Historian at the movies: Monuments Men

vermeer_art-paintingThose Monuments Men:  all it took was George Clooney and his coterie of celebrity actors, plus newspaper articles and publicity gigs galore for a movie and the Monuments Men are famous.  I was going to say “famous again,” but that would not be correct. They did their job and then faded into obscurity.

What did they do?  Robert Edsel wrote a book about their astonishing task.  They set out to preserve art and architecture and to prevail on the Allied military to avoid destroying culturally significant sites as World War II raged in Europe.  They came into action after D-Day as the great Allied assault on the Nazi war machine was launched in June, 1944.

Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied heroes, Nazi thieves and greatest Treasure Hunt in History (2009) has a title to excite the reader. “Treasure Hunt” is always a great draw.  It certainly attracted the attention of Mr. Clooney who devoted a great deal of time and resources to film this story.

British, French, Belgian and Dutch museums had gone to tremendous lengths to preserve their patrimony. The enormous canvas of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” was rolled up like some gigantic carpet and hidden away.  The “Mona Lisa” was shifted numerous times like some exotic game token to keep it safe.

Safe from what? From whom?  Bombs and artillery damage was one thing, but it was the kleptocrats surrounding Hitler who turned out to be the greater danger. While the official museums were surprisingly adept at foiling the greed of the Nazis, churches, private collections, art dealers, and the homes of well-to-do had no protection. Edsel estimates that the tapestries, paintings, sculptures, church bells, stained glass ripped out of churches and homes—and recovered!—numbered over 5 million items.

So: how does a movie tell this story?  In the first instance, the film concentrates its attention on a small group of men. Some ten characters in the film represent the several hundred Monuments Men who searched Western Europe to recover art.  To focus the attention of the movie audience, the movie highlights two extremely important pieces:  the van Eyck Ghent altar piece and the Michelangelo Madonna statue.  The search for these two items forms the suspenseful plot. Events which took weeks are condensed to a day or two of drama.  In Monuments Men, the movie, scenes appear that did not actually happen in the tense days of 1944/45.

But the scenes manufactured for the film are dramatic representations of behaviors that did take place.  Mid-ranking Nazi officials did steal art for their homes even if two Monuments Men didn’t blunder into one such living room to identify them in situ.  Yes, the Monuments Men did arrive at the castle Neuschwandstein in Bavaria, an enormous repository of over 6000 stolen art objects, but, no, the six of them didn’t come alone, guns drawn, to subdue to caretakers.  A company of American soldiers was along on this climactic venture. There are numerous moments when “dramatic license” trumps historical accuracy.

Is that all right?  A good friend and colleague, Dr. Cathy Schultz at St. Francis University, is very interested in historical films and has analyzed many of them while writing as a syndicated columnist.  She makes the point that to make a movie requires not just a good topic, but also a good script. Robert Edsel wrote a gripping tale based on prodigious research.  But it is not a movie script. That opening frame; “Based on true events” is true enough, but not the whole truth.

And that’s all right!  The story of the Monuments Men was obscured for so long by huge events at the end of the war.  The concentration camps, the exterminations camps, the impact of the A-bomb, the outbreak of the Cold War…those were bigger stories and their glare obscured the  heroic work of the Monuments Men.

Go see the movie! But also read Edsel’s The Monuments Men and perhaps follow it up with the great pictorial, Edsel’s Rescuing Da Vinci.  If that whets you appetite, go to the whole course dinner: Lynn Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa:  The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (1995).

The biggest story? The Allies restored the art objects to their place of origin!  The looted treasures did not become the property of the victors, but was returned to owners.

The story is not over yet. On February 11, 2014 another cache of art (Picasso, Monet, Renoir and Manet) was revealed in the Austrian home of Cornelius Gurlitt whose father had been a good Nazi art procurer. More monuments ready for restoration.

About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor emerita of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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