The Monuments Men were the greatest heroes of World War II you've never heard of. Before I tell you who they were, let me ask you a few seemingly obvious questions, but ones you — like me — have, probably never wondered. You know of the devastation of World War II, the loss of 50 million plus lives, whole cities destroyed... so how did so many of the greatest cultural treasures of our western civilization survive? What became of the millions of paintings in Europe's great museums, the irreplaceable sculpture, the immense libraries filled with books containing centuries of knowledge, churches with their frescoes, bells, and stained glass, and the municipal records vital to running a society? Who were the people that protected them from the path of war and the insatiable ambition of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi leaders to steal millions of works of art and other cultural treasures? And at war's end, when the vindictiveness of certain Nazis set in motion plans to destroy them, who would come to their rescue?
Imagine, for a moment, the setting: from 1939 to 1945, every major museum in Europe was a hollow shell but for an occasional empty picture frame leaning against the wall; almost all of the 15 paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci on the road somewhere, in hiding... well, actually 14, because the Nazis had stolen one of them within a month of the beginning of the war in Poland. In that instance, they didn't waste time looking for it at the museum where it was hanging. (They had been scouting it and thousands of other artworks they targeted for theft.) Instead, they went directly to the country estate where it was hidden. This was but one example of the implementation of Hitler's plan to build the world's greatest museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. As the war unfolded, this type theft would be repeated over and again in an effort to steal the best works of art for the Führer museum.
Enter our heroes. Not just heroes of the United States or the United Kingdom, but of civilization: the Monuments Men. This small group — there were only a dozen in Northern Europe within a month of D-Day, and only 60 in all of Europe by the end of the war in May, 1945 — were charged with protecting the churches, libraries, museums, and other priceless cultural treasures that collectively represented the history of our western civilization.Little did they know that this mission would soon evolve into solving the greatest theft in history, an effort to locate the millions of items stolen by the Nazis.
These men and women, with an average age of 40 years old, were museum directors, curators, artists, art historians and educators, architects, and librarians, who volunteered for service in what was one of the greatest experiments ever. It was the first time an army had attempted to fight a war on the one hand and mitigate damage to cultural treasures at the same time. They knew the risks they were undertaking, made all the more difficult by the fact that they had families, accomplished careers, and understood as only someone with a few gray hairs can understand the fragility and preciousness of life. Still, they wanted to serve.
While they had the endorsement of General Eisenhower to protect these cultural works so much as war allowed, they were not provided the vehicles (most of them got around by hitchhiking their way across Europe), communication gear, or supplies they urgently needed. What they did have in abundance was ingenuity and resourcefulness. They also had the respect of those around them because these men were not sitting in offices at the rear; rather, they were on the front lines during combat, trying to assess damage, prevent further losses, and, as they neared Nazi Germany, locate the millions of works of art and other cultural items that had been stolen.
The Monuments Men story is one I've told after five years of intensive research and interviews with all 15 living men and one woman, along with dozens of others who knew these heroes and the works of art they saved. I have located their never-before-seen letters home during combat to loved ones, their field diaries, and their photos, all of which allow me to tell their story using their words. After all, they were there... what could be more exciting? This offers all of us a chance to go with them as they begin their detective work trying to assemble clues from interrogations in what would become the greatest treasure hunt in history, involving paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Vermeer, sculpture by Michelangelo and Donatello, the entire gold and paper currency contents of the Reichsbank — basically the equivalent of discovering Fort Knox buried underground — worth billions of dollars! You will be with them as they walk into salt mines, caves, and castles pursuing leads during the harrowing final days of war, through the period of the Void, when no one was in control of Nazi Germany and anarchy ruled. And all the while, you will be part of their race against time to find the hoard of treasures hidden by Hitler, which had been destined for his great Linz museum, deep in the salt mines where Nazi fanatics were determined to destroy them out of vengeance.
Millions of the works of art and other cultural treasures stolen by Hitler and the Nazis were found by the Monuments Men and subsequently returned to the museums where they hang safely today, giving no reasons for anyone to wonder the questions I asked at the outset: How did all the greatest treasures of western civilization survive the most destructive war in history, and who were the people that saved them? Many hundreds of thousands, worth billions of dollars, remain missing today. Finally, after more than 65 years, we get to know the heroes' story, we get to honor their memory, and we get to participate in the excitement as these still-missing items begin to surface in the coming years. (I explain why they will surface in my book.)
Travel back to a time when a sense of duty and purpose was a greater force than making money or personal advancement, a time when the future of the world hung in the balance, when so many of the beautiful things we enjoy today were at risk of being destroyed forever. Get to know the people who risked everything they valued, including their lives, to help make a difference. Theirs is a gripping story, one you may now enjoy alongside some of the greatest heroes you'll be proud to know: the Monuments Men.
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Robert Edsel began his career in the oil and gas exploration business. In 1996 he moved to Europe to pursue his interests in the arts. Settling in Florence, seeing some of the great works, he wondered how all of the monuments and art treasures survived the devastation of World War II. During the ensuing years, he devoted himself to finding the answer. In the process, he commissioned major research that has resulted in this book. Robert also coproduced the related documentary film, The Rape of Europa, and wrote Rescuing Da Vinci, a photographic history of an art heist of epic proportions and the Allied rescue effort. Edsel lives in Dallas.
Books mentioned in this post
Robert Edsel is the author of The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History