*I’m not sure if a spoiler warning is appropriate, but proceed with caution, I discuss the book in detail*
I found myself drawn to Robert Edsel’s book The Monuments Men quite naturally. I work in museums and studied to do so. As part of that study, Nazi-looted art and reparations took up quite a lot of time. As part of one of my classes (well, two to be honest) we watched the documentary The Rape of Europa which documents the efforts of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA)section to preserve the cultural patrimony of Europe. I sincerely recommend it. Viewing that movie led me to seek out more information about the MFAA and found myself with The Monuments Men on my to-read list. I am so glad that I got around to reading it now.
“An informed army, in other words, is a respectful and disciplined army.” (15-16).
The Monuments Men were an incredibly limited force caught up in the largesse of the Allied forces in Europe. Given the scope of the goals of the MFAA, to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat, Edsel chose to focus on the members who formed the initial group which crossed as part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. This group of eight, along with two members of the museum corps in France, forms the main characters of Edsel’s story. Without funding, transport, or a central commander these initial officers – all of whom came from creative fields of work – were assigned to various divisions spread across Western Europe with the invading Allies. One of their first missions was to prevent as much damage and looting as possible. So, on the fly, the MFAA wrote and published pamphlets for enlisted men detailing the monuments they were likely to come across in any area in order to encourage them to preserve them as best as possible. They were also, initially, running around the French countryside placing ‘OFF LIMITS’ signs on the monuments and culturally important buildings they came across. Within weeks they were running low on signs.
‘Shortly we will be fighting our way across the Continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.’ – Eisenhower (63).
World War II was unique in American military history in regards to art preservation. It was the only time that there was a concerted effort to protect the cultural artifacts in combat zones. With the strides being made in the arts community, conservers and other museum folk were prepared to help in unprecedented ways, and worked to be included in the military mission. Beyond this, there was the decision early on to restore cultural property to their original country. This plan would never have succeeded had there not been leadership from the generals at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. It was not flawless; there were areas which suffered devastating losses in many city centers and the near total destruction of Dresden as one example. Edsel uses some of the most descriptive language I’ve read in a long time as he depicts what was lost and what remained.
“On the outskirts of Bonn, the sun was shining. The buildings were untouched. But like so many other cities, the farther toward the center he [Hancock] drove, the more damage he saw. The town center was mostly destroyed, the result of Western Allied bombing runs, but even here he saw cherry trees in bloom, twisting up among the ruins.” (255).
Much of Edsel’s narrative is spent with the individual Monuments Men. It is through these men, and in their own words often interspersed throughout the book in their letters home, that we are able to see what occurred on the front lines of the Western Front during 1944 and 1945. The suffering they experience, and the amount of work and hours they placed into preserving what they found and protecting what remained. This is the backbone of The Monuments Men, the ordinary service of dedicated men, and what that tells us about a forgotten chapter of one of the best known stories in our collective history.
“Sometimes Stout felt he was fighting another war entirely, a war within a war, a backward-circling eddy in a downward-rushing stream. What if we win the war, he thought, but lose the last five hundred years of our cultural history on our watch?” (237).
Edsel does not shy away from telling the stories of the pieces, collections, archives, monuments, churches, and other buildings which were lost. Through the chronicling of what was lost, we are better able to understand the magnificence of what the MFAA, and the many people who worked with them, managed to save.
“The Germans had used the [Dampierre] library’s renowned Bossuet letters for toilet paper, but after they left, the caretaker found the letters in the woods, cleaned them off, and returned them to the library. Now that was dedication. That was service.” (157).
As the members of the MFAA worked their way across northern Europe, they came across many dedicated art officials who worked tirelessly through the six years of the war in Europe to preserve whatever they could. Edsel works to intersperse all angles of those who worked for the preservation of cultural objects into the story, making the narrative larger than the eight MFAA men featured, or the 350 officers who served throughout the life of the MFAA. Whether it involved hiding artworks, furnishings, and books in mines, in basements, or in keeping records of where Nazi officers had shipped treasures into Germany, or preventing the bombing of strongholds, there were countless people who took part in the preservation work. It’s for all these reasons and a unique look at a lesser known aspect of World War II history that I heartily recommend this one. Happy reading!
“The story of Altaussee, so monumental in the world of art and culture, was quickly subsumed by larger stories – Auschwitz, the atomic bomb, and disintegrating relations with the Soviet Union that would define the new world order as the cold war.” (378).
P.S. This book is going to be a George Clooney directed movie starring Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, and a bunch of other faves, in December.