January 14, 2014

The Monuments Men

I originally posted this on Sept 3, 2009. I see that the book is about to hit the big screen with some big talent. Can't wait. It really IS time I read the book. I've had it on my bedside table for 3 years!

Now here’s a book I have to read.

Here's the true story of the Monuments Men (and women).

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

The “Monuments Men” were a group of approximately 345 men and women from thirteen Allied nations who comprised the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section during World War II. Founded in 1943 this group of Allies was established to assist in the protection and restitution of cultural property in war areas during and following World War II. As the war came to a close, they worked to locate and return works of art and other items of cultural importance which had been stolen by the Nazis.

Countless monuments, churches, and works of art were saved or protected by the dedicated personnel of the MFAA section. Frequently entering liberated towns ahead of ground troops, Monuments Men worked quickly to assess damage and make temporary repairs to paintings, frescoes, sculpture and statuary, before moving on through conquered Nazi territory with the Allied Armies.

In the last year of the war, they tracked, located, and returned more than 5 million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis.

Many of the groups personnel were museum directors, curators, art historians, and educators and went on to have prolific careers in institutions such as the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as in museums and other institutions in Europe.

Beginning in late March 1945, Allied forces began discovering hidden repositories in what would become the “greatest treasure hunt in history.” In Germany alone, U.S forces found approximately 1,500 repositories of art and cultural objects. While many of these caches of priceless treasures had been looted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, others had been legitimately evacuated from German museums for safekeeping. Monuments Men oversaw the safeguarding, cataloguing and removal of all works from these repositories, regardless of their origin. The Monuments Men remained in Europe for up to six years following the conclusion of the War to oversee the complicated restitution of stolen works of art.

Here are some examples of what they found (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Berchtesgaden, Germany: The 101st Airborne Division, known as the “Screaming Eagles,” found more than 1,000 paintings and sculptures stolen by German Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring. The cache had been evacuated from his country estate, Carinhall, and moved to Berchtesgaden in April 1945 to protect it from the invading Russians.

Bernterode, Germany: Americans found four coffins containing the remains of Germany’s greatest leaders, including those of Frederick the Great (Frederick II of Prussia) and Field Marshal Paul Von Hindenburg. Also found in the mine were 271 paintings, including court portraits from the Palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam, which had been hidden behind a locked door and a brick wall nearly five feet thick. The site was originally used as an ammunition and military supply complex manned by hundreds of slave laborers.

Merkers, Germany: The Kaiserode mine at Merkers was discovered by the U.S. 3rd Army under General George S. Patton in April 1945. Reichsbank gold, along with 400 paintings from the Berlin museums and numerous other crates of treasures were also discovered. More dismal discoveries included gold and personal belongings from Nazi concentration camp victims.

Neuschwanstein Castle: Over 6,000 items including ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, Alfred Rosenberg’s task force organized for the “legalized” looting of Jews) documents, furniture, jewelry, paintings and other belongings stolen by the ERR from private collectors in France were found here. Monuments Man Capt. James Rorimer oversaw the repository’s evacuation.

Altaussee, Austria: This extensive complex of salt mines served as a huge repository for art stolen by the Nazis, but it also contained holdings from Austrian collections. More than 6,500 paintings alone were discovered at Alt Aussee. The contents included: Belgian-owned treasures such as Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges stolen from the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece stolen from Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent; Vermeer’s The Astronomer and The Artist’s Studio which were to be focal points of Hitler’s Führer Museum in Linz, Austria; and paintings from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples that had been stolen by the Hermann Göring Tank Division (Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring) at Monte Cassino.

San Leonardo, Italy: In the jail cell of this very northern town, Allied officials discovered paintings from the Uffizi that had been hurriedly unloaded by retreating German troops. Among the masterpieces were paintings by Sandro Botticelli, Filippo Lippi and Giovanni Bellini.

There’s a John Frankenheimer movie starring Burt Lancaster movie called The Train in which a German colonel loads a train with French art treasures to send to Germany. The Resistance (mainly Lancaster) must stop it without damaging the cargo. It’s pretty thrilling and different from the usual war movies made in the 60s.

Speaking of 60s war movies, the clip above promoting Robert M. Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, features the rousing theme music from the film Where Eagles Dare. A real eye-opener, I must say, first thing in the morning.

Here's more information about the Monuments Men

Where I sit and write right now, a few blocks north of Lake Ontario, I am enduring Toronto’s annual air show. It sounds as if we are under attack. Mon Dieu!


Brian Miller said...

what a cool story...usually in war you don't think about preserving that which defines life before and what will give life back afterward. thanks for the enlightenment today.

willow said...

I would enjoy this book, as well. Have you seen "The Rape of Europa"? Excellent film on the subject.

ds said...

This sounds completely enthralling. And I know a fellow-blogging WWII buff who would go nuts over this. I will send her over....As a side note, I visited Neuschwanstein many years ago."Oddly" none of the stolen art was mentioned. Thank you for this.

Alaine said...

That would be a fascinating read; the clip was interesting, loved the music! Now to the website... Thanks, Hazel

Alistair said...

Another fascinating post C-Pup. I have read books which mention this while not concentrating on the story, more around the missing Nazi or more correctly Jewish, gold. This will definitely be on my wish list.

I hope you managed to survive the airshow intact. Thanks for your post on my RAF incident at the start of the week.

Kind regards.....Al.

Margaret Gosden said...

I am so glad you mentioned this book and movie! It is now on my book and movie list. Thank you.

einbildungskraft said...

Didn't know about this.
It really is disgusting isn't it. To culturally rape a land.

Just read a story about a man who saved many objets d'art from the Taliban, when they went around destroying so much in Afghanistan.
Those who care about art to save it when under threat are real heros.

have a good weekend!

lettuce said...

i didn't know about this group, fascinating.
Of course it was a bit different in the UK, but a lot of "our" artwork etc. was stored underground to be safe from bombing...

Susan said...

It's a wonderful book. There's a foundation you probably know about. Thanks for spreading the word.

Today (Sunday, 6 September) is a sad anniversary...September 6, 1941 all Jews over age six were ordered to wear the yellow Star of David. (In all German-occupied territory.)

Hels said...

I often discuss stolen art with the students, but this seems very different from the issues raised by the great art plunders of the 17th century. Mind you Iraq thefts will be different again.

Thanks for the link
Art and Architecture, mainly

Wes said...

Great read. Hard to put down!