In every big disaster movie, when the aliens invade and blow up Paris or a volcano wipes out a city in Italy, my first fleeting thought is always for the art and architecture that gets destroyed before the people. I’d feel a pang when I’d read a note about a painting or a building that was destroyed during war in an art history text. So of course I ended up staying awake until 1:30 in the morning to finish Robert Edsel’s history of the Monuments, Find Arts, and Archives mission in The Monument’s Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.
During World War II, organizations like the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) looted works of art from all over Europe under a veneer of legality. (Some of the art they took have still not been found.) As early as 1941, museum officials in the United States were worried about what could happen, but people like George Stout and the people who became known as the Monuments Men had to fight through years of army red tape to get their chance that tracking down missing art and stopping historically important buildings from being blown up.
Edsel points to the destruction of Monte Cassino during the invasion of Italy as the turning point for the Monuments Men. After the monastery at Monte Cassino was gutted by Allied bombing, General Eisenhower wrote a directive that monuments were to be protected unless it would cost too many lives. In the middle of a war zone, however, there aren’t any people or supplies to spare to protect art. During the invasion of Normandy, Saint-Lô was destroyed before the Monuments Men could even get on the scene.
They had better luck after the Allies broke out of Normandy, liberated Paris, and started marching through Belgium and the Netherlands. Information started coming to them about where the ERR had been sending works of art “for its protection.” Once the Monuments Men made it to the Rhineland, they started finding cache after cache of looted art. Most of the paintings, sculptures, books, and prints were stashed away in salt mines (many of them beginning to flood as their machinery broke down). The second half of The Monuments Men has the chief members of the MFAA racing towards the caches at Neuschwanstein and the salt mine at Altaussee as the American and Soviet armies closed on remaining German strongholds. The MFAA spent years after the war looking for and trying to repatriate art. Unfortunately, many of the rightful owners were dead or missing.
The Monuments Men was a great counterpoint to a novel I read earlier this year, Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure. In that book, based on the history of the Hungarian Gold Train, we saw the Allies at their less than honest as they used looted art and furniture to decorate generals’ commandeered palaces. Along with the lack of men and supplies, the Monuments Men had to fight against their own servicemen. James Rorimer would blister people for even contemplating getting sticky fingers. Some of the Allies—like the Soviets—viewed recovered art as trophies.
Reading The Monuments Men was a heartening (though occasionally nail-biting) experience. The pace of the book slows down in the middle, as Rorimer tries to get traction with Rose Valland. Valland was a hero who stayed at the Jeu de Paume to protect its collection and pass information to the French Resistance. Because she had spent the war unsuccessfully trying to fend off the ERR and Hermann Göring‘s people from using the Jeu de Paume as their own personal art dealership, Valland was rightfully trepidatious of the Americans. Her information made it possible for many of the German caches to be found and for the owners to be named, if not found.
Edsel ends his book with a short post-history in which the Monuments Men were mostly forgotten—even though their mission still existed. Edsel points to the looting of Iraq’s state museum during the second Iraq war as an example of how the MFAA is still needed. Edsel didn’t need to dress up the Monuments Men’s story. (I do wish Edsel’s editor had taken a firmer hand. There were a lot of repeated explanations and sentences that just didn’t need to be there.) I’m glad that their story is finally being told.