Long before World War II began, Hitler had planned the systematic looting of Europe’s finest museums and private collections. Thanks, in large part, to the Monuments Men, he wasn’t entirely successful. This group of 345 men and women, who were mostly American but who hailed from thirteen countries, applied their civilian talents as museum directors, curators, art historians, archaeologists, architects and educators to save, quite literally, Western civilization’s treasures.
In advance of the Nazis, the Monuments Men evacuated 400,000 works from the Louvre, including the Mona Lisa, which they shuttled to safety six times. Just ahead of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, they emptied and stashed more than two million works from the Hermitage.
But it wasn’t only Nazi plunder they had to guard against. It was left to the Monuments Men to figure a way to save da Vinci’s Last Supper, painted on the refectory wall of the convent at Santa Maria delle Grazie, before the Allies bombed Milan. By jury-rigging a scaffold of steel bars and sandbags around the wall, they saved the masterpiece. After the raid, it was the only wall in the refectory still standing. By using aerial photos, Monuments Men diverted Allied airmen away from many important sites, including the Chartres Cathedral; when a cultural site ended up an unintended target, Monuments Men rushed in to make repairs.
In March 1945, Allied forces discovered the first of Hitler’s many secret repositories of art, more than one thousand hiding places in all, stashed mostly in salt mines and castles. That’s when the Monuments Men began the serious task of conservation, restoration, and restitution. In all, they restored and returned to their rightful owners more than five million works of art, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Botticelli, Manet, and many others, plus sculptures, tapestries, fine furnishings, books and manuscripts, scrolls, church bells, religious relics, and even the stained glass the Nazis had stolen from the windows of a cathedral. “This was the first time an army fought a war on the one hand and attempted to mitigate damage to cultural treasures at the same time,” says Robert Edsel.
Edsel has spent eleven years and more than three million dollars researching, piecing together, and championing the little-known story of the group referred to officially as the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section or, more commonly, the Monuments Men.
Iinspiration came to Edsel quite accidently. Barely forty at the time, he was in Europe, after selling his lucrative oil exploration business, to ponder his life’s next big adventure. He was standing on the Ponte Vecchio, the only one of Florence’s fabled bridges the Nazis hadn’t blown up during their 1944 retreat, when he began to wonder how, despite the war’s widespread destruction, so many paintings, sculptures, monuments, cathedrals, and museums had survived. Who, he asked himself, had saved it all?
Though he had little previous interest in art and no knowledge of the war itself beyond the stories his father, a Marine who had served in the Pacific, had told him, Edsel made answering the question his personal calling.
Edsel has detailed the Monuments Men bravery and resourcefulness in an abundantly illustrated book, Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe’s Great Art—America and Her Allies Recovered It, 2006. He also coproduced The Rape of Europa, an NEH-supported documentary focusing on the Monuments Men, and late last year he convinced Congress to pass a resolution honoring them. Recently he established the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, whose mission is “to preserve the legacy of the unprecedented and heroic work of the Monuments Men by raising public awareness of the importance of protecting and safeguarding civilization’s most important artistic and cultural treasures from armed conflict.”
Sixty-two years after the end of the war, only a dozen of the Monuments Men are known to be alive, the youngest, former sergeant Harry Ettlinger, now in his eighties. This puts Edsel, who believes there may be more still living, in a race against time. He has been ferreting out their details for the biographies posted on his Web site (www.monumentsmenfoundation.org)—so far he has collected 103—and personally meeting with the survivors.
Once their wartime duties were behind them, many of the Monuments Men went on to distinguish themselves in the arts, including Lincoln Kirstein, who founded the New York City Ballet; James Rorimer, who served as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Charles Parkhurst, chief curator of the National Gallery of Art. But, as the years passed, their wartime contributions sadly slipped from notice. As Edsel himself discovered, there was hardly a mention of the Monuments Men in all the vast literature of World War II. His unrelenting curiosity, energy, and deep admiration have brought honor to those heroes who saved Europe’s treasures. “Their search,” says Edsel, “was the greatest treasure hunt in history.”
By Rosanne Scott