What defines us as human beings has always been the arts. The arts are filled with our deepest wishes, dreams, desires, and our heartbreaks. They reflect the world around us and within us. All the things that make up who were are as people can be seen in the arts.
In World War II, the Nazi Party leadership tried to monopolize art through the abduction and destruction of some of the great artworks of Western Civilization in territories they conquered. At the end of the war, it was up to men like Edwin C. Rae to go find the art, where possible, and restore it to its original condition and owner. These “Monuments Men” helped to recapture the great works of Western Civilization for future generations to understand who the peoples of Western Europe are and were.
Before the war began, Edwin C. Rae was a professor of Art History at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana from 1939 to 1942. He specialized in Irish sculpture and architecture.
Dr. Rae received his dissertation at Harvard University on the architecture of Medieval Ireland. For his dissertation, Dr. Rae traveled extensively throughout Ireland taking photographs of Irish buildings. Later, after World War II, Rae’s work on his dissertation would prove invaluable in helping to restore the great Gothic works of Bavaria.
The War Begins
World War II broke out on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Within a year, Germany had conquered most of Europe except for Great Britain, Spain, and Switzerland. In doing so, Germany pillaged the countries it conquered of gold and art. Near the end of the war, General Eisenhower, head of the Allied Forces, made finding this art one of the great objectives of the war.
Edwin C. Rae joined the US Army in 1942. He did not see any action, but rather he initially took out the trash. Later, he worked in the background as he helped target areas to bomb in Italy, France, and Germany to avoid civilian casualties and destroying priceless buildings of antiquity. In 1945, he was assigned to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Branch. In his diary, Dr. Rae states his objective when he was assigned to the branch.
“August 11 – 22, 1945,
ECR instated as Chief, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Branch, Detachment E1F3 APO 658, which became on 15 Aug 45 Detachment E-201, Co. F. 3d Military Government Regiment APO 403. […] Chief concern is to regularize field reports, provide better protection and surveillance of monuments, and to reestablish the German agencies on a decent, efficient basis.”
Eisenhower and the Arts
As early as 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower stated the importance of securing the artwork of Italy when Allied forces invaded. To help find these works of art, Eisenhower established what would be called the Monument’s Men Division which consisted of 350 men and women working almost individually to save the art of Europe.
In early 1944, the United States felt that German spotters and snipers were using the famed Abbey at Monte Cassino to target Allied position below. The Abbey, just outside of Rome, held a special place in Italy’s heart. In order to save American lives on lower ground, the US bombed the Abbey, nearly leveling it to the ground.
Eisenhower received a lot of flak in the Italian press for its destruction but Eisenhower felt it saved lives. Still, no excuse would do for the Italian people.
For Eisenhower, it was a lesson that even though he felt he was protecting his men, his job in liberating the nations of Europe was to free the people and what the people of those nations felt what was important to their heritage. In this case, the Abbey at Monte Cassino.
Those thoughts and high ideals did not last long.
Edwin C. Rae was brought in as a spotter at this point in the war. His job was to help the military avoid targets of cultural importance. His daughter Sarah said this of that period:
At the beginning of the war, they tried to pin-point the bombs. But at the end, they just didn’t care. They did saturation bombing, which was really horrible. It destroyed a lot of originals — buildings with artistic significance just decimated.”
Eisenhower’s chief objectives had to be freeing Europe and saving soldier’s lives. The pinpoint bombing was not effective.
If Rae was to help save art, he would have to do so as an attachment that went in on the ground after Allied forces had secured an area. It would be a tough task. Once an area was secure, Rae and other Monument Men in other divisions would try to find and preserve the art and buildings as well as find hidden or stolen art.
Here are two pictures of the Abbey before the bombing and after the bombing.
Between Monte Cassino and D-Day, Eisenhower had to rethink the plan. The war came first, art came second. However, in a letter sent 13 days to commanders before D-Day, you could tell that saving the art of Europe was of extreme importance to the war effort.
Later in the War
As the war was coming to a close, Eisenhower and the US forces raced to find the art in hidden spaces, mines, trains, homes of Nazi officials and other odd places. In many instances, the Nazis tried to hide the art or were in the midst of planning to destroy it.
In the picture below, Eisenhower inspects one such place, a mine.
As the war raced to an end, the Nazis weren’t the only ones with whom the Monument Men were worried about. US forces also began to steal and damage the artwork. So enraged were several Monuments Men, that they sent off a letter to Eisenhower complaining how US forces were hampering their work to find and preserve these works of art.
This letter became known as the Wiesbaden Manifest and Edwin C. Rae is one of the many Monuments Men who attached their signatures.
Rae and the Arts
In addition to a diary, Rae also took photographs of the Art he found in Bavaria near the end of the war. Part historian, part artist, part photographer, Rae’s images capture just exactly what the Nazis stole throughout Europe, but also stole from their own people in Bavaria.
Wherever the Monuments Men found art, they had to place posters and guards to protect the site from looters and destruction. The poster shows the importance of protecting the art for Allied forces and the local communities.
When the war ended in Europe in May of 1945, Edwin C. Rae’s job was just beginning. He had already spent three years in the US Army and the past two searching for and finding valuable works of art. Along the way, he documented what he found in his diary and through photographs. Now his hardest task lay before him.
In Bavaria, Rae’s task after the war was to restore works of art in this area of southern Germany.
The next two years of his life were spent overseeing the restoration and reconstruction of areas that had been destroyed or damaged by American and British bombing raids. Rae received several letters of commendations from the leaders of the communities he helped to restore their heritage through the restoration of art.
Why Edwin C. Rae and the Monuments Men Matter
Even though Rae died in 2003, his past and his efforts were still unclear. In 2007, the Central Intelligence Agency released some information about Nazi War criminals and the hunt for them after the war. Who should be right in the middle of the hunt for them but none other than Edwin C. Rae.
Even though Edwin C. Rae left Bavaria in 1947, there was still art missing. Rae’s diary contained entries as late as 1958 that detailed his quest for art from 1947 to 1958. As late as the 1980s, stolen artwork was still being discovered. In fact, the hunt has never ended.
In some places in Europe, there are museum walls that still have artwork missing. In Krakow in Poland, an empty frame hangs missing Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man.”
For Rae, he made the hunt for the art and the restoration of the buildings a ten-year commitment. It would be hard to imagine the loss. and the scale of that loss, as an American. Our country was only 170 years old at the end of the war. Many of the European communities Rae helped had been around for 1400 years.
Many people in America tend to forget how young we are. As a result, our institutions, our buildings, and our art are not as ingrained in our society as they are in many parts of Europe. One lesson of his time in the service is just how much art can mean to a community. Fortunately, Edwin C. Rae helped bring some of it back to life.
After his time in Bavaria ended, Edwin C. Rae returned home to Illinois and continued to teach at the University of Illinois for another 30 years. He enthralled students with his knowledge of the great works of Europe that he saw firsthand during his time as a Monument Man. He established the Art History Department and was one of the founding members of a national organization called the Society of Architectural Historians.
As an art historian, Rae collected images and thoughts of his travel that were donated to the University of Illinois upon his death. His dissertation work was given to Trinity College in Ireland and is now online in a display of Irish Gothic Architecture.
His work as a Monument Man, and as an art history professor, are important because of the subject matter that he helped to save and preserve. The shame of the Nazi art thefts was that it was just one person’s view of what was important in art. The fact remains that if left alone, the Nazi view of art could have wiped out several thousand pieces of art whose importance lay to only one community or a group of people.
Edwin C. Rae’s Diary
For Rae’s children, they did not know of their father’s collections until his death.
His son Thomas spoke eloquently of the importance of the work his father, Edwin C. Rae, did during World War II as a Monument Man.
“I think it takes a few decades of distance to see the magnitude of what this meant,. No, they weren’t the ones who went into concentration camps and pulled the people out to save them. They were doing something else — they were helping to restore European culture and history.”