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26 August 2018

Book Review: The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in HistoryThe Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a great story told with the indecision not only of what to include and leave out but simply how to tell it. Edsel, and Witter, who is credited with co-authoring, decided early in the book to leave out the Italy Monuments Men but, after having read it, I wish they had focused even more. The survey they tried to do left me confused about who was who and jumping back and forth over the continent chaotically, much like the Monuments Men themselves.

I feel like now that this story is being rehabilitated, better popular histories will emerge. I can only hope they will, because these are great stories about the Greatest Generation. I don't think we'll ever fully understand the magnitude of what they saved.

Nor are we giving culture and art the same priority in our current world-wide conflicts. We still have a thing or two to learn, I think.

"If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we...must summon to our defense all intellectual and spiritual resources. We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future." Minutes of a Special Meeting of the Association of Museum Directors, 1941

The provenance and ownership of art can be a tangled web and war tangles the tangle. Take the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the masterworks of Western art. Hitler's Kümmel Report, commissioned in 1940, laid Germanic claim to much of Europe's valued art.

"The inventory listed every work of art in the Western world--France, the Netherlands, Britain, and even the United States--that rightly belonged to Germany. Under Hitler's definition, this included every work taken from Germany since 1500, every work by any artist of German or Austrian descent, every work commissioned or completed in Germany, and every work deemed to have been executed in a Germanic style.

The Ghent Altarpiece, though fully Belgian, was deemed Germanic in style. But there was further claim. Prior to World War 1, Germany owned six side panels of the Ghent Altarpiece. The Treaty of Versailles was designed to punish and decimate Germany. It was the thorn in Hitler's side, to him, it was the fullest representation of the humiliation that the rest of Europe visited on Germany and the most concrete example of the failings of German leaders of the past. It was such a flashpoint for Hitler that when Germany overran France in 1940, Hitler had his underlings locate the exact railcar in which the Treaty had been signed. And in that railcar, he forced the French to sign a new treaty.

But Hitler wasn't done. In accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was required to return the Ghent Altarpiece panels to Belgium as war reparations. So, for Hitler, stealing the panels back, and acquiring the rest of the Altarpiece, was personal.

The Ghent Altarpiece was one of the holy grails of Monuments Men work. Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna was another. The Nazis looted the Louvre (thoughJ acques Jaujard had already secretly removed almost 4,000 of the most important works). But there were also thousands upon thousands of minor works. There were the art collections of prominent Jews. And, near the end of the war, the treasures of Germany hidden from the Allies.

The Monuments men were looking for all of it. They were also trying to protect important buildings from destruction. They were protecting spires, stained glass, Roman ruins.

The Germans hid many works in salt mines. Salt, which used to make the world go round (it was so valuable that Roman legionnaires were sometimes paid in salt, from whence we get our word "salary.") became important again, but only as a bystander to the salvation of the world's art and culture.

They also hid art in aristocratic castles, like Neuschwanstein and others. Lincoln Kirstein (who after the war started the NY Ballet with Balanchine) had a run-in with a German countess that he describes in delicious detail in a letter home. "One lovely old countess received us in bed. She only had one poor little room in this elegant old mansion, and almost broke her neck flying into bed no doubt, as we swept into the court. She was an ancient bitch, Italian, who married a great german name, and is harboring a whole slue of art dealers, young 'sick' counts and barons...and my, have they had a terrible time. They almost didn't get out of Paris in time, and them with their weak lungs...she only had one little insignificant request to make. It seems some displaced Russian jewish polack american negroes had taken to shooting the deer in the animal-park, and it was not in season, and it was giving the chief forester NIGHTMARES."

This was the aristocracy that made Hitler's rise possible. They rode the wave, toasted themselves and their brilliance in Paris, then went home to hide and escape prosecution when the war started going the other way, often with their railway cars stuffed with stolen art.

Then they told fantastic stories about how they were never Nazis in the first place. Some claimed hardship. Some claimed torture. Others claimed they had never believed. Heinrich Hoffman, Hitler's photographer, had grown rich off of Nazism. But he had never been a "...believer, only an economic opportunist. Wasn't this the American way?"

Edsel writes that history is "more often than not a messy combination of intention, courage, preparation, and chance."

And at the end, Edsel encapsulates one of the ironies of the war. Harry Ettlinger, a translator with the Monuments Men, had been born a German Jew. He escaped to America in 1938, right after his bar mitzvah, and then was drafted by the American Army the day he graduated from high school. Growing up in Karlsruhe, he was never allowed, as a Jew, to go to the Staatliche Kunsthalle, where the prized exhibit was a self-portrait by Rembrandt. After the war, Ettlinger was photographed saving the very Rembrandt he had always heard about, but had never been allowed to see. https://static.timesofisrael.com/www/...

I look forward to reading more about the Monuments Men as their story is coming into focus in the 21st century.

And apropos of nothing, this is a description of a Monuments Man named Walter Huchthausen, who was killed in action.

"...the few people who saw him at his job--friend and enemy--must think more of the human race because of him."

We should all strive to be the kind of person about whom things like this are said.

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