|The Monuments Men|
During World War II, organizations like the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) looted works of art from all over Europe under a veneer of legality. (Some of the art they took have still not been found.) As early as 1941, museum officials in the United States were worried about what could happen, but people like George Stout and the people who became known as the Monuments Men had to fight through years of army red tape to get their chance that tracking down missing art and stopping historically important buildings from being blown up.
Edsel points to the destruction of Monte Cassino during the invasion of Italy as the turning point for the Monuments Men. After the monastery at Monte Cassino was gutted by Allied bombing, General Eisenhower wrote a directive that monuments were to be protected unless it would cost too many lives. In the middle of a war zone, however, there aren't any people or supplies to spare to protect art. During the invasion of Normandy, Saint-Lô was destroyed before the Monuments Men could even get on the scene.
Jan Vermeer's The Astronomer is recovered from the
Altaussee salt mine in Austria.
The Monuments Men was a great counterpoint to a novel I read earlier this year, Ayelet Waldman's Love and Treasure. In that book, based on the history of the Hungarian Gold Train, we saw the Allies at their less than honest as they used looted art and furniture to decorate generals' commandeered palaces. Along with the lack of men and supplies, the Monuments Men had to fight against their own servicemen. James Rorimer would blister people for even contemplating getting sticky fingers. Some of the Allies—like the Soviets—viewed recovered art as trophies.
Edsel ends his book with a short post-history in which the Monuments Men were mostly forgotten—even though their mission still existed. Edsel points to the looting of Iraq's state museum during the second Iraq war as an example of how the MFAA is still needed. Edsel didn't need to dress up the Monuments Men's story. (I do wish Edsel's editor had taken a firmer hand. There were a lot of repeated explanations and sentences that just didn't need to be there.) I'm glad that their story is finally being told.