Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in HistoryThe Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the final days of World War II, the 'Monuments Men' scoured Europe to preserve the most important art and buildings in Europe - priceless masterworks Hitler ordered destroyed if the Reich fell.

The Monuments Men were a group of art experts assigned the chaotic task of assessing buildings and art pieces for damage in the wake of two armies battling through historic cities. Doing their best with no backup, no special rank, and no transportation, the Monuments Men acted to preserve the great works of art the Germans had been looting in occupied territories.

Heartbreaking destruction, of not only human lives but also the history of Europe, followed the clash of Axis and Allies. Hitler and his cronies embarked on an unimaginably complex and widespread scheme to despoil the riches of the occupied territories. The Nazis burned modern art by Picasso, stole from Jewish families, and absconded with anything thought to reflect German heritage. War usually entails looting, but the scale of this plot is breathtaking.

The more I learn about Hitler, the more he seems like a maniac straight out of Saturday morning cartoons. He coveted great works of art, was endlessly embittered by the Treaty of Versailles, believed in grand symbolic gestures, planned on enslaving eastern Europe and playing in the rest, tried to exterminate entire classes of people, and named his new government the Thousand-Year Reich. He did everything short of strapping on a cape and cackling "I have you now!" to Superman.
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The list of art the Nazis stole included Michelangelo's "Bruges Madonna", the massive and massively important Ghent Altarpiece, Vermeer's "The Astronomer", Rembrandt's enormous oil painting "The Night Watch", and the Bayeux Tapestry - plus thousands of other works of art, pieces of jewelry, statues, porcelain, furniture, and gold. These valuables were hidden in salt mines and other unlikely places throughout Germany, including the famous mine in Altaussee.

Against this seemingly unstoppable machine of destruction and theft stood the few lone Monuments Men, determined to restore order and put the art world to right again. It was a race against time, especially given the fact that many of his stooges interpreted Hitler's infamous Nero Decree to extend to the stolen art he had amassed for his dream of a F├╝hrermuseum in Linz, Austria.

Interspersed with tales of Monuments Men exploits are letters they sent to loved ones and colleagues (all a cut above the average soldier's letter), charting the excitement and then the increasing jadedness of the Monuments Men as they struggled to do their jobs single-handedly on the frontlines of a horrific war.

Edsel also tells the tale of the remarkable Frenchwoman Rose Valland, whose ferocious determination and subtle spycraft ensured that the patrimony of France did not simply disappear into the night. She is the only female member of the Monuments Men (and not an official one), and without her tireless efforts the impact of the war would have been even more devastating to the art community than it proved to be.

In fact, the aftermath of World War II is still with us, in lost lives and destroyed artworks. As proof, I offer two recent articles about hoards discovered more than 70 years later. This story is so vast it almost seems unbelievable. The book begins slowly, but soon picks up, with the author's passion for his subject showing through on every page. (He points out, rightly, that we could have used a Monuments unit in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion.) Essential reading for anyone interested in art and war.

There are a few other books on the topic of art theft, including The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas, also about WWII, and Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World by Sharon Waxman that shows just how tricky the provenance of art objects can be. Finally, Stealing the Mystic Lamb by Noah Charney illuminates one of the works most mentioned in The Monuments Men: the peerless Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck.
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Quotable:

"Hitler knew it was impossible to steal renowned masterpieces [...] without drawing the condemnation of the world. While he had the conqueror's mentality - he believed he was entitled to the spoils of war, and he was determined to have them - Hitler and the Nazis had gone to great lengths to establish new laws and procedures to 'legalize' the looting activities that would follow. This included forcing the conquered countries to give him certain works as a term of their surrender." - 150

"The Germans had used the [Dampierre] library's renowned Bossuet letters for toilet paper, but after they left, the caretaker found the letters in the woods, cleaned them off, and returned them to the library. Now that was dedication. That was service!" - 202

"Just seeing the warehouses the Nazis had filled with 'confiscated' items brought home to him the size and complexity of their looting operation. This wasn't accidental damage or angry retaliation, but an enormous web of deliberate deceit that stretched all over Paris and down all the roads back to the Fatherland and all the way to Hitler's office in Berlin." - 239

"To save the culture of your allies is a small thing. To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life and the life of other men to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle was won...it was unheard of, but that is exactly what Walker Hancock and the other Monuments Men intended to do." - 321

"No age lives entirely alone; every civilisation is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it." - British Monuments Man Ronald Balfour (qtd. on page 465)

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