on March 7, 2010
If I had written this review when I was only 25% of the way through this book, I would have given it 2 stars. The beginning of the book can only be described as plodding and in my opinion was not very well constructed. However, I hung in there and the payoff came in the remainder of the book.
The book describes an overlooked group of men and women who served during WWII to save priceless buildings and works of arts in Europe. It also describes the internal conflicts of these folks who wondered, for example, if the German people deserved the return of their Nazi-stolen art. The efforts of these dedicated service-men and -women were, naturally enough, largely overshadowed by the inarguably more important discoveries at the end of WWII, such as the truths revealed by the liberation of the concentration camps. This book is thus a wonderful contribution to an overlooked history of the time.
The end of the book describes the discovery of hidden German repositories of art; the volume and quality of art found in these hiding places is absolutely staggering. I had the pleasure of seeing Michelangelo's flawless Madonna when I was in Bruges and was riveted by her WWII story, which was not described in any detail in the materials given out by the museums there.
In summary: stick with it. The book had some problems with flow, especially in the beginning, but the payoff of the middle and ending was worth it.
on September 3, 2009
The most devastating damage and acts of looting of art objects in the annals of history took place during World War Two.These were perpetrated by the Nazi hordes ,carefully directed by the Fuhrer himself.The Nazi army was perpetually pillaging the finest art in Europe.The vain Goering and Alfred Rosenberg were among the main culprits involved in those brutal crimes against the human creative talent.
Fortunately,there was a Western Allied effort to mitigate combat damage, primarily to structures-churches,museums, and other various monuments.In the course of those brutal years, particularly during 1943-1944,the Allies paid much more attention to finding and protecting cultural items which were stolen from their owners,many of which were Jews.The bosses of the Third Reich transported more than five million cultural objects to many sites in Germany, where they hid them , hoping that one day they would not only be the masters of the world, but also the masters of art.
More than 350 men and women served as Monuments People.This number was culled from thirteen nations.In the end, only a handful of them were active and this book is their story.It was the responsibility of this group to save as much of the European culture as it could.
Mt. Edsel has been living in Florence ,Italy, in the 1990s when he wondered how so many of Europe's monuments and other works of art could have survived this unprecedented orgy of destruction.Thus, he set out to conduct a very careful process of extremely meticulous research which led him ultimately to interview those soldiers who have risked and dedicated their lives pursuing this mission.Many of them were art curators,scholars, educators, architects and archivists in their early forties.There are captivating chapters on the fate of museums in Western Europe, such those in France, Belgium,Holland and Italy.You will meet well-known paintings and the fate of them.Among these are the "Mona Lisa" and "The Night Watch".There arealso letters written by the heroes of this book to various relatives of theirs and some directives given or sent to Nazi officials.
Mr. Edsel's forte in the book is especially interesting when describing what happened during and after 1945 in Altaussee, Austria- a site where many tunnels served as sanctuaries for an enormous number of stolen works, as well as another chapter devoted to the Merkers salt mine in Germany where the largest paintings from the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin were placed for safekeeping (along Germany's gold reserve and paper currency).
We are also informed that the castle of Neuschwainstein, which was built by Mad Ludwing of Bavaria in the ninetennth century, served as a key Nazi repository of the greatest works of art stolen from France.It took the Monuments Men six whole weeks to empty it.Some of the stolen art objects belonged to the Rothschild collection in France.
This is an originally told and well-researched chapter with a happy
end, not only because of the outcome of those devoted men and women, but also because they finally got the right historian and researcher who is responsible for bringing up their extrordinary achievements, and for whom humanity shoud be more than grateful.I must warn you: once you start reading the book, you will not put it down easily.
Five points go to this book!
Even before the first shots of World War II were fired in September 1939, Adolf Hitler was dreaming of transforming his hometown of Linz into a kind of Nazi cultural capital, and his political aides were helping him earmark works of art from around Europe that could be added to his collection. Unlike today's avid collectors, however, Hitler opted to obtain his works via looting, confiscation or as a kind of trade for the owner's survival, safety or escape from the Nazi regime. The fight to retrieve this art and return it to its former owner goes on to this day; the Amber Room is still missing from the Tsarist palaces of St. Petersburg, while works by Klimt have only recently been returned to the families of their original owners.
That's the backdrop against which Robert Edsel (and his writer, Brett Witter) craft their story of the adventures of six very different "Monuments Men", a motley crew of artists, curators and other types who landed on the beaches of Normandy in the wake of D-Day and, hitchiking from one town to another, battled to protect, rescue and, later, retrieve lost masterpieces. The material in the book is compelling, but the way in which it's delivered and presented falls short, which astonished me given the sheer drama of the quixotic adventures of the monuments men. Part of the problem are the ultra-short chapters (sometimes only three or four pages), which just gave me a chance to immerse myself in what one of the monuments men was up to before it jumped, sometimes both geographically and thematically, to another chapter dealing with something else. I ended up feeling dizzy and distracted.
I also struggled with two elements in the writing of the book. Firstly, Edsel has chosen to pay tribute to the individuals involved by providing a lot of detail of their personal lives. Alas, this doesn't do much for the narrative, even in the case of Harry Ettlinger, whose dramatic last-minute emigration to the United States in 1938 opens the book. (He later becomes one of the monuments men.) Most of their lives are relatively ordinary, and while I'm sure they loved their wives and children and worried about their ability to pay the bills, in the context of the rather choppy structure, this just becomes a distraction that doesn't propel the book forward. (That's not to say the same information couldn't have been conveyed in vignettes scattered throughout the book; it simply felt like I was struggling through a rather dull preamble.) Secondly, for a book about the preservation of monuments, there's little attention to the art history itself. Reading about the preparation of the lengthy list of buildings that the Allies had labeled as to be protected, I wondered about how it was composed. What criteria were used? Did people argue over the inclusion or exclusion of some locations? I did ferret out some tidbits, but this is a book more about the people and the derring-do than about the art, and anyone not well-informed about the importance of Van Eyck, Michaelangelo, etc. could find this frustrating.
There's already an excellent book that deals with similar material in print -- The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War -- and the stark contrast between the two doesn't favor Edsel's offering. True, he goes into greater depth than Nicholas on the adventures associated with the recovery of the art work. But returning to glance into Nicholas's book, I realized that I, at least, valued the broader context it offered me into the whole tragic episode, from the first thefts and the persecution of artists like Chagall, to the pesky issues that still surround the debate over who owns some of these works of art. If you've read Nicholas's book, and want to delve more deeply into this particular part of the story, this is a laudable effort. It's just not a great book in its own right.
on June 25, 2013
One of the most enjoyable aspects to the study of history is always finding new stories. Even when you think you know a lot about a field you find something new and enjoyable. That one of the many reasons that I enjoyed Monuments Men so much. Robert Edsel has provided us with a look at an area of World War II studies that has gone virtually unnoticed for nearly 70 years. The men and women of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) Division served an almost unknown, but incredibly valuable part in the war against the destructive evil of Nazism.
When Hitler's forces overran Europe they set about looting the national artistic treasures in a methodical manner. Priceless treasures were pillaged from the museums and galleries of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, and other European nations. All property belonging to Jews were taken. Hitler's dream was to create an enormous museum that would be the envy of the entire world. Instead he launched the most destructive war in history.
The allies were aware of the cultural heritage in the areas that they would be fighting. This is why the MFAA was created. The original MFAA officers were tasked with traveling into the war zones and identifying historic sites that needed to be preserved. The stories of what these men accomplished is truly amazing. Time after time they were able to save important buildings from being destroyed.
As the book progresses we see another dimension of their work. They began to investigate the Nazi looting. Their job shifted from simply protecting buildings from destruction to locating stolen works of art. At times the book resembles an action thriller story. The theft of priceless works of art. The heroic civilians who work undercover to spy on the Nazis. The small band of men rushing from place to place to save these priceless objects.
I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the subject, I enjoyed the writing, I enjoyed everything about it. Robert Edsel has done an excellent job of sharing this important story with us. Perhaps there is no greater evidence of the statement that those who do not study history are bound to repeat it. We never studied the important work of the Monuments Men. As a result the allies were not prepared when Iraq was invaded in 2003. The looting of those priceless antiquities could have been avoided by simply employing a group like the MFAA. Perhaps this book will help to raise awareness so that tragedies like the Iraq museum will not happen again.
on October 28, 2013
The author's clumsy, repetitive style makes "Monuments Men" unreadable. Try the brilliant "The Rape Of Europa" by Lynn H. Nicholas, which includes vastly more information about the art, the Nazi's systematic plundering and the story of the Monuments Men. Plus it reads like a thriller!
on October 1, 2010
I just spent a couple of weeks in Russia, where our tour's emphasis was on museums, churches, and palaces in several cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg. In preparation for the trip I dug into relatively modern history -- World War II, the Stalin era, Nazi Germany, etc. My wife dug into the general cultural and social history of Russia.
One of the lessons from the trip is how important cultural history and art are to the people of Russia -- and the incredible lengths they have gone to restore what the Nazis wantonly destroyed. Oh, and what Stalin destroyed as well. One could not visit the Hermitage or the now restored wreckage of the Peterhof and Catherine's Palace to avoid wonder at the lengths the Russians went in advance of the invasion to protect their treasures -- the evacuation of the Hermitage collection is one of the great stories of World War II -- and treasures still lost, including the amber panels from Catherine's palace.
When I found this book in an airport bookstore (sorry Amazon)I was enthralled and dug right in. And could hardly put it down. It's quite a story that really runs along several paths:
- the character and foresight of the 'snobby' American arts establishment before the Second World War
- the establishment of a corp of brilliant military conservationists against great odds
- the wonderful characters who joined together and, often at amazing self-sacrifice and in the face of indifference, protected much of the art heritage of Western Europe (with the help of brave British and French colleagues and even a Nazi or two)
- the horrific pillage policies of the Nazis
- rescue efforts themselves
These are all wonderful stories and taken alone, and with some patience on the part of the reader, are a tribute to the main characters and, in my mind, General Dwight Eisenhower, an effective and brilliant leader who could mesh military policy with preservation, in part out of American idealism, and in part out of a good old fashioned practicality that called for winning the hearts and minds of allies and even enemies who would one day become allies.
My suggestion of reader patience is based on the fact that at times the narrative is trying to do too many things at once (biographical stories, political insights, etc), thereby losing a sense of overall development and drama. This is not a fatal flaw because in so many ways the story tells itself. And, the narration gets much stronger as the book reaches its very exciting conclusion.
There are many ways to calculate the evil of Hitler, Goring and the Nazis, and we all know about mass murders, genocide, stupid strategic policies that led to the death of millions, a Red Army hell bent on revenge and, horrifically, Hitler's Nero order that would have destroyed Germany to its roots and much of the art it looted. But this book puts yet another face on the look of evil; cruel and selfish task masters intent on personal gain, good people who became bad Nazis, a Leader plundering for the sake of a museum in his honor, stealing from the Jews as one way to prove their inferiority...and so it goes.
At the same time I found the book a good introduction to the world of fine art in Europe. Its a great sub-story of the allied invasion and struggles, and even an interesting introduction to the technology of preservation, mining and restoration. But more than that, it is a story of smart and brave individuals who gave up a great deal, often in middle age, to slog around in the mud, enter gigantic underground mines, and compile detailed and accurate data on what they saw and learned.
In a time when we complain if the temperature in a museum is not right, the lines at the ticket office are too long, or the exhibit we are viewing is not as well organized as it might be, Monuments Men reminds us that the heritage we take for granted was protected with bravery, self-sacrifice and energy most of us will never experience. A great story with many lessons for our time.
on October 12, 2009
The search for artwork stolen by the Nazis in WWII has been aptly described as "the greatest treasure hunt in treasury." As the soldiers who participated in this hunt were also charged with saving historical churches and other historical monuments, they were referred to as "Monument men."
The heoric quest of the Monument Men is an undertold story of WWII. Outside of art scholars and musuem curators, few are aware of the details of their saga. In his book, Robert Edsel provides us the details. He spent many years conducting research for this book and, particularly in the latter half of the story, the reader is rewarded by his effort.
While the research is impressive, I give "Monument Men" just four stars. With some better editing, it could have been a five star book. Here are some examples of the poor editing:
1) Early in the re-telling we are introduced to the only female character of importance, but we do not learn her backstory until some chapters later. Keeping the reader "in the dark" about the background of a main character is a literary technique fit for a mystery --- not an important work of non-fiction.
2) About halfway in the story we are told about an explosion behind allied lines. However, we do not learn the results of that explosion into well into the next chapter -- a chapter that concerns a different monument man hundreds of miles away. Again, the reader is given a mystery, and has to wait for the facts.
3) Seperate from the main body of the text, the author includes several relevant (and some marginally relevant) letters. The typeface used for German/Nazi sources is very similar, if not identical, to the typeface used from allied sources. Since the first few letters are from Nazi sources, the reader is setup to expect letters with the particular typeface will be from Nazi sources. In any reprinting of this book, there should be clearly different typefaces for Nazi and Allied sources.
Still, these flaws aside, a strong four stars.
on March 22, 2014
The material in this book is fascinating, and Edsel and his co-writer? researcher? have done their work well. I never knew about this group of men before, or of Hitler's plan to build a massive museum at Linz filled with the great art work of the world, looted from churches, museums, and private collections of Jewish collectors. Nor did I realize that there were military commanders who could be persuaded to protect designated monuments or art collections in the thick of war. The narrative of the final months of the war, with the monument men racing to find and protect caches of great art while retreating Germans tried to blow them up, is as suspenseful as any thriller.
My major criticism of this book, and the reason why I could not award the fifth star, is the actual writing, both on the sentence level and the paragraph level, even the chapter arrangements. As a retired Professor of English I was frequently reaching for my non-existent red pen (I read the book on Kindle) to make the sentence-level writing clearer, and also frequently looking back to earlier paragraphs to check on dates and events because the chronology had become confusing. I suspect Mr Edsel was originally trained as a journalist, so he follows the journalist technique of starting a chapter or section with an attention-grabbing moment and then backtracks to the events that preceded it. I found this frustrating and sometimes plain annoying.
But I must admit, despite these criticisms, I did keep reading, to the end, and it's a long book.
on February 6, 2014
I read The Monuments Men while on vacation. I LOVE historical non-fiction. It was a great story, but I recommend it with the following cautions: If you don't care for history, or have trouble with numerous characters, names, places, and dates, it's probably not up your alley. It also requires patience. While the whole story is interesting, it doesn't really "hook" you until about halfway through the book(496 pages total). The writing is awkward, in that the author is redundant in his descriptions and explanations of people, places and situations, AND the timeline jumps back and forth quite a bit. Several times, I found the redundancy to be irritating, and wondered if Edsel thought his readers would be stupid; you only need to describe a person as "dapper" once or twice - I think I counted five or more (should have made a drinking game of it). I plan to see the film, which opens this weekend. I'm glad to have read the book though, since there's no way a feature film will be able to include everything.
I've read many books about the incredible heroism and devastation wrought by WWII. This is a worthy addition to them - about undoing massive Nazi thefts of over 5 million cultural objects, including many of the world's greatest priceless paintings and sculptures. Edsel focuses on the Monument's Men's activities in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria. All were volunteers, many from safe civilian positions as museum directors, curators, art scholars, etc., most were middle-aged (average age = 40), and one a WWI veteran.
Hitler had dreamed of being an artist and architect. That dream had been crushed when his application to the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna was rejected by a panel he believed to be Jews. Now (1938) he intended to make an empire out of Germany - the strongest, most disciplined, most racially pure. But a true artist-emperor needed a Florence - and he knew where to build it.
Linz, Austria was his adopted home town. He'd annexed the country in 1938. Hitler envisioned rebuilding the entire town, centered around the largest, most imposing, most spectacular art museum in the world. Already he had stripped German Jews of their citizenship and confiscated their collections of art, furniture, silverware, and family photos. As he knelt before his mother's grave, Nazi SS troops were arresting the Jewish patriarchy of Vienna and seizing their property - they had a list of where their artwork was hidden. (German art scholars years earlier had been visiting European countries, preparing inventories in preparation.) And he'd already commissioned (1939) the Dresden Gallery's Director to build his new art museum in Linz.
England had taken almost a year to retrofit an enormous mine in Manod, Wales, for the safe storage of evacuated artwork. By 1941, England's National Gallery was deserted, its works buried there. The nave of Canterbury Cathedral was filled with dirt to absorb the shock of explosions. The Netherlands most famous national museum had stacked paintings like folded chairs against empty walls., and its most famous holding, Rembrandt's monumental painting (The Night Watch) was rolled like a carpet and sealed in a box that appeared to be a coffin. Paris' Grande Galerie of the Louvre, contained nothing but empty frames. Now-occupied Poland's masterworks hadn't been seen in years. Michelangelo's David was entombed in brick by worried Italian officials. Curators at Russia's state museum, the Hermitage, had evacuated 1.2 million of its estimated 2+ million works of art to Siberia. Even some American museums took action - eg. the National Gallery sent 75 of its best works to the Biltmore in North Carolina, hidden until 1944.
Safekeeping facilities, however, were not necessary safe for paintings. Lack of light encouraged mildew and fungus growth, some were rolled up - creating cracking. And some of a nation's highly prized works were required to be turned to German forces under terms of surrender (a legal cover). (Another legal cover - Hitler demanded return of every German artwork produced since 1919, as well as those it had been required to surrender as part of WWI reparations. Still another - taking precious paintings for 'protection.') However, many Western works were left where they were - after all, the Reich was going to last a thousand years.
Fortunately, there was at least one 'good Nazi,' Count Wolff-Metternich - tasked to oversee the art within France. He eventually lost his position by thwarting numerous attempted Nazi seizures, often using paperwork and his interpretation of Hitler's orders. (His efforts were recognized after the war, and he later helped trace works stolen from Germany during the war.) Thanks to his efforts, along with Jacques Jaujard, Director of the French National Museums, only two items were stolen from Paris museums; private collections, however, did not fare nearly as well.
George Stout was not a typical museum official. He'd served during WWI as a private in a European hospital unit, then studied drawing at the Univ. of Iowa, then undertaken graduate studies at Harvard in 1926, and pioneered art preservation studies as a volunteer at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, where he became head of its conservation department. Also a Navy reservist, Stout went on active duty in 1943 and was one of the first recruited to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section (MFAA). He was also one of the first MMFA men ashore at Normandy - 7/4/44.
In one of his last acts before leaving Italy in 1943, General Eisenhower ordered that important artistic and historical sites were not to be bombed, with the exception that endangering American 'lives counted infinitely more.' This order was repeated prior to the invasion of Europe; by 6/1 MFAA had reached 'full-strength' - 15 British and American men, with seven serving at headquarters and the other eight assigned to British and American armies.
The Germans thought the Allies wouldn't invade without having a port as support - D-Day's location surprised them, along with 14,000 Allied sorties that day and an English Channel full of ships. (The English Channel was so full of ships that for more than a month the one day crossing took three.) Nonetheless, the advance was slow - after 8 week, the Allies had advance only 25 miles inland. And it was deadly - eg. the 29th Infantry Division had been bogged down since early June in a showdown with the German 352nd Division, and by mid-July hard a man was alive on either side who had fought on D-Day. Fortunately, soon afterwards the Allies broke through, and the Germans' began retreating - sometimes looting more artwork from churches as they went. They'd also endangered some sites (eg. the Chartres Cathedral) by placing explosives on nearby bridges and other structures, and German officers had previously burned many pieces of Louis XIV furniture in French manors as firewood, preferring overstuffed modern pieces.
Other vignettes include Germany looing its own churches, battling Eisenhower's aides wanting to furnish his new office location with captured artifacts, the pressure of beating the Russians to recover stolen art - fear they'd take it back to Russia, educating Allied soldiers about the historical significance of various German locales - as a means to reduce their inclination to trash everything in sight, German authorities blowing up the entrance to a mine filled with looted art, the French museum assistant (Ms. Vallard) during Nazi occupation who secretly recorded where the Germans were sending French art, finding German repositories of its own art, financial reserves, gold fillings, and wedding bands.