Book Review: The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men book cover

I’ve just finished reading The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. It is a little known part of history that has been reconstructed by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter. I’m really glad that George Clooney has decided to produce a movie (which he also co-wrote, directed, and stars in) based on Edsel and Witter’s book. I’m sure the movie won’t be able to capture the breadth and complexity of actual history, but I hope it will inspire others to pick up this book or, at the very least, ignite conversation about culture and the arts and the value of supporting and maintaining this collective legacy.

This is the tale of the formation and activities of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (aka Monuments Men) during World War II. The MFAA was formed several years into the war, when it became apparent that historical sites, cultural artifacts, and works of art were in danger of being irrevocably lost. Leaders in government, the military, and the arts world knew this meant the loss of a nation’s culture and identity.

The mission of the Monuments Men became even more urgent when they realized that many cultural treasures were being looted under Hitler’s orders for the future museum of the Third Reich. Many Nazis also used this opportunity to build their personal collections. Museums, private collectors, even churches and abbeys were coerced into giving up their prized possessions.

Ironically, Hitler’s obsession probably saved many of these items. By moving millions of items into numerous repositories throughout Europe, they were spared destruction by military advances, bombings, casual looting, and the elements. The key was to locate and take control of these repositories, and this was just one of the challenges facing the Monuments Men.

Most of the 350 or so Monuments Men enlisted after combat had ended. Before the official surrender of Germany, it was the burden of a small corps of officers (which included artists, architects, conservators, and curators – individuals with limited military experience) to traverse combat zones – usually alone – to educate the troops (i.e. why they shouldn’t bomb/demolish certain sites), inspect and protect monuments (some of which had already been bombed/damaged), and track down missing archives, artifacts, and works of art.

The Mona Lisa almost didn’t make it back to the Louvre (it was moved six times during the war). Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and the stained glass windows from Strasbourg Cathedral almost disappeared forever (they were found in repositories). Inevitably, there were many things that could not be saved. Entire cities had been turned to rubble. Collections of ancient manuscripts, historical letters, prints and paintings became casualties of war. The Nazis purposely burned “degenerate art,” works by modern masters such as Klee, Miró, and Picasso.

With all the wars that have occurred throughout the millennia of history, it’s amazing that there’s anything left for us to admire or study. I expect to tear up reading about the loss of life. I never knew I would do the same for the loss of culture. And it moved me that there are people so passionate about art, culture, and history that they would do anything to save it.

The Monuments Men and all the brave individuals who aided their efforts deserve to be remembered. And we should keep their spirit alive. There have been numerous wars since WWII, with risks not just to people’s lives but their entire cultures. And on the home front, we’re fighting a different kind of battle. Arts and cultural funding is often the first to go during a budget crisis. Arts accessibility and arts education still need champions.

Our forefathers left us a rich and irreplaceable cultural legacy. People fought and died to save it. Fortunately, most of us can make a contribution without risking our lives. So what will we leave for the next generation?

Have you read  The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History? Will you read before seeing The Monuments Men movie?