Adolf Hitler, in his lust for world power, had sent German art scholars all over Europe, secretly preparing inventories so that when he conquered each country, his agents would know the name and location of every important object of artistic and cultural value. He planned to put them all in the soon-to-be created Fuhrermuseum as a lasting tribute to his own greatness. After the war more than a thousand depositories were discovered of plundered artworks.
The thought that nagged me all the way through the book was that the work of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of U.S. military) was proof of the fact that we are born with "eternity in our hearts." If we are only a conglomeration of cells that just happend to come together and evolve over time, then, of course, we have no souls and art is superfluous. But this book clearly (albeit unintentionally) shows that man is made for something higher. George Stout, (the recognized leader of the MM) wrote, "To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to a particular people but also to the heritage of mankind. To safeguard these things is part of the responsibility that lies on the governments of the United Nations. These monuments are not merely pretty things, not merely valued signs of man's creative power. They are expressions of faith, and they stand for man's struggle to relate himself to his past and to his God. (p. 23)
Intriguing scenarios abound: Stout mused, What if we win the war, but lose the last five hundred years of our cultural history? (p. 236) Then comes the dilemma the MM face with returning all artworks to their original owners, even their enemies, the Germans. The Western Allies had sacrificed their national fortunes and a generation of young men; would they really hand back the spoils of their victory? (p. 396) The thought came back to [Hancock] as it often did: To save the culture of your allies is a small thing. To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life and the life of other men to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle was won... it was unheard of, but that is exactly what he and the other Monuments Men intended to do. (p.254)
The book has some surprising heroes: Count Franz von Wolff-Metternich, a Nazi art official who did his best to protect France's art collections from Hitler's looters. Rose Valland, a mousy looking secretary who meticulously recorded thousands of notes on stolen paintings and their locations that greatly facilitated their recovery after the war. Pöchmüller and Högler, the men who engineered a minor bomb explosion at Altausee which closed down the treasure-filled mines so that their priceless art works could not be destroyed by Hitler's Nero Decree.
It is easy to see why someone wanted to turn this into a movie (which I haven't seen) because of the powerful images. A small boy taking a U.S. soldier by the hand as they travel down a dark, enemy-filled tunnel, a priceless statue lying on a stained mattress, a helmet full of gold coins, the empty walls of the Louvre, and so much more.
Although a work of non-fiction, Monuments Men brimmed with all the themes that would make a great novel: hidden treasure, unexpected heroes, beauty in the midst of tragedy, and the risking of one's life for something bigger than one's self. Also, for a non-fiction work, Edsel's writing is unexpectedly beautiful at times. I love word precision and he knows when to wax eloquent and when to get straight to the point.
One of my favorite books of 2014.
P.S. After I read this book I couldn't help but get chills when I saw this photo of gifts given to Hitler for his 50th. (#13 of 19 pics). The painting above was his favorite: "The Astronomer"