By Gord TurnerColumnist
Do any of you who study history know anything about the monuments men who went into Europe as the Second World War was ending and tried to salvage its art and buildings? I know I wasn’t aware of this initiative, and I certainly didn’t know about art experts like George Trout and James Rorimer, who were just a step behind the soldiers.
This untold story is documented in an insightful book called Monuments Men written by Robert Edsel. During the Second World War, not only was there a lot of destruction of natural monuments such as cathedrals, museums, monasteries, and statues, there was major theft of classical paintings. Hitler and the Germans hauled most of Europe’s art treasures into Germany during those years for “safe keeping” and to stock Hitler’s planned art museum.
It appears that Hitler was a once a failed art student, and so along with controlling the world in a Third Reich, he wanted to amass as much of the art work of Europe as possible. Along with ruling Europe as the Fuhrer, he had a desire to create one of the top art museums in the world — and he was going to do so with appropriated art.
Edsel is a brilliant researcher who follows the careers of several monuments men through their letters to their families and to their superiors. Edsel spent 13 years digging through archives in universities and reading everything any monument-man ever wrote. He is able to document where these individuals were at given times in 1944 through 1946 as they sought to save the art treasures of European civilization. These individuals entered towns as combat was going on, mainly to try to convince generals not to destroy key national treasures.
All in all, Edsel fastens on the lives of nine monuments men — mostly from American museums but also a Brit and a Canadian. Their efforts to find the stolen art — the Monets, the Rembrandts, the Picassos, the Rubens, and the Vermeers — is a study in detective work during immense crisis. They also searched for religious statues and panels dating back many centuries, and they did so often without leaders supporting them or knowing if they had a ride to the next town. When they found art treasures, it was usually in mines and castle storerooms where the Germans had taken them before furtherance to Germany.
In the midst of reading this amazing true-story book, I watched the movie Monuments Men based on Edsel’s book. The movie and the book were quite in line with one another, a few scenes having been altered to make a more dramatic impact. It wasn’t a great movie, but it was inspiring. It caught aspects of war that most of us rarely think about — the collateral damage due to bombardment and the theft of art treasures.
The characters in the movie were an impressive bunch, each distinct from George Clooney’s lead as monuments-man George Trout to secondary searchers such as big John Goodman and decent Matt Damon. I was particularly impressed with Bill Murray playing a serious role in this immense treasure hunt for stolen art. I also thought Cate Blanchett was brilliant as the long-time employee of a Parisian art museum and a spy of the first order.
While reading this book and watching the movie, I happened upon three mystery-intrigue novels that relate closely to the German art thefts of World War II. These higher-end mysteries are The Stonebreakers, The Soldier in the Wheatfield, and Island of the Dead. The titles are based on imaginary art works that were stolen, appropriated, or simply disappeared.