The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter.
This is the amazing WWII story of a massive Nazi conspiracy to loot the art treasures of Europe from museums, churches, monasteries, and, finally, from the private collections of the undesirable races, and the efforts of the allies to retrieve the stolen works from their thousands of repositories around Germany and return them to their rightful owners. Many famous paintings including some by Rembrandt and Vermeer, sculptures by Michelangelo (including his Bruges Madonna), and the Ghent altarpiece, were all part of the booty. While some went into private collections of high ranking German officers, much of it was set aside in order that Hitler could build the greatest gallery in all of Europe in his hometown. Despite the recovery of hundreds of thousands of pieces of art, a great many paintings were either destroyed or never recovered.
The author’s note at the beginning introduces the main characters of the story, a handful of men who, under the leadership of George Stout, began the monumental task of protecting, restoring, finding, and returning the millions of stolen pieces of furniture, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, stained glass windows, carpets, tapestries, and documentation that was the backbone of European cultural history. Starting with no equipment, supplies, or transportation, these men from various arts backgrounds had to hitch rides when they could, commandeer abandoned vehicles when opportunities presented, and make their way to the front lines to find various buildings, monuments, sculptures, and paintings that had survived or been damaged, document their condition, keep both soldiers and citizens from doing further damage, and, in some cases, remove the objects to safety. While General Eisenhower had clearly established a policy of avoiding the shelling of buildings of cultural importance, the officers on the front lines did not always agree with the policy. The men of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives) had their work cut out for them. One of them even got arrested because the soldier didn’t believe such a division existed and assumed his ID to be a forgery.
In addition to problems within their own armies, they were often met with suspicion from the local authorities. U.S. Third Army Second Lieutenant James Rorimer was assigned to Paris after it was liberated. Here he found two allies in his work in the persons of Jacques Jaujard, director of the French National Museum and protector of the French state art collection under the occupation, and Rose Valland, an unpaid volunteer at the Jeu de Paume museum when the Nazis arrived in Paris. The Nazis enlisted her as temporary custodian of the museum which they used as a main repository for confiscated art work, thus enabling her to spy on them, record the distribution of valuable paintings and, at times, contribute to delays in shipping which kept trainloads of the artwork from leaving France at all. It is through their efforts that Rorimer eventually learned of many of the Nazi repositories that held the looted treasures of Europe. Jaujard and Valland were heroes, walking a thin line between safety and certain death for their efforts.
Edsel, from his vast research and knowledge, is able to put very human faces on the people portrayed here as we meet their families, read their letters home, and see their daily frustrations, at first with too little to do and nothing to show for their assignments, then with so much to do and often under adverse conditions and short timelines, without the means to properly pack thousands of paintings or the vehicles to remove them to safety. As the Allied lines moved forward, these men did, too, and were faced with the devastation of whole villages where the town centres were often pulverized to a pile of rubble that blocked the streets, adding to the difficulty of removing things that had survived in order to protect them. As the Allies began to converge on Berlin, the more difficulties they faced, and the more work there was to do.
One of their most serious obstacles, as the war began to wind down, was the dis-organization and contrary orders amidst the Nazi party faithful. Hitler had issued the so-called Nero Decree (you remember Nero; he supposedly played his fiddle while Rome burned) on March 18th, 1945, which commanded all military officers to destroy “all military, transportation, industrial, communications, and food-supply facilities, as well as all resources within the Reich which the enemy might use either immediately or in the foreseeable future for continuing the war.” At least one governor (gauleiter), August Eigruber of Altaussee, was determined to follow his führer’s directions to the letter and prepared to blow up the nearby salt mines without removing the thousands of art treasures stored within first despite Hitler’s obvious desire to present the stolen art to the world. (Verified by his last will and testament dictated April 28th where he bequeathed that his “pictures, in the collections which I have bought in the course of the years, have never been collected for private purposes, but only for the extension of a gallery in my home town of Linz a.d. Donau.”) Anyone who questioned or denied the orders of the gauleiter could be summarily executed on the spot. What to do?
This book is compelling, full of human interest and heroes, some of whom were vilified after the war. It truly conveys the massive task these men undertook. To drive the point home, Edsel explains that when the fighting ended, more than 300 men and women were added to the task and it still took another 6 years to complete it. As much as possible. As we know from the news, some of the stolen artwork continues to surface today.
Non-fiction is not my favourite thing but my interest in this subject was piqued by the movie, and this narrative moves along very quickly. It was fascinating reading and I never wanted to put the book down. I loved the maps at the beginning of each section which made it very clear where the Allies were and what they were facing. The documentation of photographs of some of the buildings and artwork, showing where they were found, clearly showed the extent to which the Nazis were prepared to go to claim these European treasures for their own. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, this is a great book with a lot of insider details about the fact and fiction of this incredible mission and its aftermath. * * * * *
This book and the movie are both available from Amazon, CA.
Don’t forget to answer the poll in the sidebar. Two clicks and you’re done.