How to thwart a pillager
With his book, The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel has brought a little-known piece of the Allied effort in World War II to the front of our consciousness. The MFAA, or “Monuments Men” were a tiny group of American, British, and French soldiers who scoured Europe for the thousands of pieces of culture that Adolf Hitler had stolen during his rampage across the continent. They carried out this task at the same time the Allied armies were rolling the German army back to Berlin. It was a race against time, Nazi vindictiveness, and GI carelessness.
Art is part of us
The Monuments Men opens with a striking depiction of the situation for Jews in Nazi Germany immediately prior to World War II, and Hitler’s vision for a new European empire. Edsel shows us the cost of Hitler’s self-centered inspiration. Art and culture were paramount to him: They drove him to steal many centuries-worth of history from entire nations.
One of the elegant aspects of the book was that correspondence was inserted throughout. Some of the letters were between Nazi leaders, in which they discussed the “ownerless Jewish art collections in the occupied Western territories.” Even language was twisted to negate the Jews’ humanity and right to ownership.
The effort hung by a thread
Edsel crafted an excellent description of the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nature of the Monuments Mens’ work (which is analogous to the whole Allied effort, actually). While they were careful and precise about the handling, cataloging, and preservation of the artwork they protected, the war waited for no man, and the small team had to fight for everything they needed to accomplish their mission. They received almost zero help from their headquarters and often had to face down higher-ranking officers than themselves, in order to preserve monuments and historical buildings.
The difference every person can make
The book is as approachable as any Stephen Ambrose account of World War II, and just as descriptive. Edsel shows each of the Monuments Men to be very human, understandable, and distinct. Each one is a hero, and made a particular contribution to the preservation effort. That is one of the most poignant aspects of the book – Edsel makes the reader aware of how a single person, in a specific time and place, with a unique vision, can effect a crucial event. For example, George Stout, one of the Monuments Men, had the initial idea of creating the unit, in 1941, but it didn’t happen until several years into the war. Also before the war, Stout single-handedly created the science of art conservation (which had until then been the obscure and un-scientific practice of a handful of artisans).
Edsel’s book was adapted into a movie of the same name, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon. While the movie contained generous helpings of artistic license, it still conveyed the main thrust of the book, and was reverent to the sacrifice and back-breaking work the Monuments Men contributed to humanity’s continuance.
One fascinating aspect of the movie’s structure: The war seems like a far-off story at the beginning, as though it weren’t even happening. As the movie progresses, the characters begin to see bits of war’s dark reality – by the end they are appropriately sobered by the struggle, and equally intense about completing their mission. The progression is not unlike the process a young adult experiences as they enter their own independence. Perhaps that is the greatest lesson of World War II: Humanity’s journey of self-discovery. There is evil in the world, we must acknowledge it, and we must defeat it.
I highly recommend both the book and the movie. This is NOT a classic case of “the book was way better than the movie.” The book was much meatier than the movie, but they both conveyed Edsel’s main point, and someone who enjoyed the movie will enjoy the book (and vice versa).
If you are near Washington, D.C. this year, stop by the National Gallery of Art. They have an exhibit about the Monuments Men: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/press/2013/monumentsmen.html
Thousands of pieces of art are still missing. The Monuments Men Foundation is still on the hunt: http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is an excellent place to learn more about the war, and in 2016 they will open an exhibit about the Monuments Men: http://www.nationalww2museum.org/media/press-releases/monuments-men-gallery.html