The Monuments Men
Contributor: David Stubblebine
Review Date: 22 Apr 2014
Full Title: The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
It has long been understood that the Nazis diverted huge amounts of wealth from Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, Greece, and other countries back to Germany. But what has not been quite as well understood was how this cultural wealth was tracked down after the collapse of Hitler's Germany and returned to the countries of origin. Also unsung were the small band of soldier-experts responsible for the feat; the men of the multi-national Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, or "Monuments Men."
The author, Robert M. Edsel, had the resources and, more importantly, the passion to fully research the previously little known story of the Monuments Men. In this book, he follows the trails of the art and cultural treasures of France, Holland, Belgium, and even Germany. In his follow-up book, Saving Italy, he describes how the vast artwork of Italy was similarly recovered.
Monuments Men follows a handful of MFAA men from London through Paris and the Low Countries to Bavaria and Austria. The author describes how an American museum director-turned soldier won the trust of a French museum curator who held in her heart the keys to the Nazi trail of looted art. He writes about the program's lynchpin member around whom most of the activity orbited. And we learn about German Jew who emigrated to America only to return as a Monuments Man and rescue a masterpiece painting that he had been forbidden to view as a child due to his heritage. Transcriptions of personal letters home are also included to illustrate how the grueling pace took a toll on the small, overworked staff.
As a World War II book, Monuments Men had little in the way of shooting or troop movements but it was a very thorough treatment of a more peripheral chapter of the war; a chapter with huge implications for the post-war survival of the European culture. The narrative was a fairly easy read that was well organized and well footnoted. It is a fairly long book at 426 pages with only a few photo plates but it had a "chase scene" that ran virtually from cover to cover. I was pleased to have learned more about this corner of the war and I will likely seek out more material on the topic because of it. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the subject.
Please also see C. Peter Chen's review of The Monuments Men.
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939