The Monuments Men and the Importance of Culture

Posted by  Been
February 18, 2014

“The U.S. Army established a unit called Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives (MFA&A), charged with setting up the collecting points (such as in Munich and in Wiesbaden) to speed the return of stolen works. When at one point 202 works from Germany were sent on a tour of the United States, 24 MFA&A officers protested vehemently. They sent a telegram to their superiors saying, in part, “We wish to state that from our own knowledge, no historical grievance will rankle so long, or be the cause of so much justified bitterness, as the removal, for any reason, of a part of the heritage of any nation, even if that heritage be interpreted as a prize of war.””
Constance Lowenthal, “Vanishing Treasures: Art as Prey in a Changing World”, Encarta Yearbook January 1996

The quote above, embedded in the context of the portion of the article that deals with ‘Art Plundering in World War II’, effectively summarizes the impetus behind George Clooney’s The Monuments Men film.  The film opens with the ‘based on a true story’ credit and is, in fact, based on the non-fiction book ‘The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History’ by Robert M. Edsel.  It is a fictionalized Hollywood version of a true story but a true story it certainly is.  The film itself is one that I wholeheartedly support because I believe its message to be an important one.  It is an unevenly paced and slightly lackluster film from a strict film-making point of view but its beauty and value are greater than simple film-making parts.  It’s clear that the message behind the film is one George Clooney - who has a screenwriting credit for The Monuments Men and who both directed and starred in it - feels passionately about and for his vision and passion I applaud him.  It’s a story worth telling.  So it’s a film worth seeing despite it’s unevenness and one that I genuinely enjoyed.  

I am more interested in the truth behind the film, however.  When I left the theatre I was nagged by questions of how much of what was shown was accurate and how much was Hollywood gloss.  The characters themselves are loose fictionalizations based on actual Monuments Men (the nickname for the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program established in 1943) who served in World War II.  If the characters are basic generalizations, then how much of the plunder shown was pulled from the pages of history?  In truth, a lot.  The film is a broad sweep in scope and covers a lot of ground.  It works at times to narrow its focus to significant works of art stolen by the Nazis, found by the Monuments Men, and subsequently returned to their rightful homes which allows viewers to attach a sense of urgency and meaning to certain pieces in the film.  Among these, the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck and the Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo were given the most attention.  Both significant works of art were, in fact, stolen by the Nazis.  Both were hidden - along with countless other historic works - in the salt mine of Altausee in the Austrian Alps.  Both were then retrieved from Altausee by members of the Monuments Men group.  Then, as Constance Lowenthal notes in her article, “... the Allied Control Council's policy (representing western territory) was to return all works of art, not directly to prewar owners but to the governments of origin. Thus, Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna (1503-1505) was returned to the Belgian government for reinstallation at the Bruges church for which it was commissioned and where it is seen today, and the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) was similarly returned to the Cathedral of St. Bavon in that city.”  Also true to history is the fact that the Monuments Men learned of Altausee because of a toothache.  The German dentist they turned to for help introduced two of their members to his son-in-law who had helped Herman Goering steal trainloads of art and knew precisely where that art was stashed.  It is not true, however, that the son-in-law had priceless works hanging on his farmhouse walls.  That’s a Hollywood embellishment.  The film, as must the book it’s based on, brings to light a frequently overlooked truth about World War II: the  theft, plunder, and destruction of history and culture that went hand-in-hand with the plunder and destruction of lives, families, and cities.

The sheer scope of the plunder boggles the mind.  The Nazis’ theft of art and cultural items was not confined to the time during the war but began in the period leading up the war and not only galleries and institutions but private collections and all Jews were relieved of their antiques, paintings, furnishings, and the like throughout Germany, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.  Constance Lowenthal notes that the quantities taken “must be calculated by the warehouse, the trainload, and, in the case of archives, by the kilometer”.  Hitler - and his entourage, officers, and agents - were stealing cultural artifacts on an unprecedented scale.  In part because the plunder of art and culture has a long history of being seen as “the spoils of war”.  War booty dates back to Roman times and earlier.  Napoleon Bonaparte even brought art specialists along on his early campaigns to ensure his plunder was of the highest quality.  But Hitler additionally wanted to found a Führermuseum to be located in his hometown of Linz, Austria.  It was intended to be the cultural centre of the world and would house all the greatest works his party had ‘liberated’ from conquered territories.

To date some estimated hundreds of thousands of artworks and cultural documents that vanished during World War II remain missing despite the best efforts of the Monuments Men.  The foundation’s members, it must be noted, are numerous now and at the time of World War II were not all men and did not total merely seven people as the film seems to suggest.  They still have an open call out for the retrieval of significant cultural works that remain unaccounted for.  The film depicts Nazi officers burning art on a sweeping scale perhaps in accordance with the mandate of the ‘Nero Decree’.  When it became evident that Germany would lose the war, Hitler issued what has become known as the ‘Scorched Earth‘ mandate or the ‘Nero Decree‘ that called for the total destruction of “all military traffic, communications, industrial and supply installations” as well as “as well as of other objects of valuable”.  Memorably the film depicts the burning, among a mine full of artifacts, of Raphael Sanzio’s Portrait of a Young Man but the official Monuments Men Foundation site, which in part tracks the works still missing, states that Portrait of a Young Man was last seen in 1945 in a private German chalet.  The Nero Decree is historically factual but Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, opposed the decree and advised officers not to carry out the orders.  Thus the wholesale destruction of Germany’s own culture and records was never realized.  Nor can it be satisfactorily proven that Portrait of a Young Man was burned; it seems likely it was not.  However with all the works still missing - some seized by the Russian army in turn, some by individual American soldiers, some simply slipping through the records of time unnoticed - the Monuments Men’s mission is yet incomplete.    

Why does it matter at all?  Why are so many conquerers hell-bent on stealing art?  Why did the Monuments Men dedicate their lives (and it is fact that some died in the field) to its preservation?  This is the discussion behind the film and the book.  It is the discussion that reaches into the present day as we face the threat of music, drama, and art program closures and funding cuts in schools across the continent.  Why does art matter this much?  It is so eloquently summed up in the opening quote that I’ll post it again: “We wish to state that from our own knowledge, no historical grievance will rankle so long, or be the cause of so much justified bitterness, as the removal, for any reason, of a part of the heritage of any nation, even if that heritage be interpreted as a prize of war.”  That life is of unqualified value seems easily understood: there are moments in the film when characters are at odds because the Monuments Men want to preserve art and culture and various officials interpret that as “at the cost of lives”.  There is no ‘greater than’ argument to be made.  Rather, it is a question of a hand-in-hand argument.  Our lives are the push to create: life, bonds, meaning, relevance, and a kind of immortality we can’t achieve in flesh.  We perpetually drive to have our greatest achievements outlast us, whether it be through the successes of our children, the resonance of our words, or the meaning of our gestures.  So to separate a society from its culture, a people from its history, a city from its art, is to strip the very essence of what life strives to achieve from humanity as a whole.  There is no drive to preserve art instead of people.  But there is a very significant drive to preserve the art of the people and thus to preserve the people who came before us through the only things they were able to leave us.  A culture without history, without its own echoing voice through literature, art, theatre, sculpture, music and its like, is a dead culture.  That is what the Monuments Men - the men, the film, the book, the heros - stood for.  That’s why art matters.

‘Vanishing Treasures: Art as Prey in a Changing World’
By Constance Lowenthal, Encarta Yearbook January 1996

The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art

‘The True Story of the Monuments Men’
By Jim Morrison -

Looted Art - United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Hitler's "Scorched Earth" Decree (Nero Decree) (March 19, 1945)
German History in Documents and Images -

Copyright Corinne Simpson

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