The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
By: Robert M. Edsel & Bret Witter
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.
In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Monuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.
Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.
I had been curious about this book ever since I heard about the movie (starring Matt Damon and George Clooney; no, I haven’t seen the movie yet) and heard that it was based off a non-fiction title. I’ve read accounts from World War Two in the past from the perspective of the soldiers–Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers is another title that comes to mind that I enjoyed–but this one sounded very unique because this group of men (and women) worked to recover and protect artwork and monuments from the destructiveness of the war efforts.
The Monuments Men reveals an important story from World War Two. From all of my studies of the period and the war itself, I knew that the US army made some effort to protect some of the famous landmarks, but I’ve never read a full account of the efforts made to locate and recover the missing artworks from various countries. It’s a slow process, and like any investigation or research work, required some painstaking investigating, searching for clues and talking to the locals. Sometimes their leads are a bust, sometimes they are fruitful. These individuals also faced the additional odds of the war efforts still ongoing, villages and towns in ruin in the wake of such fighting, as well as an army hierarchy that has no system in place to accommodate these individuals. It’s an eye-opening account, and at times moving as artwork is snatched up and whisked away, uncared for properly, some destroyed (while the Benedictine abbey at Montecassino has been rebuilt since, it still pains me to read how the original building was reduced to rubble, historic codices lost forever).
What is also important about this book is how it reveals the story of Rose Valland (Wiki entry), a French art historian who worked in the Resistance during the war and who recorded details of the Nazi plundering during the Occupation. It was sad to learn that it was only recently that the importance of what she did was acknowledged because what she did was brave and she recovered so much. In a story that’s dominated by army men, it’s great to see that this book included and acknowledged this woman’s role and contribution to the recovery efforts. To be honest, I was more interested in her story half of the time because she had to live undercover working in the Jeu de Paume Museum amidst of the Nazi presence.
As interesting as the story was, I found the writing style and the narrative a little too relaxed for my liking; sometimes the narrative would include phrases like “thank goodness” or “Ahh, well.” which seemed out of place for a non-fiction history book. There were also a few sweeping generalisations or remarks that, while I understood why they mentioned it, felt a bit out of place considering not as much time was spent focused on those Nazi characters and for the nature of this book. But what really riled the historian/academic in me was the repetition: the narrative was too repetitious at times. I thought I already got all of the biographical information from the American members of the Monuments Men in the first part of the book (“The Mission”) but then at the start of each chapter in the following segment, I received a recap about each man plus additional information about the soldier’s background. At this stage of the narrative, I thought it was unnecessary and should have focused on what each person was doing at that time, moving forward in their story. Additionally, I felt that some of the non-American members of the story did not get some proper introduction, in particular Major Balfour of the Canadian army–or maybe I just missed his introduction altogether.
As a complete aside, I’m not sure when I’ll get around to the movie adaptation but I’m curious to see how they handled the story as the members of the Monuments Men spent a lot of their time scattered across Europe. I was quite surprised by this because the movie trailer made it look as though they were together for the duration of the Allied invasion and efforts.
Overall The Monuments Men sheds light on important efforts made during the Second World War to locate, recover, and protect major artworks and monuments across Europe. Of course this is only part of the story: the book doesn’t focus on all of the artworks recovered, and Italy was not covered as extensively as I would have wanted in this book. The book also ends a little abruptly, the last chapter summarising everyone’s work and loves post-1945 briefly. But if there’s also anything else that one would take out of this book, it’s the importance of art, architecture, and culture to a society, a people, a nation, a heritage and a history to protect so to speak. This book is a good starting point if you’re interested in the art world during the Second World War and army and civilian efforts made during the period.