Sunday, August 31, 2014

REVIEW: Now a Major Motion Picture: The Monuments Men

Though I plan to, I haven’t yet seen the film, the Monuments Men. I did, however, have the opportunity earlier this year to read the book on which it's based, by Robert M. Edsel, which I review here.

The story of the plunder and repatriation of art during World War II has received some coverage over the years, but sometimes lost amidst that coverage was the important role that the so-called Monuments Men played in these efforts. This is partly due to the fact that the effort was an ad hoc operation that involved a relatively few number of individuals. Though the group eventually had a chain of command, it was never officially an independent unit and, thus, no official history of the unit’s work exists.

Driving the effort were individuals from the U.S. and Great Britain, primarily from leading museums and cultural institutions, who recognized early on the great risk that works of art and cultural and architectural artifacts faced due to the war. Understandably, allied leaders at first put little stock in such efforts, since they were focused on fighting the war and not interested in anything that might hamper efforts to wage war against an implacable enemy. Over time, however, the importance and public relations value of protecting such works—as well as stopping Nazi Germany’s systematic plundering of them—came to be recognized and appreciated.

An oft-repeated assertion of Hitler’s psychological profile was that he was a failed and frustrated artist. Whether or not this played a role in the Nazis’ methodical cultural ransacking of Europe, it’s clear that Hitler and his henchmen, including Herman Goering and others, went beyond simple war plundering in confiscating some of the great art masterpieces of Europe: they even created a list of works they coveted (including, according to this book, several in the United States!), so that when the war began they mounted a systematic, organized effort to confiscate art, which involved special military and civilian units. The Nazi state even tried to legitimize these activities using legal cover, such as passing legislation that made it illegal for Jews to own art, which they believed gave them the right to pillage the private collections of dealers and private collectors. As foreign occupiers, they believed they were entitled to confiscating the national treasures of other countries with impunity.

Not George Stout
On the flip side of the coin were the museum and cultural leaders—led by a few particular visionaries, including George Stout, an American art conservation specialist and museum director, who recognized early on that artwork and culture around the world were at great risk with the world on the precipice of global conflict. Beginning with position papers sent to the U.S. and British governments that predated the war, these cultural leaders essentially forced the issue. Other than lip service, however, the U.S. and British governments provided little in terms of resources or manpower (Stout used a commandeered German army vehicle through much of the war.) Though the allies gave these efforts low priority, it was enough of an opening for Monuments Men to mobilize themselves and insert themselves into the war.

The Monuments Men initially focused on protecting the great cultural legacy of Europe from wartime destruction. This particularly included minimizing as much as possible unnecessary destruction of art and architecture by the allied military machine, which sometimes involved educating commanders and soldiers in the field, as well as standing up to both the military establishment and line officers who did not immediately understand or appreciate their roles. But as the allies began to see the extent of the Nazis’ plunder of both cultural institutions and private collections, their roles quickly expanded to include extensive detective work as they sought to identify, track down, and repatriate stolen art. As the war wound down, this also extended to protecting Germany’s cultural history. It’s unlikely in the annals of war that any military victor had gone to the extent of the allied armies, with the support of the Monuments Men, to restore and repatriate cultural and artistic treasures that might have otherwise been destroyed or claimed as the spoils of war. (At one point, among the treasures, the allies even found a large part of Germany’s gold reserve hidden away, some of it stolen from the reserves of the countries conquered by Germany. Though some advocated keeping it, the allies took great efforts to protect the gold—particularly from the Soviet Union—for eventual repatriation.)

Not Rose Valland
Of course, the work of the Monuments Men would not have been possible without the work of counterpart museum staff and curators across Europe. Chief among them were Jacques Jaujard, director of the French National Museums, who as early as 1939, at least a full year prior to the invasion of France,  began spiriting away the Louvre’s national treasures to keep them from being confiscated by the Germans; and, perhaps even more crucially, the work of Rose Valland, a low-level staff person personally asked by Jaujard to stay at the Louvre during the war. (Many assumed her to be a collaborator.) Kept on by the Germans and often close to arrest and execution by her Nazi handlers, Valland surreptitiously and doggedly kept close track of the disposition of stolen works, information which became invaluable at war’s end. (It helped, as well, that the Germans worked with their usual Prussian efficiency by keeping meticulous records of their activities and the disposition of the pieces.) And as the war shifted in the allies’ favor, German cultural officials similarly began protecting their art from destruction by bombs and soldiers.

While little needs to be said to expose the level of depravity and psychosis of the Nazi leadership, it even extended to art. As Germany and Berlin collapsed around him, Hitler issued the “Nero Decree” which ordered all German infrastructure to be destroyed so that they could not be used by the allies. Beneath the scorched earth policy was Hitler’s psychotic and narcissistic belief that the German people and its state had failed him and, as such, did not deserve to survive him. The Nero Decree caused much consternation within the inner circle and the ranks, as the “true believers” did their best to fulfill Hitler’s orders—including the wholesale destruction of art—while the more pragmatic (led by Nazi minister and Hitler confidant Albert Speer) sought to stop their peers and soldiers and commanders in the field from carrying out the orders, which would only deepen the misery of Germany and its people. Told in a novelistic style, the book delves deep into obscure papers and interviews to ascertain what actually happened during some of the incidents at the end of the war that led to the near-destruction of some of the greatest cultural treasures of Europe.

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