Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Monuments Men - Robert M. Edsel

This was a book that I really wanted to have read before I saw the movie, but alas ... the movie came to our little rural backwater before I could lay hands on the text. Consequently, I was left always trying to match the actors to the actual Monuments Men that Robert Edsel brings alive through narrative, letters home, Nazi bureaucratic correspondence, and description of military front line movements. I'm so glad I read this book, as I gained better understanding of this chapter in WWII history.

I am an art museum enthusiast and some of the pieces of art discussed, I have seen in my travels. Sigh. Reading about their history and dangerous movements during the 30's and 40's made me shake my head in wonder. The decision to rape European nations and private collectors of their cultural treasures was scrupulously thought out by the Nazi regime. Frantic efforts by American and British cultural leaders to spearhead an art recovery project were close to miraculous. Convincing military leaders to carry out careful targeting of bombing raids and battle lines was a coup! In the course of three years, thousands of cultural treasures were identified 'on the ground' and spared bombing and destruction. Thousands more were recovered from secret repositories that Nazi military leaders and unscrupulous German and Austrian art 'shysters' used to hide collections.  The hidden pieces were intended for Hitler's 'dream museum', the personal collections of high-level Nazi officers, and 'monetary insurance' should they need to escape in defeat. Repatriating the artwork has been an on-going effort and continues to this day.

There are many civilian heroes in this story. For me though, Rose Valland, a lower level art historian and museum clerk in Paris stands above the rest. Miss Valland catalogued and saved documentation of thousands of pieces of art either commandeered for Hitler or seized by SS troops when they rounded up Jews and seized their possessions. She provided Allied Monuments Men with valuable records concerning the arts' movement by train and ship out of France and back to Germany and the hidden storage facilities. She worked tirelessly to find lost pieces even after the lion's share of the art had been restored to the countries that considered them national treasures and to the wealthy families that could document their pre-war ownership. She tried to track down and discredit art dealers and gallery owners who had shamelessly profited from the SS round-ups. She is, quite simply, a righteous soul.

The Monuments Men were remarkable people, skilled in all the aspects of the cultural arts - from architecture to sculpture to painting and photography to publishing to art restoration. Those skills and a dedication to the idea that a nation's history and a people's identity is directly connected to its artistic history
snapped political leaders to attention at a crucial time during WWII. Without their efforts, I shudder to think of the loss to our world's cultural heritage.

The next time you visit a museum of art or take a trip to Europe, look at the paintings and sculpture with a new eye. Just think, some of those pieces were grabbed, wrapped, trundled, hidden, found, restored, and returned to the people ... and many were slotted to be destroyed unconditionally by madmen who would destroy wartime loot rather than have it fall into the hands of 'their enemies'. I, myself, would love to visit the grave of Rose Valland in a little village in France and place a single red rose and some prayer stones on her little spot.

Thank you, Robert Edsel for telling an important story. Your book is fast-paced and conveys the frantic movement of the Allies as they moved to take down the German Reich, the frustration with military and political bureaucracy that the Allied Monuments men faced, and the drive and innovation shown in order to get a mission accomplished against severe odds. Job well done!


  1. I’ll keep this one in mind, Susan. My husband is quite interested in stories of events during this period – and ALWAYS looking for a good book. Thank you.

  2. An excellent review! Makes me want to track this book down and, though I had no intention of seeing the movie, I may just well have changed my mind. It also explains why you were one if the few who would prefer to watch Saving PRyan as you enjoy WWll history.