The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
(2009), a work of military nonfiction by Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter), explores the efforts soldiers and civilians made to protect art, heritage, and treasures from disappearing during WWII. Hollywood later developed the book into a major motion picture. Edsel is an internationally bestselling author of historical and military nonfiction, and he produces historical documentaries. He is a trustee of the National WWII Museum and founded the Monuments Men Foundation. He received the National Humanities Medal for his service work.
Between 1943 and 1951, the Monuments Men single-handedly recovered stolen artwork, cultural items, and other national treasures from the Nazis. They also protected museums, churches, and other significant national structures from destruction. Although they served the Allies, the Monuments Men waged their own war against cultural espionage. Focusing on the period between June 1944 and May 1945, Edsel concentrates on nine Monuments Men and a civilian woman, examining primary sources, including field journals and diaries, wartime reports, and private letters. Edsel chose to restrict his focus to these individuals because it is the only way to create a coherent narrative.
Edsel notes that only 350 individuals served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) division, as it was formally known. The Monuments Men worked across Europe. They were especially active in Germany, France, Austria, and the Netherlands, although they also worked in Italy and elsewhere. As it is impossible to cover all these areas in any detail in one book, Edsel leaves Italy out of The Monuments Men
, covering it in a separate book.
Although historical nonfiction, The Monuments Men
is a story about people who cared so much about culture and national heritage, they risked their lives to preserve it. These men generally had a connection to the arts before WWII. For example, Major Ronald Edmund Balfour was a history and ecclesiastical scholar, and Captain Walker Hancock was a renowned sculptor who designed the 1942 Army Air Medal.
The Monuments Men followed Allied troops into battle zones. While troops fought on the front lines, the Monuments Men scoured the territories for precious art and documents. They also stayed behind the front lines when the Allies defended their own borders, to ensure the Nazis couldn’t steal everything from museums and libraries. The Nazis, of course, had their own spies and divisions tasked with stealing cultural objects, and so this became a dangerous and difficult task.
Edsel describes the culture war. Hitler planned to turn Germany into a cultural epicenter. He didn’t only want to destroy artwork and historical monuments elsewhere; he wanted to preserve the best art and music and hold it forever in Germany. He stole, for example, paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, and sculptures by Donatello and Michelangelo. Although the Allies originally established the MFAA to protect buildings, it soon became obvious that the focus should be on protecting smaller pieces.
Edsel explores the typical duties expected of these soldiers. They secured important buildings, protecting them from bombing, gunfire, or further damage. The soldiers within the MFAA formed close relationships with the troops they followed, because they often stayed with the same soldiers for months, even years, at a time.
Once the Monuments Men secured important buildings, they turned their attention to protecting the artwork, sculptures, and documents inside them. They kept detailed logs so that they knew if anything went missing. Other Monuments Men, stationed elsewhere, could then track these pieces down and return them through well-constructed communications networks.
The Monuments Men often worked closely with civilians. For example, one woman, who worked in a Parisian art gallery, cataloged her entire collection and raised the alarm if anything went missing. She also spied on the Germans who sometimes moved stolen artwork through her gallery, and she reported them to the Allies. Just like the Monuments Men, civilians risked their lives to protect and preserve art and sculptures we now take for granted.
Edsel notes that the Monuments Men walked a fine line between hunting down missing treasures and recovering them unharmed. Hitler instructed German soldiers and civilians to destroy cultural pieces before handing them over to the Allies. If the Third Reich couldn’t have the artwork, no one could. Working with the Monuments Men meant outsmarting these individuals and recovering stolen heritage through stealth, not brute force.The Monuments Men
highlights crucial weaknesses in Nazi strategy. While the Nazis wanted all the treasures that they could get their hands on, they didn’t understand its value. Nazis saw art as a status symbol, but they didn’t care about its cultural and artistic worth. The Allies, on the other hand, didn’t link art with social or financial status. They saw its true worth, and this ultimately helped them win the cultural war against the Nazis.