"What if we win the war, but lose the last five hundred years of our cultural history on our watch?
Lieutenant George Stout, U.S. First Army and U.S. Twelfth Army Group
A towering figure in the then obscure field of art conservation, Stout was one of the first people in America to understand the Nazi threat to the cultural patrimony of Europe and pushed the museum community and the army toward establishing a professional art conservation corps."
While reading this brilliant non-fiction account of the heroic quest - as WWII slowly wound down in Europe - of a handful of Americans (and others) for the hiding places of thousands upon thousands of artworks looted by the Nazis, I was once again lost in admiration for that so aptly named 'greatest generation'. Men and women who not only rescued the world from madness, but saved European civilization's cultural history as well. It's about time someone wrote about these long forgotten men of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section aka MFAA
(and one valiant French woman) and their struggles to keep the world's cultural masterpieces from being destroyed or disappearing into an abyss.
"Hitler would use new laws, his laws, to gather the great artwork of Europe and sweep it back into the Fatherland."
Naturally the salvation of art masterpieces and monuments took a back seat to the lives of millions caught up in the desperation of war, but it was understood that the Nazis were bent not only on destroying whatever and whoever stood in their way, they were bent also on rapacious plundering of anything and everything that took their thwarted fancies: Great works of art, paintings, sculpture, jewels, decorative artifacts, reliquaries, church altar pieces, religious artifacts, ancient books, all looted from their original owners, museums, churches and dwellings. No venue was sacred.
"Shortly we will be fighting our way across the continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve.
It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible...."
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander
How a group of stalwart and dedicated men worked day and night under extreme conditions, in the field, sometimes under enemy fire, with little help, no supplies, not even transportation, is one of the great unheralded stories of WWII. The Monuments Men (so-called) were generally in their late thirties and early forties - men who had walked away from careers to join the military and do what they could to save the world's artistic treasures. They were curators, historians, conservators, artisans, architects, and in the case of Walker Hancock, a well-known sculptor, men who understood the beauty and meaning of art not only as a historical necessity but as a human one.
"As impossible as it seems, it was the duty of ...eight officers to inspect and preserve every important monument the Allied Forces encountered between the English Channel and Berlin."
Once on the ground, these officers were often out in the field alone, carrying a map, hitching rides with any available Allied truck or jeep, making their unheralded way through ruined towns and villages, occasionally lost behind enemy lines, attempting to track down known art works. They interviewed suspicious townspeople as best they could since they were rarely in company with a translator, often without the knowledge of the current supervising Allied officers who had only vaguely heard of the monuments work.
Inside the Mountain
April 2, 1945
Half a mile inside a hill:
"As the door swung open, [Walker] Hancock caught a glimpse, just visible in his flashlight beam, of a massive brick-vaulted gallery. Then he felt the air: warm and humid. The ventilation system had been damaged beyond repair by Allied bombs, and water was dripping from the ceiling. George Stout entered the room first, his flashlight beam falling on a series of enormous wooden racks. The racks, Hancock noticed, went all the way to the ceiling. And every nook was filled with art: sculpture, paintings, decorations, altarpieces...In the beam of his flashlight, Hancock recognized works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cranach, Renoir, and especially Peter Paul Rubens the great seventeenth century Flemish painter who had been born in Siegen. On some of the canvases he noticed mold, while the paint on several wood panels was noticeably bubbled and flaked."
The salt mine at Altaussee, Austria, 1945:
...throughout the centuries, as cities and empires rose and fell, the Steinburg mine in the Sandling Mountain of Austria, just above the village known as Altaussee, continued to produce salt....
But in the winter of 1943-1944, the salt mine at Altaussee was assaulted by the modern world. First came the tracked vehicles necessary for maneuvering over the roads in the winter, when the five meters of snow were almost level with the treetops. They were followed by supply jeeps, and eventually a seemingly endless line of trucks going back and forth through steep mountain passes. Nazi officers descended on the mine as guards. Workers arrived, expanding catacombs and building wooden floors, walls and ceilings in dozens of salt chambers. Giant wooden racks were assembled in workrooms deep within the mountain and hammered into position, in some places three stories high. Experts and clerks moved in; a shop was built deep inside the mine where technicians could work and even live for days at a time. And it was all done for art.
...the mine was soon requisitioned by Hitler for his personal use. Worried by increasing Allied air raids, the Fuhrer ordered all the treasures destined for his great museum at Linz...sent deep into seclusion....Dug straight into the side of a massive mountain, the horizontal mine was impregnable to aerial bombardment - even if the bombers could locate it in the vast Sandling mountain range.
Inside the mine:
- among them two Vermeers, 'The Artist's Studio' and 'The Astronomer' stolen from the Rothschilds.
230 drawings or watercolors
137 pieces of sculpture
- among them Michelangelo's long sought Bruges Madonna.
129 pieces of arms and armor
79 baskets of objects
484 cases thought to be archives
78 pieces of furniture
181 cases of books
1200 - 1700 cases apparently books or similar
283 cases contents completely unknown
Earlier, the salt mine had been designated for destruction (bombs were already in position and needed only detonators) by the Nazi mayor of Altaussee who was a devoted Hitler fanatic. It was only through the unsung heroism of Dr. Emmerich Pochmuller, general director of the salt mine and several mine workers, that this event was forestalled.
Because of exigent circumstances, once the Monuments men arrived, they would have just four days to empty the mine or risk the contents being handed over to Stalin. (Truman had agreed, under pressure, to withdraw American forces to pre-war geographical boundaries.) Working under horrendous conditions, George Stout and his men ran over the four day deadline, but, working sixteen hour days, managed to get the job done.
Story upon story of such dedication are chronicled in this remarkably detailed and researched book. (Included are many touching letters written home to their wives from several of the monuments men.) I was moved to tears at one or two points when reading about the hardships (these men were not immune from death) and struggles of these resolute men and women - most of whom would earn no accolades or thanks until many years later, if then. In fact, though it continues today, there are many who have no clue or conception of the challenges faced, the non-stop work that went into saving the masterworks of Europe. The beauty we take for granted when we travel and visit museums, churches and cathedrals might have been completely lost to civilization had it not been for a small band of brothers intent on making sure that the masterpieces of our artistic history would survive.
But - "Despite the best efforts of the men and women of the MFAA, hundreds of thousands of works of art, documents, and books have yet to be found. The most famous is perhaps Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man, stolen from the Czartoryski Collection in Cracow, Poland and last known to be in the possession of the notorious Nazi governor-general Hans Frank. Tens of thousands were no doubt destroyed. These include the personal collection of SS Heinrich Himmler, which was burned by SS stormtroopers before British troops could intervene. The famed Amber Panels of Peter the Great, looted by the Nazis from Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg (formally Leningrad)...Thousands of paintings and other works of art have never been claimed, either because their provenance could not be determined or their owners were among the millions who died or were murdered in Hitler's military crusades. Sadly, not all museums, the interim custodians of some of these works of art, have demonstrated the determination of the Monuments Men to locate their rightful owners or heirs."
Link to learn more about The Monuments Men.
Link to current news and work of The Monuments Men as it continues.
THE MONUMENTS MEN is a fascinating book not only about history and art but about heroes who went unsung for far too long. There are plenty of intriguing photographs, even a 'cast of characters' photo gallery at the beginning which I found very helpful.
To my mind, this is a book that needs to be read by anyone who has any interest in art, European history, civilization and/or WWII.
It's too bad that the movie based on this book was such a dud. Maybe if it had been in more capable and experienced hands. They certainly had a good cast, but somewhere along the way, they lost the thread of the story and were unable to visually express the thrill of the hunt for artistic treasure and the idealism of the characters involved. These men were, in many ways, larger than life and the film failed to realize this.
Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.