NEW YORK, NY.-
In World War II, the Allies fought a Germanic threat intent on taking over the world. Beyond the familiar history lesson lies the untold story of the Nazi plot to also seize the worlds greatest cultural treasures, thwarted by one tiny band of soldiers as detailed in the new book The Monuments Men : Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
(Center Street, September 2009, $26.99). This overlooked story from WWII is relevant today in that irreplaceable historical artifacts are still missing from the greatest plunder committed in human history, with restoration, search and discovery ongoing. In fact, a Monet and Renoir among several other paintings were discovered in 2007 in the safety deposit box of a former Nazi official in Switzerland, begging the question what priceless and missing piece of art will turn up next?
The Monuments Men details how art objectseither stolen from museums in conquered areas or from Jewish individuals sent to their deathswere secreted away in hidden storehouses carved into mountains, buried deep in salt mines, sunk in boggy marshes and concealed in chalets and fairy-tale European palaces for the purpose of creating Hitlers vision of a Germanic Über-museum, along of course with the enrichment of top party officials. More than five million cultural objects were taken during the war, including valuable paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt, and sculpture by Michelangelo and Donatello, threatening to erase human history as we know it. Chronicling the most unlikely band of heroes who comprised a little-known unit called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section, The Monuments Men presents in thrilling detail the race against time and the ever-changing frontlines to liberate the worlds most priceless art pieces from the Fuhrers grip.
Reading partly like a war memoir of the principal soldiers, most of whom volunteered for the unit and possessed expertise as museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects, and archivists, the book includes personal diary entries, letters and statements from interviews with the few remaining surviving unit members, representing more than 13 years of interest in the subject by author Robert Edsel including five years of intense research. Sprinkled amongst the facts is invented dialogue animating the storyall based on available research. The Monuments Men captures the harsh elements of combat along with the futility these few menswelling to around 60 by the end of combat and then to 350 after the wars endfelt in chasing down what amounted to needles in a haystack. Even 44 years later, hundreds of thousands of pieces of art, documents and books are missing including Raphaels Portrait of a Young Man, stolen from Poland and last possessed by Nazi Governor General Hans Frank.
Detailing the amazing caches of cultural objects hidden all over greater Europe, The Monuments Men reveals the treasure troves at sites such as Neuschwanstein castle, the mythical proportions of which inspired Sleeping Beautys Castle at Disneyland, and the truth behind the motherlode concealed in the Altaussee salt mines, sealed by palsy mine charges where arguably the most precious finds existed, in addition to the recovery of the art train through persistent spying by a volunteer member of the Jeu de Paume. Despite the adventure of the treasure hunt detailed in the book, finding the stolen belongings brings alive the atrocities commited by the Nazis when one understands the fate of some of the items owners. Harry Ettlinger, an MFAA soldier and German Jew who emigrated to America just 6 years before joining the service, said, My knowledge of the Holocaust started really with the realization that it was not only the taking of livesthat I learned much later in my experiencebut the taking of all of their belongings
[For me] Neuschwanstein was the start of really opening up that part of history that should never be forgotten.
Aside from the obvious importance of the cultural recoveries, the MFAA unit also deserves recognition as it marked the first time an army fought a war while comprehensively attempting to mitigate cultural damage, and it was performed without adequate transportation, supplies, personnel, or historical precedent, writes Edsel. In fact, there has never been a dedicated unit of the kind since World War II. Begun to identify important cultural sites of historic importance and salvage them if possible during the campaign, the units most laborious function proved to be the treasure hunt for the stolen artwork and the reparation processanother first in warfare departing from the usual to the victor goes the spoils custom. Despite tireless work since World War II, thousands of objects have never been claimed due to ownership legitimacy issues or the death of the original owners at the hands of the Nazis.
There is a growing sense of recognition for the MFAA unit and their incalculable contributions, writes Edsel. On June 6, 2007, the 63rd anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, resolutions in both Houses of the United States Congress officially acknowledged for the first time the contributions of the Monuments Men and women of thirteen nations. The resolutions, sponsored by both conservative and liberal members of the House and Senate, passed unanimously. Soon after, the Monuments Men and their primary advocacy group, the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, were awarded the 2007 National Humanities Medal, which some say is the United States equivalent of knighthood. Four of the twelve living Monuments Men were able to travel to Washington, D.C. to attend the ceremony.
Robert Edsel began his career in the oil and gas exploration business. In 1996 he moved his family to Europe. Settling in Florence seeing some of the great works, he wondered how all of the monuments and art treasures survived the devastation of World War II. During the ensuing years, he devoted himself to finding the answer. In the process, he commissioned major research that has resulted in this book. Robert also coproduced the related documentary film, The Rape of Europa, and wrote Rescuing Da Vinci, a photographic history of an art heist of epic proportions and the Allied rescue effort. The author lives in Dallas.