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The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History Paperback – September 17, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
WWII was the most destructive war in history and caused the greatest dislocation of cultural artifacts. Hundreds of thousands of items remain missing. The main burden fell to a few hundred men and women, curators and archivists, artists and art historians from 13 nations. Their task was to save and preserve what they could of Europe's great art, and they were called the Monuments Men. (Coincidentally or not, this book appears only briefly after Ilaria Dagnini Brey's The Venus Fixers: The Untold Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II, Reviews, June 1.) Edsel has presented their achievements in documentaries and photographs. He and Witter (coauthor of the bestselling Dewey) are no less successful here. Focusing on the organization's role in northwest Europe, they describe the Monuments Men from their initial mission to limit combat damage to structures and artifacts to their changed focus of locating missing items. Most had been stolen by the Nazis. In southern Germany alone, over a thousand caches emerged, containing everything from church bells to insect collections. The story is both engaging and inspiring. In the midst of a total war, armies systematically sought to mitigate cultural loss. (Sept. 3)
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"After World War Two I served as a British member of the 'Monuments' section in Germany. Our task, I believe, was truly important - we were restoring to Europe evidence of its own civilization, which the War seemed virtually to have destroyed - and I was lucky to have had a chance to participate. It is excellent that Mr Edsel has now recorded this remarkable episode, and I am grateful to him for devoting so much energy to telling the stories of those involved." -- Anne Olivier Bell "Highly Readable ... a remarkable history" Washington Post "Engaging and inspiring" Publishers Weekly
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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!
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.