“War is strange,” an unusual military officer says early in this most unusual book about war. That adage is proven continuously when soldiers are sent not after enemy combatants in ravaged Europe during World War II, but are instead sent to track down priceless pieces of art plundered by the Nazis.
Sounds like a great idea for a movie, right? That’s exactly what George Clooney thought when he decided to direct and star in the motion picture adaptation of “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter (Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2009, 595 pages), out in theaters in February.
The most amazing part? It’s a nonfiction book. This actually happened.
Believe it or not, the Allied forces, in the midst of battling the Axis powers for Europe, decided to form a unit whose mission would be to recover the paintings and artifacts pilfered by the Germans.
Nicknamed “Monuments Men,” the unit, formally known as Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section had a completely different but no less important role to play in the retaking of Europe as the combat units.
Edsel, a veteran art history writer and a tireless conservation advocate, joins forces with veteran nonfiction author Witter in uncovering a surprisingly tense tale with a cloak-and-dagger aspect.
“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,” Edsel writes.
A frustrated artist, Adolf Hitler dreamed of building the Führermuseum in his hometown of Linz, Austria, in 1938. All this is documented by “The Monuments Men.”
The Führermuseum was to contain the greatest collection of art in the world, the perfect museum that Hitler could enjoy as his personal collection for his Third Reich, the nation that would last forever. So as the Nazi forces overtook Europe, he ordered a Nazi unit called the ERR to confiscate for safekeeping—essentially steal—the masterpieces in every gallery, museum, cathedral and monastery, especially those either world-known or owned by Jews.
Leading this plunder was Hitler’s right-hand man, the vainglorious Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.
Unaware of this, American Lt. George Stout had put forth the suggestion of putting together a special unit composed, instead of marksmen and grenadiers, but of curators and architects, poets and professors, which would protect the architectural and cultural artifacts of Europe during the war. “The monuments are not merely pretty things… they stand for man’s struggle to relate himself to his past and to his God.”
After the unfortunate destruction of the Monte Cassino in Italy, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower approved the formation of the multinational MFAA in 1944, and soon Stout and his people were heading out to the front.
It is in Paris, through the aid of brave museum custodian Rose Valland, that Stout and the MFAA discover the systematic robbery of Europe’s artistic storehouses, heading on mysterious train cars to locations unknown.
Having to fend for themselves and do a thankless task, the Monuments Men face red tape, ignorance and death in the name of protecting beauty and creativity amid an ugly war.
As the Monuments Men race into Germany, they are also racing against time because they fear these great works—Rembrandts, the Ghent altarpiece—will be lost forever due to a Nazi force dedicated to Hitler’s Nero Decree: Destroy everything.
Full of vividly detailed anecdotes and accompanied by letters from both sides, “The Monuments Men” is a thrilling, gripping account of a war within a war, with Edsel providing a vibrant portrait of the MFAA operatives, surely some of the most unique military men ever organized, particularly Stout, 2nd Lt. James J. Rorimer and others.
It should be no surprise that the surviving Monuments Men achieved even greater things after the war.
Overlooked by history
“The Monuments Men” gets even better as it goes further, with the Monuments Men racing to find final treasures deep in a salt mine and high up in a storybook castle before fanatical Nazis destroy them after Hitler’s suicide. It’s a treasure hunt the way D-Day was a landing.
Will they succeed in finding Michelangelo’s “Bruges Madonna?” Will Vermeer’s “The Astronomer” be recovered? Will Göring have the last laugh? That’s up to Stout and his men. It’s not surprising that Clooney has chosen to play the MFAA’s debonair spiritual leader, Stout, in the film.
Overlooked by history and only acknowledged officially in 2007, the MFAA is given due credit for its immense achievements with his volume.
With “The Monuments Men,” Robert Edsel and Brett Witter have put together a comprehensive, propulsive wartime adventure that mixes fine art with bravery, destruction with civilization, showcasing itself in your memory like a precious painting for posterity.