Book 1; Continent: Europe

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter

  • 468 pages (402 pages of narrative content)
  • Sure, see the movie. I enjoyed it. Then get a richer context for the Monuments Men through the detailed and insightful book.

I’d been excited to see Monuments Men ever since seeing the trailer, coincidentally released just as I’d finished reading Edward Dolnick’s captivating The Forger’s Spell with the same setting (here’s what that book is about). This post is not a review of the film, but rather one for the book which inspired and informed the film. I hadn’t finished the book when I showed up for the movie, but I was glad to have finished about 70% of it beforehand for background. That said, I’ve avoided spoilers if you haven’t already been to the theater.

The central figure of Monuments Men is George Stout, respected authority on conservation and preservation of art prior to America’s entry into World War II. He and a colleague essentially pioneered the field of art restoration from Harvard’s Fogg Museum during the 1930s. With Hitler positioned to strike at the major cultural centers of Western civilization, Stout was among the first to clamor for Allied military sensitivity toward the masterwork architecture, sculpture and other media of Europe. The military seemed to listen, and Stout was called upon to serve in just the capacity for which he advocated.

However, rescuing the cultural heritage of an entire civilization was, at best, a secondary military priority in practice. Although Stout received an officer’s commission, his rank made him easy to dismiss by the senior officers whose plans risked damaging cultural sites. Furthermore, chain of command for Monuments Men was unclear when Stout first arrived in the European theater—not everyone to whom he reported in Civil Affairs had heard of him when he turned up—meaning he had essentially no backup if an officer balked at Stout’s directives. Charismatic, Stout often managed to get the job done by appealing to a commanding officer’s personal sense of humanity, if not a respect for his orders.

Without Civil Affairs backup, he hitchhiked to sites he needed to assess and scavenged the materials necessary to do the job properly: cameras, flashlights, radios and even desk supplies came to him as castoffs and spare parts. Resourceful, he found himself an abandoned Volkswagen left behind by retreating Nazis and finally got a radio for himself by finding spare parts (some German) to build a functional one.

Over time, the Roberts Commission back in the States (nominally the overseers managing the Monuments, Fine Arts and Architecture mission) began sending more men into the field. These men largely worked alone in the early days. This book focuses on the first handful of them, including an architect, a sculptor of some note, and a society “patron of the arts” whose direct qualifications at the time mainly included dinner parties with New York curators (he went on to become a significant and beloved figure in the New York arts community). None of them bore much resemblance to the fresh high-school grads bounding through basic training with them or roaring by in truckloads of infantry units. Instead, most were career men in their late thirties and forties. If they had not captured the attention of the Roberts Commission, nearly all could have stayed Stateside.

At first, the MFAA men seemed to lag just behind the front to document tragedies which had already occurred: destroyed cathedrals, burned art, looted treasures. Here, the authors begin to show the cultural costs of war, this book’s theme. For example, the Nazis used church towers for snipers and spotters, so the Allies routinely destroyed the towers if they were able regardless of artistic merit. The impact of traveling in the wake of destruction comes through in shared letters home included throughout.

Really, however, the sense of purpose for the Monuments Men gelled when the tide of the war put the Allies on the march into Germany. The Allies stood to liberate art repositories stolen from national as well as private collections throughout Europe. However, they needed to 1) know where to find them, and 2) recognize what they had once the art was recoverable. Plus, with the writing on the wall for Axis powers, Hitler had issued a “Nero Decree” to order the destruction of any Nazi-controlled asset the Allies might find useful. Many in the Party interpreted this decree to include the looted artwork stashed in castles and mines throughout German territory (although Hitler’s last will and testament dictated immediately before his suicide seems to say this was never his intention for the art). The race was on to capture as much of Western civilization’s artistic genius as possible before its destruction.

The power of the book lies in its description of wartime destruction, both artistic and human. By following in the wake of front-line battles, Monuments Men saw not only shells of bombed cathedrals but also flattened neighborhoods and squalid conditions for civilian survivors. True, the book seems to be telling us, we can rebuild infrastructure, but railroad ties and radio towers don’t give us our cultural heritage. If Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Young Man goes missing, or if Picassos are burned, then we have destroyed some part of who we are as a people.

Although I did say I wasn’t going to review the film, I will say that it makes a good effort with this theme. However, the stories are more varied, more complex and more ironic than film can fully encompass in two hours. It just isn’t a big enough medium for this history, and if the story captures your attention in the film, then do read the book to explore more fully the rich and surprising history of the Monuments Men.

Photo Credit: user:Andreagrossmann; This painting, Vermeer’s The Astronomer, was Hitler’s favorite looted art piece. Hitler considered himself a connoisseur of fine art.

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