World War II was not just the most destructive conflict in humanity - it was also the greatest theft in history: property, culture and heritage were all stolen. The Monuments Men were the people who tried to stop it.
From 1942 to 1951, 365 men and women from thirteen Allied nations served as the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives section (MFAA) of the Allied armed forces, the eyes, ears and hands of the first and most ambitious effort in history to preserve the world’s cultural heritage in times of war. They were known simply as Monuments Men. But during the thick of the fighting in Europe, from D-Day to V-E Day, when Germany surrendered, there were only 65 Monuments Men in the forward operating area. Sixty-five men to cover thousands of square miles, save hundreds of damaged buildings and find millions of cultural items before the Nazis could destroy them forever.
The Monuments Men
is the story of seven of these men. Six of them were in the forward operating theatre: America’s top art conservator; an up-and-coming young museum curator; a sculptor; a modestly successful portrait painter; a straight-arrow architect and a highly cultured, openly gay infantry private with no prior knowledge of or appreciation for art, but first-hand experience as a victim of the Nazi regime.
They built their own treasure maps from scraps and hints: the diary of a Louvre curator who secretly tracked Nazi plunder through the Paris rail yards; records recovered from bombed out cathedrals and museums; overheard conversations and behind-enemy-lines interviews; a tip from a dentist while getting a root canal. They started off moving in different directions, but ended up heading for the same place at the same time: the Alps near the German-Austrian-Italian border in the last two weeks of the war, where the great treasure caches of the Nazis were stored: the artwork of Paris, stolen mostly from Jewish collectors and dealers; masterworks from the museums of Naples and Florence; and the greatest prize of all, Hitler’s personal hoard of masterpieces, looted from the most important art collections and museums in Europe and hidden deep within a working salt mine - a mine the Nazis had every intention of destroying before it fell into Allied hands.
How does the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History end? As is often the case, history is often more extraordinary than fiction.Author Profile
Robert Edsel is the author of Rescuing Da Vinci,
a photographic essay book providing the first comprehensive visual documentation of Hitler and the Nazis’ theft of Europe’s great art and its rescue by America and her Allies. He is also co-producer of a documentary film entitled The Rape of Europa
. Edsel began his business career as an independent oil and gas producer in 1981. For the next five years he and his family lived in Europe, three years of which were spent renovating a villa and its gardens in Florence.Reviews
After World War Two I served as a British member of the 'Monuments' section in Germany. Our task, I believe, was truly important - we were restoring to Europe evidence of its own civilization, which the War seemed virtually to have destroyed - and I was lucky to have had a chance to participate. It is excellent that Mr Edsel has now recorded this remarkable episode, and I am grateful to him for devoting so much energy to telling the stories of those involved.