The art world realized that Germany’s powerful weapons, and especially its use of massive aerial bombardment, had suddenly made the bulk of the continent’s great artistic masterpieces susceptible to destruction.
Those of us lucky enough to have visited the great cities of Europe will never forget the incredible art and architecture to be found there. From magnificent cathedrals to priceless paintings, we are constantly bombarded by the masterpieces of Western art. But so often we take their existence for granted. We forget that it is nothing short of a miracle that they are even still here for us to see. They are here due to the efforts of a few courageous men and women who faced down the greatest cultural thieves in history and risked their lives to restore it to us. In his book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, Robert Edsel tells the story of these brave people and gives an even greater appreciation for the art treasures that populate the museums and streets of Europe.
I have long had an interest in World War II and am no stranger to the many different stories surrounding this troubled period. But until I read this book I had no idea that there were people whose sole mission during the war was to protect and recover the art treasures of Europe. I first heard about this book when Rick Steves interviewed the author for his radio program, and I am so happy that I read it because it is a fascinating story. What is perhaps most remarkable about this group of individuals (collectively termed the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section) is that these were not hardened soldiers, but rather ordinary citizens. Art historians, artists, and museum curators who volunteered to serve even though most of them were older than the average soldier. Many of them could have had comfortable desk jobs or even stayed out of the war all together, but they gave it up to serve their country and save Western culture.
But though their motives were noble, the task before them was far from easy. They usually worked on their own, rarely having the chance to communicate with other Monuments Men. They had no real commander and had to rely on their own knowledge and wits to complete their mission. They even lacked the basic equipment to complete their tasks like typewriters, signs, and vehicles. And they were constantly at odds with other members of the armed forces who had no intention of changing their way of doing things to spare a small village church, no matter how important. Perhaps no one in this book had it tougher than Jacques Jaujard and Rose Valland, curators of the Louvre and Jue de Paume respectively, who had to work under the watchful and suspicious eyes of the Nazis.
The importance of their task becomes clear early on as this is not just about saving individual works of art, but about rescuing a millennium of European culture from almost certain destruction. Some pieces like the Madonna of La Gleize had significance beyond their value as art and served as a comfort to the downtrodden people of occupied villages. Perhaps what moved me the most was how these men didn't just look out for the culture of the occupied nations, but also for that of Germany itself. Despite the hatred and disgust they had for the Nazis, they knew that German culture was worth saving and they set their own feelings aside to complete the task. Edsel stresses this idea of saving culture because it is sorely needed in the wars of today. Unfortunately, our army did not remember the ideas of the Monuments Men when Iraq was invaded and many priceless pieces of Iraqi culture were stolen or destroyed. Hopefully, this story will become more well known and teach us all the respect we should show another culture, even when it belongs to our enemy.
As I read the stories of the many buildings and works of art that these men helped save, I couldn't help but place it in the context of my own travels. I remembered walking the corridors of the Louvre and standing inside Aachen Cathedral, totally captivated by what my eyes were seeing. And yet my experience would not have been possible without the work of these courageous men. We are so lucky that these treasures are still here to awe and inspire us. I highly recommend this book for those interested in art, World War II, and European culture in general. You will certainly gain an appreciation for the work that was done.
Later this year, a film version of this book will be released. It will star George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville. I have to say that this is one film I am really looking forward to.