The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, And The Greatest Treasure Hunt In History, by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, read by Jeremy Davidson
At the intersection between military history and art history, this book provides a glimpse at a small and fascinating group of men and women who sought to protect and recover the artistic heritage of Western Europe in the face of the horrors of World War II. One of several books relating to this particular subject, it is a subject I had not heard of in any great detail until the movie came out recently. I have not seen the movie yet, but if it is even remotely as good as this book as it should be a greatly fascinating movie for someone who appreciates art and recognizes that even where nations are engaged in brutal and total warfare that they still remain human beings and that their artistic and architectural heritage deserves to be preserved as best as possible. In contrast to the behavior of the Nazis themselves, and the Soviets, both of whom sought to plunder the artistic treasures of others as a way to pay or repay for the cost of war, the Allies at least sought to protect the public and private art of Europe from depredation and sought to recover it where it was lost. This book talks a little bit about Italy, but focuses on the Western front from D-Day to after the German surrender.
The contents of this book are of the sort that one would expect from reading about either both art history and World War II. As someone who is fond of quirky World War II histories , this book fits right into its target, featuring middle aged family men, a German Jew recovering the art of his own grandfather, and a dark and mysterious French woman who spies on behalf of the resistance while working as a dowdy and eminently forgettable museum functionary. There are good Nazis, amputee Belgian priests, and bullheaded government functionaries threatening the destruction of the cache at Altaussee. Much of the story has a sharp dramatic edge, at least until the story stops while trying to untangle the stories about what really happened at Altaussee, which had the most important artistic finds recovered, including the Ghent altarpiece, and then moves to a thoughtful epilogue that tells the stories of the most prominent monuments men (and women) after their war experience, along with some of the Nazi functionaries, one of whom became a legitimate art dealer and rehabilitated his reputation until he was found to have kept some of the art he looted for decades, to be found in a safe deposit box.
It is easy to see why this book was made into a film. It has cinematic scope, tales of middle aged people isolated and running around in ruined churches and in abandoned mines looking for some of the most fantastic artistic treasures and archives of Europe. If it would be possible to hate the Nazi leadership more, one would after reading a book like this, where one sees that in addition to the bloodthirsty horrors that Nazis were guilty of there was a lot of greed and venality, where high-ranking Nazis try to make sure that they have at least one stolen Vermeer in their collection, casually bargaining over the fate of hundreds of classical paintings of great worth, and shipping their ill-gotten gains by train or ship around occupied Europe, trying to keep one step ahead of enemy armies in the process. Not only is the story itself compelling, even when it talks about the techniques of art preservation and the overwhelming scope of the work done by so few to locate and return stolen art, but the book has deliberate implications for the future of American military efforts, none of which have included a group devoted to the protection of art and architecture, not even in either of our wars against Iraq. The author makes his point strongly that we should focus on such matters ourselves in the future, and it’s a good point. This is art history and military history at a high level, both enjoyable and informative.
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