THE MONUMENTS MEN by Robert M. Edsel

One of the hidden stories of World War II was the work of a group of American soldiers and their allies who worked tirelessly to save, track down, and recover the cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis. Most of these individuals were a part of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA) of the United States Army during the war. At a time when Hollywood is releasing a major film on their work in a few weeks I can only hope that the portrayal of these unselfish and hard working people measures up to Robert M. Edsel’s THE MONUMENTS MEN, which chronicles their amazing accomplishments. Edsel tells the story of nine individuals who are representative of the 350 Monument Men who were part of the American effort to save the world’s cultural heritage from the Nazis. These individuals include their recognized leader Lieutenant George Stout, Second Lieutenant James J. Rorimer who was able to locate massive amounts of seized works of art, Rose Valland, a French woman who worked with the resistance whose knowledge of what was seized in France was encyclopedic, Captain Robert Posey, Captain Walter Hancock, and Jacques Jaujard, the director of the French National Museum. Obviously there are many other heroes, but Edsel concentrates on those mentioned. As the war progressed the Germans would steal massive amounts of art as they conquered each nation. They looted museums, archives, churches, homes, in the name of the Thousand Year Reich. By the end of the war the Allies “discovered over 1000 repositories in southern Germany alone, containing millions of works of art and other cultural treasures.” The members of the MFAA worked diligently to locate, preserve, and return their findings to their countries of origin. These included “church bells, stained glass, religious items, municipal records, manuscripts, books, libraries, wine, gold, diamonds, and even insect collections.” (400) Nazi theft was based on Adolf Hitler’s dream to make Berlin, the new Rome; and his birthplace, Linz, Austria the new Aachen of European culture. The goal of his minions was to build and stock his Fuhrermuseum by pillaging the museums and private art collections throughout Europe.

Edsel tells the story of the Monument Men by interspersing Nazi documents and letters from these men home to their families throughout the narrative. What we learn early on is that Nazi leaders from Hitler on down, especially Hermann Goring and Alfred Rosenberg issued orders, not only for entire collections, but specific paintings that they wanted for themselves. These men were in charge of the ransacking of Europe and were in competition with each other and other Nazi officials to acquire as much of Europe’s cultural heritage as they could. The chapter that describes the German seizure of Michelangelo’s Madonna provides insight into how the Nazis operated as they continued to steal and loot art treasures even after the war had turned against them.

Edsel does an excellent job personalizing the stories of each of the Monument Men he writes about. The MFAA were not an army unit, but groups of individuals who worked together on a daily basis. These men were scattered throughout the American army, with individuals being attached to different army groups, i.e.; Robert Posey, from rural Alabama was attached to Patton’s Third Army; James Rorimer, a rising curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was attached to the United States Seventh Army. These men were given a broad mission to locate and preserve as much of Europe’s treasures as they could as they fanned out into France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. When Walker Hancock, a sculptor from St. Louis entered Chartres he found the cathedral almost destroyed by the Germans. Hancock and a demolitions expert were able to locate twenty-two sets of explosives and defuse them to save as much of the cathedral as possible. We follow George Stout, an expert in the then obscure field of art restoration as he helps locate a Dutch mountainside tunnel at Maastricht that served as a Nazi Repository for the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam. Included in this repository was Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Edsel provides an interesting description how the Louvre Museum was emptied before the war by French officials. The Mona Lisa was taken out on a stretcher and transported by ambulance. However once the Germans took Paris in June, 1940, Hitler who believed he was entitled to the spoils of war, and his henchmen went to “great lengths to establish new laws and procedures to ‘legalize’ the looting activities that would follow.” (117) the Germans took whatever treasure they desired and Hitler wanted to use these art objects as collateral in negotiations.

Edsel recounts the difficulties the Monument Men faced in carrying out their mission. They had no central office to report to and a structure in place to supply them. They did not possess any useful communications equipment and seemed at times to operate in a vacuum. Cameras would seem to have been a necessity, but very few were available and none were new. Transportation was a nightmare as no vehicles were assigned to them, though one of them was able to abscond with a Volkswagen mini-bus, whose engine was shot and did not have a windshield! When the landing at Normandy took place it took weeks and sometimes few months for all of them to cross the English Channel into France. Their work was not considered a priority for many officers and they had no one in the rear echelon to plead their case. Despite these challenges they were able to do a remarkable job that Edsel describes in detail.

Perhaps the most interesting relationship that existed was between Rose Vallard and James Rorimer. Vallard was a curator at the Louvre who was in charge of the Jeu de Paume, a structure that was built as an indoor tennis court by Napoleon III, but had been converted to exhibition space for foreign contemporary art. During the war the Nazis used the Jeu de Paume “as their clearinghouse for the spoils of France. For four years, the private collections of French citizens, especially Jews, moved through its galleries like water flowing downhill to the Reich.” (177) It was a very efficient operation and Vallard observed it all. She made copious notes about what was taken, where things were stored, and how objects were transported, including their destination. Vallard had ties to the French Resistance, particularly her friend and compatriot, Jacques Jaujard. James Rorimer was assigned to Paris and developed a relationship with Vallard. It took time to build trust between the two, as Vallard who was the key to recovering vast amounts of art, was suspicious of everyone. Once they were able to gain respect for each other Vallard’s work enabled Rorimer to locate 175 repositories alone in the territory of the Seventh Army, as well as numerous others, including the cache at Mad Ludwig II of Bavaria’s castle at Neuschwanstein.

The stories that Edsel tells in many cases are unbelievable. When Robert Posey suffers from an impacted wisdom tooth a little boy in Trier refers him to a dentist. The dentist takes care of the tooth but tells him about his son, an art scholar. He brings Posey and his partner PVT 1st Class Lincoln Kistein, a legendary cultural impresario from New York, to meet his son who turns out to be Dr. Hermann Bunjes one of Goring’s top art officials. The information they glean eventually brings them to Altaussee salt mines outside Saltzburg that stored more than 1,687 paintings in addition to Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. The stories are endless as Edsel follows these men on their recovery missions, brings the reader inside the American command under Eisenhower as they come across the Buchenwald concentration camp, and describes how paintings by Rembrandt, Raphael, and Van Eyck etc. are recovered.

Despite the superb work of the Monument Men during and after the war many examples of Europe’s cultural heritage, whether from museums or taken from private collections, remain lost. In the 1990s there was a renewed interest in this subject and periodically we hear about paintings found in attics or basements, and law suits to adjudicate these findings determining the rightful owners after fifty years or more. It took a long time for these men to gain recognition from the American military and public for their work. Edsel’s research along with the upcoming film should foster this process even further. Though most of these men have been recognized posthumously, Edsel deserves a tremendous amount of credit for bringing their work to our attention.

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