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Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Monuments Men: A Book Review

by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter

Don't give up on this blog because you've just now realized it is a review of a book instead of a movie.  The movie review can be found at the link at this end of this post.  But I wanted to start out with the book, to make sure the real story is given its rightful place.

Robert Edsel and Bret Witter have done a great job of bringing the story of the Monuments Men back from historical obscurity.  I can easily admit to the fact that even though I consider myself a major World War II history buff, and a lover of classical art, I was unaware of these men.  It is sad to think that Walker Hancock, James Rorimer, and George Stout have been largely forgotten.  Edsel and Witter are to be congratulated for unearthing their story and bringing it to light.

I first heard of the story through a movie trailer last summer.  I was excited at the prospect of such a film: WWII, precious art, and the men who risked their lives to save the bulk of Western culture.  That John Goodman and Bill Murray were in the cast was just an extra bowl of ice cream added to an already sumptuous feast.  A little research led me to the book and I felt I needed to read it first before the film arrived.  I'd read a few rumblings that the movie took far too many liberties with the source material and I did not want to get blindsided with the truth after watching the movie.  So I downloaded the book onto my Kindle and broke into the mysterious past of the Monuments Men.

George Stout (from
One of the original members of the Monuments Men, the nickname derived from their MFAA designation (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section) was George Stout (pictured on the left).  Stout was the real drive behind this effort to get in with the Army as they liberated Europe and attempt to save whatever art and cultural artifacts they could.  It was an unheard of mission.  But early in the war, museum curators from Europe, as well as the United States, recognized not only that important architecture and art were at risk from battle damage but that the Nazis were quite purposefully plundering the continent.

Stout, like most of the men in the unit, worked mostly alone, moving with the allies as they pushed back the German line.  Given a list of monuments, art works, buildings, and historical places, Stout and his compatriots tried to find the items on the list as each area was liberated.  They weren't given much else.  No supplies, no transportation, and no authority to protect what they found.  But that did not stop Stout from accomplishing his mission.  Fortified with the zeal to protect the items listed, Stout and the others bullied, begged, and bluffed their way to protecting buildings and sites after, before, and even during battles.

In his mid-forties, Stout spent 13 months on the continent, in pursuit of the items on the list.  Many of them, valuable works of art, had been stolen by the Nazis, and Stout had to perform the work of a detective to track down the loot.  As the war drew to a messy end, the Monuments Men knew that their chances of finding so many missing works of art were growing slimmer by the day.  So desperate was their search for the pilfered paintings and statues, by the end of his tour, during those thirteen months, Stout only took one and a half days off for personal time.

The Madonna of Bruges
The Madonna of Bruges was one of the most important pieces sought by the Allies.  Sculpted by Michelangelo in 1501-1504, it was a beloved piece that resided in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Bruges, Belgium.  The only sculpture of Michelangelo's to leave Italy in his lifetime, it was first taken by the French during the Revolution (later returned by Napoleon) and then stolen by Germans during WWII.

This statue, one of over one hundred statues that were eventually recovered in the massive underground storage mine at Altaussee, had been meticulously hunted by Monuments Man Ronald Balfour for almost an entire year.  Along with Johannes Vermeer's famous painting The Astronomer,  it was one of the most sought after pieces during that last year.

One might wonder about more famous pieces, such as the Mona Lisa.  I knew it had been removed from the Louvre, as had all of the most important French pieces.  Oddly, the Nazis, under Hitler's direction, made an attempt to appear as if their looting had some basis of legality.  If works like the Mona Lisa were owned by a state such as France, they were left alone.  Most art stolen was taken from Jewish collectors, whom the Nazis declared to be non-citizens, which meant they could not own property.  As the war dragged on, this distinction became more hazy and the Nazi's lust for art led them to blur their own semi-legal standards.

from "Minutes of a Special Meeting of the Association of
Museum Directors on the Problems of Protection and
Defense held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art" Dec, 1941
The book is a fascinating look at the Monument men and their lonely attempts to complete such a noble exercise in the face of such a tragic, costly, and hellish war.  It follows not only the Monuments Men, but also the French heroes Rose Valland (custodian of the Jeu de Paume museum during the Nazi occupation, who spied on their looting operations) and Jacques Jaujard, director of French Museums, who asked her to do so.  

The amount of art stolen by the Nazis was astounding.  According to Edsel and Witter, "the Western Allies discovered more than one thousand depositories in southern Germany alone, containing millions of works of art and other cultural treasures, including church bells, stained glass, religious items, municipal records, manuscripts, books, libraries, wine, gold, diamonds, and even insect collections."  The totals are almost impossible to believe.

More impossible to believe is the dedication of the Monuments Men to save not just the culture of the Allies, but of the Germans as well.  British Monuments Man Walker Hancock, like the others, felt this was highly important.  According to Hancock, "to save the culture of your allies is a small thing.  To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life and the life of other men to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle was won..." was unheard of.  But it is unheard of no more, thanks to Edsel and Witter.

The review of the movie can be read here.

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