Adolf Hitler’s dream of building the world’s finest art museum in his Austrian home town started to come to fruition as the Nazis looted and pillaged valuable works of art from museums, private collectors, and churches throughout Europe. Anything valuable and not of the modern persuasion (works Hitler deemed “degenerate”) were collected and hoarded, some going to his and Hermann Goring’s private collections, others crated and stored for Hitler’s future museum. Gold and other precious metals (including wedding bands) were melted down and turned into gold bars.
Edsel follows six “monuments men” of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives), museum directors, curators, and historians turned soldiers, who braved cold, hunger, and enemy fire to save and preserve Europe’s cultural heritage. Discovering valuable pieces of art in munition dumps, salt mines, and dank cellars, the soldiers risked their lives to ensure that the treasures were saved and preserved to the best of their ability. These men witnessed first hand the atrocities at the work camps, at the death camps, and in the deserted Nazi strongholds as the war went on. They discovered the Nazis had a perverse talent for extreme discipline and thoroughness in documentation when they had the upper hand but went completely “berserk” when they discovered that “their stay was nearly at an end”.
What amazed me most was that the Germans had created a systematic inventory of all valuable pieces of art in western Europe years before the war, so that when the Nazis came to power, they would know what to seize and exactly where it was. The second most surprising thing were heroes such as Rose Valland who was tasked by her boss, Jacques Jaujard, to remain in Paris and spy on the Germans, keeping careful records so that one day, much of what the Nazis looted from Paris could be recovered.
The stories in this book are fascinating, but the book as a whole is often a challenging slog. First, I think like most people, I was under the impression that the Monuments Men were a single unit that traveled together and undertook missions to recover specific pieces of art. The reality was that these men usually worked alone or in pairs, rarely interacting with one another, and usually stumbling across major finds mostly by accident. Edsel goes into enormous detail into these men’s personal lives, their professional backgrounds, and their inner most thoughts, which will disappoint those more interested in learning about the art they saved. It isn’t that these men don’t deserve the spotlight, but rather that the endless personal stories detract from their mission during the war. Many of their letters home and the specific contents of Christmas presents they received are described at length. The result is that the fascinating nuggets are fewer and farther between than you’d expect and are sprinkled in between very long passages where little happens. In many places, personal details are repeated two or even three times, making it even more frustrating to keep reading in search of the more gripping aspects you know are in there somewhere.
To think that these British and American men saved many cultural treasures from the very enemy who wished to steal and destroy them, the conditions they suffered, the dangerous encounters they survived, and the lack of any real oversight or coordination to achieve those goals make their story even more extraordinary. As Alfred Hitchcock said, however, “drama is real life with all the boring parts cut out”. The real story of these men is alternately dangerous, exciting, and thrilling – if only this book reflected that a bit better.
Amazon link for the book is here.