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The Monuments Men

The preservation, rescue and restoration of Europe's cultural heritage in the face of an enemy determined to destroy it.

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Review by Dennis Showalter

In the midst of history’s most destructive war the United States initiated an Allied division whose mission was to limit cultural damage. Its official title was the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section. It was commonly known as the Monuments Men—350 men and women who understood that the war against the Nazis was also a war for Europe’s cultural and intellectual heritage. Should that be lost, victory would lose much of its meaning.

The Monuments Men included museum curators and directors, artists and art historians, educators and conservators. Most were over 40, with families and careers. The story of this unlikely band of heroes was forgotten until author and producer Robert Edsel focused on its recovery. Collaboration with freelance writer Bret Witter has produced a fast-paced and informative account of preservation, rescue and restoration in the face of an enemy determined to annihilate the culture it despised.

The Monuments Men concentrates on the organization’s work after D-Day in northwest Europe and occupied Germany. Initially it concentrated on protecting cultural landmarks by limiting collateral damage, posting “off limits” signs and getting officers to provide security details. Then the mission expanded. As more and more towns and cities were liberated, the Monuments Men found themselves confronting the greatest organized theft in history. Apart from individualized plundering, the Nazis had indiscriminately looted churches, museums and private collections and stored the loot in thousands of small caches throughout Germany.

The Nazis’ exact intentions remain obscure, but involved acquisitiveness rather than aesthetics. The probable consequences were all too obvious. Not high explosives but greed represented the real threat to Europe’s heritage. The Monuments Men shifted their emphasis to recovery and restoration. Over five million artistic and cultural items had been dislocated by swastikad thieves or those seeking to forestall them: priceless paintings and irreplaceable manuscripts, jewelry, watches, silverware and eyeglasses, all mixed up in packages and trunks. Hundreds of thousands of items remain missing. But the Monuments Men tracked, discovered and returned millions more—after convincing the military authorities that they were dealing with stolen property as opposed to spoils of war. In the process they took chances only intellectuals were likely to accept: driving all night through woods full of Germans, or risking booby traps investigating cached art. They benefited as well from the help of German counterparts, acting from varied combinations of opportunism, guilt and a genuine spirit of restoration that at least began atoning for Nazi exploitation.

For six years after the war some of the Americans remained in Europe, overseeing the details of restoration, organizing exhibitions and generally restoring the matrices of European culture. Nazi propaganda had long insisted that the Americans would confiscate Europe’s art and sell it—being themselves too primitive to appreciate it. More than a bit of that attitude endures to the present. The Monuments Men is both a significant contribution to history and a valuable reminder that fighting for culture is not a synonym for destroying it.

• Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna
• Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine
• Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Good Samaritan
• Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man
• Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece
• Vermeer’s The Astronomer
• Dürer’s Apocalypse woodcuts
• and others by Rubens, Goya, Gauguin, Renoir, and Van Gogh

“It marked the first time an army fought a war while comprehensively attempting to mitigate cultural damage, and it was performed without adequate transportation, supplies, personnel, or historical precedent. The men tasked with this mission were, on the surface, the most unlikely of heroes….they had all chosen to join the war effort in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, and to a man they were willing to fight and die for what they believed.”

“Highly Readable...a remarkable history”
Washington Post

“Engaging and inspiring.”
Publishers Weekly

“After World War Two I served as a British member of the ‘Monuments’ section in Germany. Our task, I believe, was truly important—we were restoring to Europe evidence of its own civilization, which the War seemed virtually to have destroyed —and I was lucky to have had a chance to participate. It is excellent that Mr Edsel has now recorded this remarkable episode, and I am grateful to him for devoting so much energy to telling the stories of those involved.”
—Anne Olivier Bell

  • SKU: 000000000001281032
  • Author: Robert M. Edsel
  • Release date: Sep 3, 2009
  • ISBN: 9781599951492
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Commitment Credit: 1
  • Book Search Plus: No
  • Warnings: No warnings
  • Height: 1.160
  • Length: 9.000
  • Width: 6.000

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