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When millions of people are losing their lives, limbs and loved ones in war, who is really bothered about art? In the face of the horrors of World War II, it is a question anyone might ask. And in a letter home to a colleague, American soldier George Stout came close to answering it.
In late 1944, the tide had turned in Europe and the Allies had advanced into Germany. Stout, a member of a US Army team called Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, was in a barn on the frontline examining what appeared to be a Bruegel. There were explosions outside, but he was never less than meticulous: this was the point of it all, the civilisation they were trying to defend. “I don’t believe I’ve ever been more certain than I am now,” he wrote to his friend, “that the development and understanding of man’s workmanship is the fundamental need of man’s spirit, or that we can never look for a healthy social body until that need, among others, is fed.”
Stout is the hitherto unsung hero of Robert Edsel’s book The Monuments Men, a surprisingly compelling account of the MFAA’s work, and the basis (loosely speaking) of George Clooney’s film of the same title.
Before he put on a uniform, Stout was an innovative art conservator at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum; according to Edsel, the MFAA was his idea. Its job as the fighting advanced was to identify and try to protect the most important buildings in the army’s path, then help with immediate repairs. Once the fighting had moved on, they took on an even bigger job: finding, recovering and returning the huge numbers of artworks that had been looted, stolen or hidden by the Germans.
Robert Edsel is the author of three books on rescuing art in wartime; he freely admits to being obsessed with his subject. He seems an unlikely art buff, though. Earlier phases of his life include 10 years as a pro tennis player and a glitteringly successful career in the oil industry.
It was after he had sold his oil company and moved with his family to Florence that he fell to wondering how its Renaissance glories had survived the war. With the tenacity he no doubt learnt as a young athlete, he pursued that curiosity: The Monuments Men is the result. (Clooney’s film is more of a comic romp than a faithful retelling, peopled as it is with fictional characters.)
Looting has always been part of war. Many of Europe’s great museums were stocked with the spoils of conquered territory. But Edsel sees Adolf Hitler’s looting campaign as far worse than anything that came before.
“It was premeditated looting that had been planned years in advance on an industrial scale. The effort to steal these things, and destroy so much of it, too, was all part of the ideology,” he says. “The perniciousness of the Nazis in changing laws to try and make their thefts look legal, in particular stripping people, especially Jews, of ownership rights, is really a whole new rung in Hell.”
Meanwhile, the formidable Nazi propaganda machine put it about that the American barbarians would destroy Europe’s historic architecture while sending its art off to those rapacious art dealers – all Jewish, of course – in New York. “The Americans for the longest while didn’t understand the power of all this propaganda. They learnt it the hard way,” says Edsel.
Among other priorities, the work of the Monuments men represented a counter-strategy. “People could see that nothing was taken and that there was a demonstrable effort to protect things.”
In countries that had been systematically stripped, however, the Monuments men were naturally regarded with some suspicion. One of the most intriguing characters in Edsel’s book is a middle-aged French woman called Rose Valland; her equivalent character in the film is played by Cate Blanchett. Valland was working at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris when the Nazis sequestered it as a clearing house for artistic treasures being sent to Germany.
She was able to pass information about it to the Resistance, but her reluctance to admit anything to James Rorimer, the Monuments man on the ground, gives Edsel’s story much of its suspense. “Rorimer was the director of an American museum,” he observes, the mediaeval section of the Metropolitan in New York. “Were they going to be the next problem for France, finding these things and not giving them back? From her perspective, she was boxed in.”
As a writer, Edsel sought another kind of hidden treasure: the letters various Monuments men had sent home. “I think these really were the key to telling the story,” he says. “I thought if I could use their words to walk us through the story, it would be very gripping.”
Jim Rorimer’s letters were his great find; his daughter had them among her mother’s effects but didn’t realise it. Another of the Monuments men, Robert Posey, had sent his son mementos everywhere he went; they found both the letters and his gifts, carefully filed by his wife.
Included was the first picture taken of the Altaussee salt mine in Austria, where such major missing works as the Ghent altarpiece were discovered. Discoveries continue, often intercepted at auction houses where curators recognise the old museum markings on the backs of paintings sent in for sale. Edsel has set up a Monuments Men Foundation, dedicated to tracking them down before it is too late.
“I think there are hundreds of thousands of cultural treasures still missing – paintings, books, tapestries and so on,” he says. “We have to think in terms of things that are portable, things that could be carried by a soldier as a souvenir, things that could be picked up by a displaced person wandering the countryside looking for anything of value to try and find a way out. These are the things that are in attics and basements.
”Just last May we returned eight books, that were about 500 years old each, to the University of Naples library. [They] had been taken by an American soldier as a souvenir.”
Edsel is clearly keen to maintain the memory of each of the Monuments men, but also to revive their ethos. In Iraq in 2003, he laments, both seemed to have been entirely forgotten.
“It was a shameful moment in my country’s history, that this American-led invasion had as protected targets the oil installations and electrical grid – which, of course, are smart things to do – but failed to protect the cultural institutions, the museums and national archives and library.”
Eventually, the modern-day equivalents of the Monuments men were brought in, but by that time 15,000 important items were missing. Only half have been recovered.
What shocked Edsel was that these people had never heard of the Monuments men or what was achieved in the aftermath of World War II. Neither, clearly, had their leaders. He wants to change that, which is why he is busy promoting George Clooney’s film. “Because no book can do that like a feature film can,” he says.
Nearly 70 years on, the propaganda war is still going on.
The Monuments Men opens on Thursday.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.