I really want to see the movie "The Monuments Men" when it comes out in February. It was originally scheduled for December, so I picked up Robert M. Edsel's book, The Monuments Men, which is the basis for the movie. George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, and John Goodman are in the film. I hope they do justice to the heroic men who saved so many of Europe's cultural treasures, hunting down the art and books that had been stolen by the Nazis. The subtitle of this book is perfect, "Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History."
Adolf Hitler saw himself as an artist-emperor who would gather all of the world's finest art, and build a complex in his hometown to house it. His plans for world domination included the theft of the world's art from its private owners, and from the museums and churches that housed it. As the Nazis conquered countries, they also stole the countries' treasures. One small group of men, representing Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives, had a mandate from President Roosevelt, and the approval of General Eisenhower, to retrieve that art. Most of the men came from art backgrounds, and, in the army, were supposed to be moving with the troops to assess and preserve the art as they moved through Europe. None of them knew it was going to be as difficult as it was. With no vehicles, gasoline, typewriters, or authority, they had only their own convictions to carry them through Europe, from France to Germany and Austria, as they tried to convince higher ups that they really did have a mandate to find and save Europe's art treasures.
Robert Edsel's book is the story of eight Monuments Men and two French museum curators determined to find the art work stolen from the world. This isn't the easiest book to read as the men slogged through the Western front trying to reach hidden artwork. And, even when they reached it, the treasures were buried in salt mines and hidden in castles that were difficult to reach. They found themselves fighting for vehicles, trying to preserve churches, and arguing with troops and commanders who don't care about art, only about moving forward.
In some ways, The Monuments Men was also a horrifying book to read. What if the Nazis has gotten away with those thefts? Yes, there are many pieces that were lost forever, but so much was saved because of one group dedicated to finding the stolen art. What if there hadn't been such an effort? There hasn't been a team dedicated to preserving art in any war since World War II. Carl Brookins mentioned Iraq when he wrote a guest piece here recently. And, the book ends with a comment about the 15,000 works of art looted from the National Museum of Iraq during and after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower understood the importance of each country's culture to its people. Fortunately for history, Robert M. Edsel tells the story of World War II and those people charged with preserving the world's culture in The Monuments Men.
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. Center Street. 2009. ISBN 9781599951492 (hardcover), 473p.
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