an exhibit of combat art. In the exhibit’s catalog, Von Ripper reflected on his dual role in the war: “A soldier-artist is a painter with a gun, a man to fight at times and to paint at other times. And in that he is very lucky: He can divert his effort from destruction, from killing, which is the soldier’s job, to creative work, to build, make new things.”

But he didn’t spend much time painting. In February 1944 he was back on the front lines, joining the long, brutal Battle of Monte Cassino.

“I tried to get into Cassino and got sniped down in a house,” he wrote in his diary. “I made a sketch from there, and I was lucky I got out. It seems silly to expose oneself like that to make a drawing. But to me it is necessary to get there when they fight. I like the atmosphere of the fight.”

At the front Von Ripper had the freedom to go where he pleased. Sometimes he went off to sketch, sometimes to fight. “He led patrols,” Berens said. “It was sort of surreptitious, I suppose, but they let him do it. He was a wild man. He used to go out and capture prisoners—and he was rough with ’em when he got ’em.”

Sometimes he didn’t take prisoners. Sometimes he simply killed the Germans he ambushed. “It’s a funny thing about blood,” Von Ripper said later. “When you spill it once, you find it easier afterwards. I found it easier, both with a gun and a knife.”

For a while he seemed to be everywhere on the front lines. And then he disappeared.

“All of a sudden,” Berens recalled, “he was gone.”

Unbeknown to his friends in the 34th become a spy. Infantry, Von Ripper had

Recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency—Von Ripper parachuted into Nazi-occupied Austria in early 1945 carrying forged identification papers and a radio transmitter. His mission was to organize anti-Nazi resistance while informing the OSS about the situation in his native land.

It was no easy task. He found plenty of anti-Nazi sentiment but few men to recruit: They’d all been conscripted into the German army. Any able-bodied man who wasn’t wearing a uniform attracted attention—including Von Ripper.

One day a Nazi policeman demanded to see Von Ripper’s identification. He showed the man forged papers identifying him as a draftsman employed in the city of Linz. The officer took Von Ripper to the police station so he could call Linz to check the backstory. Figuring he was doomed, Von Ripper took out the cyanide capsule issued to OSS spies and slipped it into his mouth.

But the officer couldn’t reach Linz, as a U.S. bomb strike had knocked out the phone lines. Then his wife called to say she had a roast in the oven, so the hungry officer let his prisoner go. Von Ripper spat the cyanide capsule from his mouth and strolled away.

After Germany surrendered in May 1945, Von Ripper used his local connections to track down Gestapo agents and other Nazi officials hiding in Austria. He also tracked down a cache of money hidden by the Germans. “He was responsible for finding British pound notes—baskets of them,” recalled Fred Mayer, a former OSS agent in Austria. “I don’t know how he found them. Somebody probably told him. He had contacts there that we didn’t have, because he was a native.”

When Von Ripper left the OSS in late 1945 his commanding officer scribbled a sentence on his official evaluation form that sums up Rip’s strange military career: “Outstanding in fieldwork but too restless for staff work.”

After the war Von Ripper divorced his German wife and married a beautiful California blonde named Evelyn Leege, a flutist and art critic. They lived in his rehabbed Connecticut barn, and he won a Guggenheim fellowship to pursue his art.

“I have a wife, a car and a house,” he wrote in a postcard to Reep. “What more is there?”

In the 1950s the couple moved to Von Ripper’s beloved island of Majorca. Old friends, including Sulzberger, told him he was crazy to live in a country ruled by the same fascists he’d fought against in the Spanish Civil War. Von Ripper shrugged off the warnings, saying he loved the island’s beauty. And he thrived there, painting, making elaborate pieces of jewelry and cooking bacchanalian feasts for his many friends.

He and Evelyn traveled often, selling his paintings and jewelry and visiting pals. He loved parties, and he enlivened them in his own flamboyant fashion; he’d drink a glass of champagne, then slowly chew the glass and swallow it. Green glasses taste better than other colors, he’d joke.

In 1960 Von Ripper took Evelyn on a four-month trip around the world, searching for adventure and the gems he used to create his jewelry. On their way home, a few minutes after crossing the border from France into Spain, Von Ripper was arrested by Spanish police, who confiscated his gems and charged him with smuggling.

Were the Spanish fascists getting revenge on an old enemy? Von Ripper thought so, and Sulzberger agreed.

On the night of July 9, 1960, Von Ripper was out on bail and awaiting trial when he climbed out of bed in his Majorca home and stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. Evelyn found him in the garden the next morning, dead of a heart attack at the age of 55.

“He was a great human being who never spared himself or complained,” she wrote in a letter to Sulzberger. “The 15 years I spent with him were crazy, but it was living, all right.”

 

Peter Carlson is the author of Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy. For further reading he recommends Unconquered Souls, by Cyrus Leo Sulzberger; Brave Men, by Ernie Pyle; and Citizen Soldier, by Robert J. Berens.

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