History records the horrors of the atrocities committed by Adolph Hitler and his henchmen during World War II against the Jews and other European ethnic groups. His systematic re-arming of Germany was alarming enough, but that was only the beginning. After war broke out in Europe, Germany’s neighbors were attacked with overwhelming force and had no choice but to surrender. However, conquering his neighbors and ridding the world of Jews weren’t the only goals Hitler had in mind. He dreamed of building the world’s greatest art museum, the Führermuseum, and to accomplish that the Nazis plundered museums and private art collections as they rolled throughout Europe.
The result was without a doubt the “greatest theft in history” – over five million pieces of art and cultural artifacts were transported to the Third Reich and stashed away in underground bunkers and mines. It was a meticulous operation since for years German art experts had been traveling throughout Europe, no doubt at Hitler’s behest, making note of the most prized art collections – what they were and exactly where they were.
After the United States entered the war following Pearl Harbor, museum and art directors around the country began to express concern over how to best protect their collections should the country (mainland) be directly attacked. As America’s involvement escalated in the larger global conflict, art conservator George Stout began to lay the groundwork for what would become the “greatest treasure hunt in world history.”
The Monuments Men, as they were called, were not large in number but saw their work as vitally important. Author Robert M. Edsel provides quite a bit of historical background and context before he begins telling the story of the Monuments Men, so it was a bit of a slow start to an otherwise interesting book. Once Edsel reached the place where he began to tell the stories of how the Monuments Men found their way across Europe unearthing hidden art treasures, the story picks up.
It was an amazing feat for such a small group given that there was so much territory to cover and the art was hidden rather well. Tracking down the stashes and sometimes having to convince the accompanying armed forces of the need to protect the art was a challenge as well. The world at large was indebted to the men and women who gave their lives in the service of their countries during World War II. The cultural world was indebted to the Monuments Men who tenaciously pursued the recovery of thousands and thousands of revered and priceless works of art.
If you’re interested in either World War II or art history, the book is a compelling and interesting read. I was tempted to watch the movie first, but after seeing the reviews for it (mediocre) I think I’ll pass and just say read the book – a strict historical account in this case will be better than historical or Hollywood fiction.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.