Book review: “The Monuments Men” by R.M. Edsel and B. Witter

Of course, you’re familiar with the title of this book, because it was turned into a film with a star-cast. Unlike this film and its actors, the true heroes who played a part in the real events described in this book remain mostly anonymous.

As the author writes in his note at the start of the book and before the story commences:

“… My original plan for this book was to tell the story of the Monuments Men’s activities throughout Europe, concentrating on events from June 1944 to May 1945 through the experiences of just eight Monuments Men who served on the front lines – plus two key figures, including one woman – using their field journals, diaries, wartime reports, and most importantly their letters home … Because of the vastness of the story and my determination to faithfully convey it, the final manuscript … it regrettably became necessary to exclude from this book the Monuments Men’s activities in Italy. I have used northern Europe – mainly France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria – as a crucible for understanding the Monuments effort. …”(p xv)

Monuments menWhen you finish this book, you’ll truly regret the author had to leave so much out. The whole story, from beginning to end, should be available in more than one book. Say: part one dealing with the beginnings of the Monuments Men and what they accomplished in Italy. Part two could cover what is now the main part of this book, including the winding down of the activities. There would be more space to tell about the MFAA, the Monuments Men (women and men) and all the others who helped save so many works of art, including buildings, museums – our cultural heritage.

For as Robert Edsel also states in his note: “… In the end, 350 or so men and women from thirteen nations served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section … However, there were only sixty or so Monuments Men serving in Europe by the end of the combat … Monuments-laden Italy had just twenty-two Monuments officers. …” (p xv)

With the destructive power at mankind’s disposal during WWII, armies not focussed on saving art treasures, and the small number of Monument Men and tiny MFAA – it is a miracle so much was saved.

The book has five sections, plenty maps, pictures, notes, a bibliography. The first section, “The Mission”, covers 1938 – 1944. However, its first chapter “Out of Germany”, deals with the German town of Karlsruhe 1715 – 1938. Karlsruhe, is a place I visited several times; totally unaware of its link to the Monuments Men.

Unlike older German towns, Karlsruhe was planned by its creator and built like a fan – with Charles’ castle and park in the centre, with the town’s streets literally fanning out from it. Within three years of its founding and thanks to Karl’s open-minded and welcoming attitude, this town had a large Jewish population.

All this was already changing when Heinz Ettlinger – later known as Harry – was born in Karlsruhe in 1926. Within less than a decade, family members started to migrate to other countries due to anti-Jewish measures being introduced in Germany. Harry’s bar mitzvah in Karlsruhe’s synagogue, was the last one. Within less than 48 hours, Harry and his parents started their emigration trip to the US, where a few years later, Harry would enlist and end up with the Monuments Man. Family members who stayed behind, including Harry’s grandpa, did not survive WWII.

Section 1, chapter 2, tells the story of an abused boy who once dreamt of becoming a painter. He enlisted and fought during WWI. This chapter describes how as a grown-up, the man revised his dreams. One of his dreams was about museums and his name was of course, Adolf Hitler.

The next chapters deal with for instance, American museums, curators, and what happened in 1941, once the US entered WWII.  The first section of the book also deals with the Allies’ offensive and invasion of Italy. It deals with the total devastation of Monte Cassino and its treasures, as well as other historically and culturally important buildings, works of art, and other treasures.

After the first section, the next sections concentrate on the looting of art and the actions of the Monuments in Northern Europe. Various chapters describe how stolen art ended up in Germany. It describes how the Monuments Men had to work. How, while retreating, some Germans still managed to cart off priceless treasures like Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece – sometimes just before the Allies entered a town.

Using about eight to ten main characters the story shows the determination to trace and return all stolen art. What some pieces, like the Madonna statue of La Gleize, mean to a community. Some of the Monuments Men lost their lives, as they often worked in or near the changing front lines.This book does contain horror stories.

Rose VallandThe book also tells the story of the gifted and dedicated Rose Valland. Without her, ordinary people and resistance fighters, whole shipments of art might have been lost for ever. Though ms Valland survived the war, it was upsetting to read what her life must have been like, before the war. Without the proper contacts, the intelligent and gifted woman made ends meet by teaching drawing and working as an unpaid volunteer at one of Paris’ museums.

So much art was recovered thanks to her quiet resistance, spying, note taking, and finally her travelling into Germany to help Monuments Men find hiding places containing stolen art. In 2005, the Musée de Jeu de Paume commemorated Rose Valland with a plaque on a wall. It makes one cringe with shame and disgust: what use is a plaque in 2005 – and she being one of the most decorated women in French history? Ah well: at least she was not forgotten and one can try to find this small “monument” commemorating her. Far too many other Monuments men and women are now forgotten.

However, despite their tenacity and dedication, the Monuments Men did not manage to locate all looted WWII art. An example, mentioned in the book as well, is the famous “Amber Room”. Other art turns up as a stash is recovered by sheer luck, as in Vienna. More recent news concerned the possible discovery of a train full of Adolf Hitler’s chosen works which may still be on the train which carried it out of Berlin during the last months of WWII.

As for the book: it reads like a detective story or thriller, even for those not that interested in Western art and culture heritage. It is fast paced, gives an insight in what it was like to be fighting in Europe with family and friends left behind in the US or elsewhere. It goes into the looting, war crimes, the horrors of concentration camps. It also shows there were people on all sides, who deemed certain values and cultural heritage worth running risks for to ensure other generations would be able to inherit appreciate beauty. The book is a must-read for all art lovers, history of art students, historians, people working for museums and in galleries – and a great many more.

As the destruction of world treasures and cultural heritage by people using religion and other excuses for such deeds has flared up again, it seems the Monuments Men and the MFAA may be revived in a slightly different, international form. There are proposals to send in UN troops to try to save some sites from destruction. High time, brave people like mr Khaled al-Assaad, who gave his life trying to save parts of Palmyra, should receive some help.

“The Monuments Men; Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History”, R.M. Edsel, B. Witter, 2009, Little, Brown and Company, New York, paperback edition, 598 pp.

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