I hadn’t meant to write about The Monuments Men, which, thanks to a movie starring the dapper George Clooney, already has an impressive reserves list. But I keep running into folks who say, “I had no idea there was a book!”—a statement that brings out the evangelical librarian in me. So: there is a book! And if you’re at all interested in the intersection of art and WWII, then you’ll enjoy learning where history and the movie overlap, and where the truth has been stretched to fit a different story.
Nazi art thefts during WWII were meticulously planned and immense in scope. After the war, 400 tons of artworks removed from museums and private collections were found in salt mines and castles, the best of them earmarked for Hitler’s proposed Führersmuseum, never built. But while the scale of art plundering was unprecedented, so were the preservation efforts of museum curators and the military, especially the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit, known as the Monuments Men.
Eventually, 350 men and women from 13 countries served, but at the beginning, there were only a handful: as of D-Day, eight men to inspect every important monument between the English Channel and Berlin. They expected to do conservation triage—follow after the front-line soldiers, survey liberated towns for damaged sites, and organize emergency efforts to protect works from exposure or keep Roman ruins from being used as parking lots for tanks. They didn’t expect that so many masterpieces would be missing completely. As the war drew to an end, their mission morphed into a treasure hunt for artworks and other valuables stashed in hiding places throughout Europe.
Possibly the most bizarre of these was at Bernterode: underground, in a sealed room, a circle of regimental flags surrounding the coffins of Frederick the Great and former German President von Hindenburg. The most exciting cache was at Altaussee, where the paintings were a survey of Art History’s greatest hits, and the mine was packed with bombs.
Edsel’s account follows several of the Monuments Men, drawing on their writings and interviews with surviving officers. It was lonely work, each man improvising on his own without much support or even assigned transportation. The work of identifying and returning artworks continued until 1951, while questions of rightful ownership concern the courts to this day. (For a taste of postwar Monuments work, the National Archives has a fascinating article about the myriad political and logistical issues raised by those coffins alone.)
Check the WRL catalog for The Monuments Men.
The Monuments Men in Italy had a slightly different chain of command, and Edsel covers their exploits in a second book, Saving Italy.