Have you heard of the Monuments Men? The name is shorthand for members (including men and women) of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives sections of the Allied armies (MFAA) during the Second World War. These civilian arts experts were recruited to locate and return cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners. Their collective subject matter expertise, ability to leverage art world connections that they’d established before the war, and personal tenacity combined with daring read like an incredible adventure.
This is not just a history lesson – the legacy of the successes (and defeats) of the group is with us today, in families, art classes, private and public art collections, auction houses and the practice of international law. Now the heroics of the MFAA are coming to the silver screen in Monuments Men, the movie. It’s a terrific topic for a movie, but I recommend delving further. The real-life story is too big, and too amazing, to be confined to two hours.
Begin with Lynn H. Nicholas’s recent article “What the Monuments Men Wrought.” As she writes, the task was daunting: “Degenerate” art was purged from German museums. Works would be confiscated from “alien races” such as Jews and Slavs, whose cultures would eventually be obliterated, and “Germanic” works were to be seized and taken back to the Reich from the occupied lands. All told, the Nazis had confiscated and bought millions of objects and moved them to Germany.
Recent coverage in the New York Times:
“Treasure Hunters in Uniform: ‘Monuments Men’ Remembered” includes excerpts from a recent interview with Harry Ettlinger, one the six Monuments Men still living.
“Not All Monuments Men Were Men” illuminates the women of the MFAA, including Rose Valland who “risked her life daily, spying on Nazi officers as they emptied the Jeu de Paume on behalf of Goering and Hitler. Posing as an unassuming assistant who spoke no German, she listened in on their chatter, passed information to the Resistance and kept a ledger of the thefts that was vital to their recovery.”
Museum pages and publications dedicated to the work of the Monuments Men:
Many of the Monuments Men and Women returned to careers at these institutions after the war:
In the Footsteps of the Monuments Men: Traces from the Archives at the Metropolitan Museum
The Frick During World War II, the Monuments Men
The Art of Search and Rescue (Getty Research Institute)
The True Story of the Monuments Men (Smithsonian)
The problem of restitution persists down the generations:
“Loot No Longer” outlines a French reporter’s recent efforts to match heirs with artworks and the challenges that remain in place.
“Recovered Nazi-looted painting on view at LACMA” outlines the twisted journey that so many stolen works followed after the war. In this case, happily, the rightful owner and artwork were reunited.
Stolen artworks continue to surface:
“For Son of a Nazi-Era Dealer, a Private Life Amid a Tainted Trove of Art” is just another unbelievable-but–actually-true installment in this sordid history: over 1,400 stolen works of art were found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment in 2012.
Finally, books about saving art during World War II:
Lynn H. Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (1994) is excellent. A documentary (2008) by the same name is also available.
The Spoils of War (1996) is an illustrated record of a 1995 international symposium on the topic of art stolen during World War II.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but hopefully it serves as a good overview of the significance of the work completed by members of the MFAA. For more information visit the Monuments Men Foundation. Do you have any other sources that I should consider adding to this list?