This summer has been anything but quiet. Between the thunderstorms (which seem to occur every day), the Blackhawks, the noise in Washington, and the floundering of my Cubs, I have not had much time, or patience, to write. But for the first summer in 7 years, I have had time to read. It is what I plan on doing a lot this summer.
The first book on the list is The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter. I enjoyed it very much! It is the second history book (Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails) in a row that I read that was not written by a historian. It gives the reader a fresh approach to history.
The book itself follows the exploits of several men and one woman who tried to save and salvage the art of Europe (mainly French, Belgian, and Dutch) in the last days of World War II from Nazi control. The department known as MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) traveled along the front lines in Europe trying to find stashes of art the Germans hid.
The book starts out in the years before the war detailing the lives of the main characters who shape the book. When the war starts, three people shape the story and its contents: George Stout, James Rorimer, and Rose Valland – a French underground spy. When World War II begins, the two authors chronicle the Nazi agenda to strip the conquered territories of wealth including art. Most interesting is the argument that the Nazis saw the value in art as a status symbol but could not analyze its cultural and abstract worth. This is done through the collection of art by the highest ranking members of the Nazi Party, but mainly Herman Goring’s acquisitions.
The book spends most of its time detailing Rorimer’s and Stout’s races against time after D-Day. The authors describe the attempts by the Nazis to make it back into Germany with the looted works, and then the attempts to hide the art so the Americans, French, British, or Soviets could not get their hands on it. However, Rose Valland, working undercover, kept track of the destinations of trains taking the art out of France.
The second half of the book reads at a break-neck speed as the Monuments Men race to find the art before the Nazis, in some cases, could destroy it or hide it. Most interesting is Rose Valland’s ability/inability to trust the Americans to do right by the art. It is tense at several points in the book as Rose wavers on her decision.
The whole time I was reading it, I kept thinking that this topic would make a great NHD topic, and it would. Several of the Monuments Men were from Illinois including two from Chicago. Another interesting aspect is that these men tended to work solo. Rarely did they work in concert with another Monuments Man. There was no division specifically set up. Rather, each Monuments Man was embedded within a division. I also found it interesting to read the role Eisenhower played in the preservation of the art. Here is his letter he wrote as the soldiers made their way though Italy first, then, western Europe in 1944.
The book also has a nice collection of photographs at the end. I kept finding myself Googling the names of the people involved and also the names of the artwork (I read the book on my phone). The character who kept my attention most was none other than Rose Valland – a supposed nondescript person – who was able to work amidst the Nazis in Paris during the war. In that time, she drew suspicion from both sides while working for the resistance.
The Nazis go to great lengths to try to keep the art for themselves including hiding it in mines with booby traps, salt, running water, and Nazi soldiers. The race to find the art takes up the second half of the book and it is hard to put down. Hitler’s role and philosophies about art are also well detailed. The book only covers the Monuments Men in Western Europe. A second book, Saving Italy, describes the efforts there.
The Monuments Men, while a misleading title, is a very good read and I highly recommend it.
For further reading
This site chronicles what the Monuments men did and lists every single soldier with a brief biography.
This site is the author’s site that also includes the companion book called Saving Italy.