Saving Europe’s art during World War II re-opens a part of history that should never be forgotten

February 10, 2010

Bobz Book Reviews

Monuments Men cover

“The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History'”

by Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter

In the middle of World War II, precious works of art — many of them objects of religious relevance — were saved by the efforts of a handful of soldiers. This is their story, one that really hasn’t been told before, and it’s a great read.

Many of the rescued art pieces were priceless and well-known in art circles. Others held value only to the townspeople who revered them. In some cases historic churches were saved; in other cases they were not, like the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. Some of the pieces were rescued from the hands of Nazi Germany’s thieving leaders; others were rescued from the bombs and shells of war.

Men from 13 nations, many of them volunteers, formed the new Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allied force. They hunted for, found, and preserved for posterity pieces like Michelangelo’s statue, the Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s The Astronomer and a Rembrandt or two or three.

One-time museum directors, curators, artists, art scholars and archivists became The Monuments Men, as they came to be called. Author Robert Edsel explained that their job was simple: “to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.” It was the first time in history that an army fought a war while simultaneously attempting to mitigate cultural damage.

From the first efforts to protect a remarkable 16th-century Renaissance church in Normandy, to finding boxcars loaded with paintings the Nazis stole from the French, to sleuthing out where Hitler had hidden an enormous cache of art work in an ancient salt mine in Austria, the Monuments Men did an invaluable service to not just the cultural heritage of Europe but all of human civilization.

Incredible amount stolen

The Nazis had gone so far as to take the stained glass windows out of the cathedral in Strasbourg, France. They had transferred so many art pieces to the famous fairy-like castle at Neuschwanstein, Germany, that it took six weeks to remove them all.

In the salt mine at Altaussee the Monuments Men made an amazing discovery. Deep inside that Austrian mountain the Nazis had hidden, well, here’s the list:

  • 6,577 paintings;
  • 230 drawings or watercolors;
  • 954 prints;
  • 137 pieces of sculpture;
  • 129 pieces of arms and armor;
  • 79 boxes of objects;
  • 484 cases of what was thought to be archives;
  • 78 pieces of furniture;
  • 122 tapestries;
  • 181 cases of books;
  • 1,200-to-1,700 cases apparently of books or similar items.

Edsel has done remarkable work here, piecing together interviews and documents to tell this story, one he calls “a footnote” in the larger story of the war. He allows us into the humanity of the Monuments Men as they discover that the Nazis are not only brutal warriors, amoral killers, but, at the highest levels, simply thieves.

Yet, despite his obvious passion for the arts and culture that were saved and make this story, what I admired most in reading this work was a few lines where he put the horror of Hitler’s Nazi regime into perfect perspective:

“More than sixty years after the death of Adolf Hitler, we still live in a world altered by his legacy…the lasting impact of his bitter reign is best measure in more ephemeral ways: fifty million loved ones who never returned home from the war to rejoin their families or start one of their own; brilliant, creative contributions never made to our world because scientists, artists, and inventors lost their lives too early or were never born; cultures built over generations reduced to ashes and rubble because one human being judged groups of other human beings less worthy than his own.”— bz

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About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

View all posts by Bob Zyskowski