The Monuments Men

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Review #12: Non-Fiction

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel

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I have always been fascinated by World War II and Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler and the whys and hows of the atrocities he inflicted on the world. After seeing the film based on this book (which I thought was great) I immediately tracked a copy down at my local library.

I think whether your interests lie with art history or art conservation, or with WWII in general, you will devour this book. To me it was like discovering a new element of the war, a new tragedy that occurred (one that could have been much worse, with unimaginable consequences).

As you may or may not know, Adolf Hitler loved art; he was an artist himself, and was rejected from an art school in Vienna (by a board of people he assumed were Jewish) before turning is attention to Germany and Politics. During the war, he directed Nazi troops to steal and hoard various precious and priceless works of art from around Europe for his own collection, the collections of some of his men, and for a public collection — his ultimate Fuhrer museum. He also had much of the art work destroyed, pieces he deemed, as he did with people, degenerate and inferior. Artwork that was stolen included pieces by Michelangelo, Raphael, Vermeer, Picasso, Degas, and van Gogh, among hundreds more. Although, thanks to the efforts of the Monuments Men in the 1940s through the 1960s much of this artwork was found and returned to the rightful owners (some merely found, but rightful owners unknown) much of it is still lost, and many assume destroyed.

I think the real story here revolves around a few facts: One, these men (and women) were not all soldiers — in fact many of them were curators, art historians, and museum directors — who risked their lives to find and return these precious pieces. Two, this story and the missions these people went on get largely trumped by the other atrocities of the war. Missing paintings do not compare to millions being rounded up and slaughtered. However, this book does a great job of linking the two to the same goal — destroying an entire culture deemed to be inferior. Not only artwork was taken, but religious relics (even stained glass windows and tapestries from churches) and personal belongings; really anything that could define a culture, stolen in order to belong to the believed superior race, or destroyed to completely remove hundreds of years of cultural history from the world — wiping their existence out entirely. And three, that it is completely unfathomable to think about what the world would be like had these men (and women) not done what they did. Had all of that artwork been lost forever, either destroyed or hidden and never found, so much more than just painting and sculptures would have been lost.

The Mona Lisa was moved several times throughout the war to assure it’s safety, other pieces of art that now hang in the Louvre were stolen and eventually recovered and returned. When I visited the museum years ago, before knowing this story, I don’t think I felt the proper appreciation. I don’t think I’ll ever look at artwork the same again.

Edsel tells this amazing story of bravery and courage and conviction with an engaging narrative and uses personal letters and diaries to really make it relatable. The book not only details the work these men and women did in the war, but also their background and their lives after their missions. Edsel presents letters to and from home, care packages, and their own personal words describing the Monuments Men’s efforts as well as their experience in war-torn and occupied cities along the way. Though the story is not about the Holocaust per se, these men and women were in the thick of it, they saw towns and villages that were reduced to nothing more than crumbling buildings and dislocated civilians, and were also witnesses to work camps and death camps and came in contact with victims and survivors while fulfilling their missions. Some Monuments Men even lost their lives trying to save these cultural icons.

Edsel’s book is informative and honest, thrilling and captivating, with just the right amount of the personal lives of these men and women woven in. It is not a book about any one man, or any one effort, but a story of how the Monuments Men came to be, what their overall mission and goal was, and how they were able to accomplish it with far less resources than any other area of the military.

The one thing I was a little put off by while reading was the time line. For the most part it was chronological, however, with the men in the group being split up and located in various parts of Europe throughout the war, when going from one group to another, Edsel would back track a few years or so to tell what was happening with another group of men during the same time. So, I’d be reading about something that was happening in France between late 1944 and early 1945, and then he’d take us back to 1938 to when a different member was just joining the force and learning his orders, etc. Not that it changed the story, I just prefer, especially with non-fiction historical texts, to move chronologically. It’s a personal preference that I think others will not mind at all.

I feel this is a very important story, and it’s told with great care and an unimaginable amount of research. I would recommend this to anyone interested in art history or conservation, and WWII or the Nazi influence in Europe. But really, I think it’s something everyone should at least be aware of; it’s a great addition to the historical context of the war.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

*cover art from Amazon.com

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