- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 29, 2009

By Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
Center Street, $26.99, 473 pages

On May 26, 1944, 11 days before the one called D-Day, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an unusual order: His officers must “protect and respect” the cultural monuments that lay in the path of war. The job of carrying out that order fell mostly to the uncommon soldiers who left their work in the world of art to volunteer for a little-known U.S. Army unit, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section. They called themselves the Monuments Men.

Joining Allied troops as they fought their way across Europe, the Monuments Men convinced reluctant senior officers to save treasured buildings from destruction. At the same time, they tracked down priceless art stolen by Nazis, including works by Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt.

“The Monuments Men,” by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, is a remarkable history of the war in Europe. The book uses key battles — Salerno, Naples, D-Day, Saint-Lo, Aachen, the Bulge — as the backdrop to the story of men who risked their lives saving what Eisenhower saw as the symbols of “all that we are fighting to preserve.” Two Monuments Men, killed in action, died as much for art as for country.

Eisenhower’s decision to add art preservation to his war aims stemmed from the controversial destruction of the mountain-top abbey of Monte Cassino during the bloody campaign in southern Italy. The venerated monastery, built around A.D. 529, had been massively bombed because the Allies believed that German soldiers were in it, firing down on American troops. But there were not any German soldiers in it; they held positions below the monastery.

Eisenhower was determined there would be no Monte Cassino incidents during what he would call his Crusade in Europe. Many cherished buildings, especially French churches, were destroyed or badly damaged. But the insertion of Monuments Men into the battlefields gave a voice to Eisenhower’s “protect and respect” order. Bearing lists of treasures, drawn up by the leading art experts of the Western world, the Monuments Men advanced with the Army and watched for monuments on the list. If a listed structure was hit, its guardians were to record the damage, supervise repair work and prevent any further damage.

In reality, that usually meant convincing a combat-hardened, high-ranking officer to divert time and resources from warfare to art. Their only weapon was a reminder of Eisenhower’s order, reinforced by posted signs declaring, in English and French, that certain buildings were historic monuments and “off limits to all military personnel.” They also hunted for looted treasure.

Monuments Men’s discoveries included five railcars containing 148 crates of stolen paintings. In some of the crates were the holdings of the major art dealers of Paris seized by a special German “cultural conservation program.” Two of France’s greatest treasures — the Bayeux Tapestry and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa — remained in France during the war, preserved by French museum officials. But, in Hitler’s view of the future, they would become treasures of the great German empire. The world’s outstanding culture center would be the Fhrermuseum in Linz, his Austrian hometown, which had became part of the Third Reich when his troops marched into Austria in 1938.

Hitler personally commissioned a Dresden art connoisseur to begin planning the Linz museum, whose potential collection would include choice art from conquered countries. A Berlin museum official drew up an inventory of works of art that belonged to Germany but were held in France, Holland, Britain and the United States. By Hitler’s definition, the Third Reich rightfully owned every work taken from Germany since 1500, along with countless works of “Germanic” style. Hitler’s rival as a collector was Hermann Goering, who took charge of “the safeguarding of Jewish art property.”

A Monuments Man, Steward Leonard, confronted the captured Goering shortly before his suicide and, while talking about Goering’s acquisitions, informed the Reichsmarschall that one of his Vermeers was a forgery. Goering was stunned. Leonard later said that Goering “looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.”

Goering and other Nazi art thieves hid their loot in countless places in Germany. A French museum curator who had spied on Nazi art thieves throughout the war kept track of the secret destinations. As the war was ending, she shared her knowledge with a Monuments Man, James J. Rorimer, future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She sent Rorimer off to Neuschwanstein, the mountaintop castle of the mad King Ludwig. The multiturreted castle looked like the setting for a fairy tale.

Inside, Rorimer “passed through the rooms as in a trance,” looking at precious tapestries and furniture, jewelry, articles of gold and silver, books, rare engravings and prints, piles of paintings — and, ultimately the most valuable find, a card catalogue methodically listing more than 21,000 confiscations, including information on shipments to other hoards.

Two Monuments Men seemed to have arrived too late at one of the hiding places, a salt mine in Altausee, Austria. The mine had been blown up before they reached it. But U.S. Army engineers cleared debris from the entrance and they walked along tunnels filled with “rack after rack of plain pine boxes” containing loot. One box held a masterpiece, the Madonna and Child carved by Michelangelo and known as the “Bruges Madonna” because it stood in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Bruges until the Nazis stole it.

According to another meticulously kept catalogue, the Madonna was one of 137 pieces of sculpture found in the mine, along with 6,577 paintings and thousands of other rare books and objects of art.

Such catalogues led to further discoveries and repatriations of looted art, discoveries that were still being made in the 21st century. But not until 2007 was the work of the Monuments Men acknowledged. The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded to them a medal given to individuals or groups whose work has “deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities.” And now comes this book, a recognition that is well justified — and highly readable.

Thomas B. Allen, a writer on espionage and military history, is the co-author with Norman Polmar of “World War II: The Encyclopedia of the War Years.”

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