Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Monuments Men

Book: The Monuments Men
Author: Robert M Edsel
Edition: eBook, read on OverDrive from Fresno County Library
Read: Oct 10, 2014
760 pages
Rated: 3 1/2 out of 5

This is a historical account of some of the people whose assignment it was to save the art of Europe during World War II. The book traces the actions and works of about 5% of the MFAA personnel during this war. They range from privates to Captains, but almost all have a background which has an appreciation of beauty.

What is the place of saving art during war? Besides the recounting of certain peoples actions in World War II, this is the central issue in the book. Edsel's indicates that art, because it is an expression of humanity, it must not be destroyed. But I am not sure how you do that without endangering human life. Edsel uses Eisenhower's directive as a model: It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols [historical monuments and cultural centers]  whenever possible. ... the lives of our men are paramount. (92) That is a good balance to work towards, particularly if you are winning.

Edsel states that Hitler had found his true calling. I think Edsel was saying that the calling was as a maker of an empire which would be a cultural marvel even a millennium later, not to create, but to remake; to purge and rebuild. (35) Of course that remaking is in Hitler's own image.You would think that eventually all art would be ones which Hitler would approve of. Eventually, the only art would resemble Hitler and not the full image of humanity.

What kind of art was Hitler interested in? It sounds like all the arts-paintings, sculptures, music, dance, picture....  (38)

Mortimer Wheeler, a soldier in the British army, noted when he saw the ruins of Leptis Magna that this is what power looks like. But the corollary also resides in these ruins-it is a lesson in our own mortality.(67) When we think we build for eternity, time will destroy our works, wearing them down. We are to remember, the works of our hands is only momentary; but that the works of our spirits lasts forever.
No one had in the army had considered the historic and cultural value, and therefore the propaganda value .... (69) Is that all which historic sites are good for, propaganda? Or is this a residual value? I am thinking of the later, these things have an intrinsic value to us, rather than utilitarian. The value is that things like this express who we are as a people.

If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificed our own men, then our men's lives count infinitely more and the buildings must go. General Eisenhower, report of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in a War Areas, pg 48

George Stout's thoughts about seeing an English Chapel, as reported by Edsel, there wasn't anything overtly beautiful, but there was nothing out of place, nothing extravagant or shabby, and that held a beauty all it's own. (108) Simplicity will win out over complexity to hold our imagination. Complexity is a thought already imagined; simplicity allows us to imagine.

... Here death had been so fouled by degradation that it both stunned and numbed us. (438) words by General Omar Bradley. These were spoken after Bradley saw one of the concentration camps. Edsel describes the effects of seeing or hearing about the camps on the Monuments Men. Some visited, some declined because of concern it would have on their relations with their German contacts. All were affected, mostly negative in their thinking about the German people. 

Perhaps one of my weaknesses has been that I love to be surrounded by luxury and that I am so artistic in my temperament that masterpieces make me feel alive and glowing inside. (595) From the Nuremberg Interviews, spoken by Herman Goring. It is interesting to me that what makes Goring feel alive is art. I wonder why. I picture people like Goring as having a deaden core, else how can they live with what they have done. What would bring Goring alive in a painting? Might he be mistaking the thrill of the chase, the coveting of another s possessions, with the warmth of being loved?

When Goring discovered that a painting he possessed and probably bought from a looter was a fake, it is reported that Goring for the first time ... had discovered there was evil in the world. (595) If the worst Goring ever experienced was being duped, I am not sure this qualifies as a great epiphany. Discovering that ones self is capable of evil, or even worst has done evil, that is true revelation.

Edsel is a person who is passionate about the subject of Monuments Men-those who were charged with saving the art of Europe during World War II. He speaks well and is very worthwhile hearing. But this evaluation is not about his talks but about his book, The Monuments Men. Like many true believers in a cause, he has lots of information to tell, but whose talent is not necessarily one whose is highly skilled in the conveying of that information through the art of writing. 

liked the subject matter and Edsel's style of writing is easy to read. But Edsel is telling a story, a true story, but still a story. As such, there should be a flow to the book. Instead there was a lack of focus in the story. He writes about several people in the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives). He would have done better to have selected three of the people he wrote about and told their stories, weaving the other men's stories into theirs. Who would have been those three people? I would have picked Rose Valland, James Romier and George Stout.

The other thought which I was having was, was this written with the thought of making a movie? It sometimes feels like a movie would tell this story better., and there was a hit movie made from this book with George Clooney.

So would I recommend this book? Yes, particularly if you are interested in either World War II or the visual arts. He has much material which is a good place to  launch off onto other writings on this subject.

Book References:
  • Extensive Bibliography and end notes
  • The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and World War II by Lynn Nichols
  • Feuilles by  Jacques Jaujard
  • The Battle for Art by Rose Villard
  • Survival by James Rorimer

New Words:

  • Sacristan (158): an officer charged with care of the sacristy, the church, and their contents
  • Amontillado (429): a variety of Sherry wine characterized by being darker than Fino but lighter than Oloroso.
  • Filigraine (466):French word-not sure what it means
  • Gauleiters (469): the second highest Nazi paramilitary rank, ranking below the new rank of Reichsleiter (National Leader)
  • Reliquary (508): a container for holy relics

Good Quotes:

  • First Line: This is a long road we have to travel. Eisenhower in a letter to General Vernon Prichard
  • Last Line: No one seemed interest in the fact that the painting was the Rembrandt from the museum in Karlsruhe, and that the nineteen-year-old solder standing next to it was a German Jew who had grown up three blocks from that museum, and by chance had descended seven hundred feet into a mine to behold, for the first time, a painting he had always heard about, but never had the right to see.
  •  These monuments are not merely pretty things, not merely valued signs of man's creative power. They are expressions of faith, and they stand for man's struggle to relate himself to his past and to his God. pg 53 quoted from George Stout's pamphlet entitled Protection of Monuments: A Proposal for Consideration During War and Rehabilitation
  • An expert and a precisionist makes his analysis first, then his decision. pg 59,  quoted from George Stout to Francis Taylor, "General Museum Conservation", December 31, 1942 
  • Destiny is not one push, .... but a thousand small moments that through insight and hard work you line up in the right direction, like a magnet does with metal shavings. pg 300, thoughts of Rose Valland
  • The crowd will succeed in remembering only the simplest concepts repeated a thousand times. 345, quoted from Adolf Hitler in Mein Kamf
  • It is amazing how the world can change during the life span of a fruitcake. 358 as quoted from George Strout
  • The eyes have one continual feast. 463, quoted from a letter from Walker Hancock to his wife
  • No age lives entirely alone; every civilization is formed nor merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and shall be poorer for it. (552)  Ronald Balfour, draft lecture to soldiers, 1944
  • There are fights that you may lose without losing your honor; what makes you lose your honor is not to fight them. (608) Jacques Jaujard in Le Figaro, Nov 21, 1968
  • it is not enough to be virtuous, we must also appear to be so. (625), quote from Edith Standen in Report on Germany
Table of Contents:
  1. I The Mission
    1. 1 Out of Germany 3
    2. 2 Hitler's Dream 10
    3. 3 The Call to Arms 16
    4. 4 A Dull and Empty World 25
    5. 5 Leptis Magna 32
    6. 6 The First Campaign 37
    7. 7 Monte Cassino 44
    8. 8 Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives 50
    9. 9 The Task 63
  2. II Northern Europe
    1. 10 Winning Respect 70
    2. 11 A Meeting in the Field 83
    3. 12 Michelangelo's Madonna 97
    4. 13 The Cathedral and the Masterpiece 102
    5. 14 Van Eyck's Mystic Lamb 113
    6. 15 James Rorimer Visits the Louvre 120
    7. 16 Entering Germany 139
    8. 17 A Field Trip 146
    9. 18 Tapestry 155
    10. 19 Christmas Wishes 164
    11. 20 The Madonna of La Gleize 173
    12. 21 The Train 177
    13. 22 The Bulge 190
    14. 23 Champagne 193
  3. III Germany
    1. 24 A German Jew in the U.S. Army 209
    2. 25 Coming Through the Battle 214
    3. 26 The New Monuments Man 220
    4. 27 George Stout with His Maps 230
    5. 28 Art on the Move 239
    6. 29 Two Turning Points 242
    7. 30 Hitler's Nero Decree 250
    8. 31 First Army Across the Rhine 253
    9. 32 Treasure Map 259
    10. 33 Frustration 270
    11. 34 Inside the Mountain 280
    12. 35 Lost 284
    13. 36 A Week to Remember 287
  4. IV The Void
    1. 37 Salt 303
    2. 38 Horror 309
    3. 39 The Gauleiter 314
    4. 40 The Battered Mine 316
    5. 41 Last Birthday 322
    6. 42 Plans 327
    7. 43 The Noose 332
    8. 44 Discoveries 339
    9. 45 The Noose Tightens 344
    10. 46 The Race 348
    11. 47 Final Days 353
    12. 48 The Translator 359
    13. 49 The Sound of Music 362
    14. 50 End of the Road 367
  5. V The Aftermath
    1. 51 Understanding Altaussee 373
    2. 52 Evacuation 382
    3. 53 The Journey Home 391
    4. 54 Heroes of Civilization 400
    5. Cast of Characters 427
  6. Notes 431
  7. Bibliography 447
  8. Acknowledgments 455
  9. What Is Your Connection to the Story? 459
  10. Index 461


      • Wikipedia-Book
      • Wikipedia-Author
      • Amazon-Book
      • Amazon-Author
      • Barnes and Noble
      • GoodReads-Book
      • GoodReads-Author
      • Harvard Magazine on The Art Army
      •  Just Us Gals web site
      • LitLovers web site
      •  Monuments Men Foundation
      • The New Yorker
      • Archives of American Art
      • Smithsonian
      •  Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas 

      • Notes from my book group:
        How many lives is an irreplaceable piece of art worth?

        Why did the French give in so easily to the Germans? Was it worth the cost?

        What is art?

        Study Guide Questions
        From Just Us Gals web site:

        1. Robert Edsel calls the Monuments Men, “The Heroes of Civilization.” What do you think Edsel means and do you agree? 
        2. What do you think drove the Men to do what they did and how did they find the strength given circumstances at the time?
        3. Discuss Hitler’s obsession with art and his personal connection to art. Do you think there was any correlation between art and power for him? Do you think there is a correlation in society today with art and power?
        4. At any point while reading Monuments Men did you think of the war in the Middle East? Are there similar atrocities taking place today? Examples? What’s different?
        5. Why do you think this is a relatively unknown story? Is it not interesting? Exciting?
        6. During the book did you feel differently about national treasures being stolen rather than a families' personal items being stolen and destroyed during the war?
        7. We happened to read this book when new pieces were discovered in Germany. Did this give you any hope that more pieces are soon to be discovered?
        8. If found, should they be returned to their original owners?

         From LitLovers web site:

         1. "It was a good group, he had to admit. A group [Stout] himself might have chosen, if given the chance." Talk about the original group of 11 men put together to salvage the world's artwork. What made George Stoat believe that it was the right team for the job? What were the men's individual qualifications, both personal and professional?

        2. What kind of man was George Stout? How would you describe James Rorimer? Why was his service so invaluable to the mission? Who else stood out among the Monuments Men?

        3. What role did Rose Valland play? How critical was she to the success of the Monuments Men mission?

        4. Why were the pieces of art so important to Hitler? Why was he so intent on creating his "F├╝hrermuseum...the largest, most imposing, most spectacular art museum in the world"?

        5. Should the team who rescued the stolen art be elevated to the level of heroism as Robert M. Edsel indicates? Or should we consider them as good men doing a hard job very effectively—and extend our gratitude and respect?

        6. Another question that must be asked is the degree of importance accorded to the mission. Is protecting art worth the price of a human life—or diverting resources otherwise used to protect lives? What do you think? What does Edsel suggest?

        7. If you have seen the George Clooney directed movie, how does it compare to the book? What do you think of the's music (especially), visuals, and actors. If you haven't yet seen the film, do you intend to after reading and discussing the book?

        8. What have you learned from reading The Monuments Men—about the war, the Nazis, and most of all about art?

         From Hol Arts Books web site and the Mint Museum
        1. Robert Edsel calls the Monuments Men, “The Heroes of Civilization.” What does he mean? What common traits or aspects did these men possess? What kept them going during incredibly difficult and often miserable times?
        2. Discuss the Monuments Men. Which ones were you more drawn to? Why? What in their personal stories drew you in? Which Monuments Men sacrificed the most?
        3. Would museum employees, librarians, and artists do today what the Monuments Men did during and after WWII?
        4. Are there similar atrocities taking place today? Examples? What’s different?
        5. Discuss Hitler’s fascination with art and its power. What about societies’ fascination with art? Is it strictly monetary fascination or is there more to it?
        6. On page 393, Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger states, “My knowledge of the Holocaust started really with the realization that it was not only the taking of lives—that I learned much later in my experience—but the taking of all their belongings …” Discuss the difference in stealing personal belongings and stealing national treasures. Is there a difference? What effect does this have on a nations’ collective mental health?
        7. Robert Edsel has said, “Rose Valland is my candidate for the greatest heroine of WWII.” Do you agree? What about Rose made her so special? Discuss her relationship with James Rorimer and Jacques Jaujard.
        8. Discuss George Stout. How did his knowledge and passion for art conservation come into play? Discuss his creativity in the field. What was his relationship with the other Monuments Men?
        9. Why do you think this is a relatively unknown story? Is it not interesting? Exciting?
        10. Where do you think the thousands of still missing works of art are located? Once found, should they be returned to their original owners?
        11. Discuss what you found the most fascinating about Monuments Men. The brazen theft of the Bruges Madonna with the Allies mere days away? The discovery of the Ghent Altarpiece in the Altaussee mine? Which story touched you the most? Or shocked you?

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