[Completed for Fall 2014 ENG 102]
I was made aware of World War II by my father, who was almost 13 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He had 4 older brothers who had served in the military in different capacities and lived through it. My father’s main interest has always been the planes that were flown during World War II. I knew it had been described as the most destructive war in history. We had studied the attack on Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge, and seen pictures of the devastation of European cities in my High School history classes, but until recently, I had never heard of the Monuments Men or about the vast amount of art stolen by Hitler’s Nazi party. The true story about how so many of Europe’s great works of art and architecture managed to survive the devastation of World War II has only recently come to light. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”, “The Mona Lisa”, Michelangelo’s “David”, “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” (which dates back to the second century BC), how did they survive? Who were the people that saved so many works of art from destruction and risked (some losing) their lives?
The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA, was a group of approximately 345 men and women from 13 different nations. Under a mandate from President Franklin Roosevelt, and with support from General Eisenhower, these men and women (mostly American and British) were given the remarkable task of saving as much of the culture of Europe as they could during World War II. It was an experiment of sorts, because this was the first time in history that an army fought a war while extensively trying to lessen the amount of cultural damage and destruction. This was a group of soldiers who served in the Western Allied military effort from 1943 to 1951. Of the original 60 or so that served, the majority had an average age of 40, and most had volunteered to join the war effort in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section. Most had families and well established careers already, but were willing to fight and die for what they believed to be important. Most of the early volunteers had expertise as museum directors, artists, architects, and archivists (Edsel xiv).
The decision to send them over to the front lines was a controversial one. Many different points of view among top military advisors and political strategists were debated. Argued were questions of what the value of a work of art is. How integral is art to a societies’ culture? What effect does it have on future generations when a community’s religious icons are destroyed? Most importantly, is it worth risking and losing a man’s life in order to save a work of art? George Stout believed so. He was “one of the first people in America to understand the Nazi threat to the cultural patrimony of Europe and pushed the museum community and the army toward establishing a professional art conservation corps” (Edsel). As a field officer, Lieutenant George Stout, U.S. First Army and U.S. Twelfth Army Group, was the go-to expert for all the other Monuments Men in northern Europe.
As information and pictures of the bombings of many historic monuments, cathedrals, museums, and libraries of Europe made its way back home to the US, there was increased interest in, and support for the cause of cultural and artistic preservation and conservation. The British were already trying to organize their own conservation team. The media coverage influenced the mindset of many Americans (Wistrich).
The mission of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section was to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat. This was a huge task given that they were, in the very beginning, a small group of fifteen men; eight of which were doing administrative and office work. That left seven men to start the field operations going. They had to get their own transportation, brought their own typewriters, and had very few supplies given to them. Communication was difficult, not only within their group, but also with other military units. They needed to know exactly which buildings were in danger of being bombed in order to, ideally, get there first and get as much art out as they could. However, there was well founded paranoia about Nazi spies intercepting critical information that could possibly endanger our troops’ lives, making communication even more of a challenge. They had to enter into areas where there was front line action, half the time with no weapons, locate where the art was hidden, and move all of it to a safer holding areas, all with little or no “official authority” (Edsel 91).
The MFAA was formalized by the end of 1943. At that time it was an American and British joint effort under the Allied Control Commission. They did go to France prepared with maps of important buildings that were overlaid onto aerial reconnaissance photographs. It took a lot of persistence for the Monuments Men to coordinate their lists of structures to be protected with the military commanders, who were skeptical of this new idea succeeding. “The Monuments Men were only advisors; they couldn’t force any officer, of any rank, to act. They were allowed freedom of movement, but they would have no vehicles, no offices, no support staff, and no backup plan.” (Edsel 151)
It was also during this winter of 1943-1944 that U.S. military troops landed in Italy. Procedures were still being worked out. This was due, in part, to the “bureaucratic train wreck” (Edsel) that led to the fiasco of Monte Cassino. There were no Monuments Men north of Naples when the decision was made to destroy the abbey at Monte Cassino. Founded by Saint Benedict around AD 529, and considered sacred ground. Germans chose it for this reason. They believed no one would ever bomb it. This was supposed to be a surprise landing, with no air or naval support, but Hitler anticipated Italian troops would surrender, so he sent in the German army to be there as back up just in case. German troops had surrounded the monastery all the way up the mountain and U.S. troops were stuck not being able to advance or retreat. For months, U.S. troops were exposed to freezing temperatures and rain. Americans started to support the bombing of the abbey even though General Eisenhower’s original orders had been to preserve and respect all monuments, bridges, and culturally important buildings. After a lot of pressure from both civilians and other military leaders, on February 15, 1944, the President changed his mind and ordered the bombing of Monte Cassino. The movie says almost 2,000 civilians took refuge there, and that most were killed by the bombings. The book doesn’t mention any civilian deaths in the monastery. An estimated 54,000 Allied troops were killed and wounded at Monte Cassino. European press condemned the destruction of the abbey and Americans were vilified for it. America’s leaders did not want to be perceived as “the bad guys”, so plans were made to ramp up the deployment of the MFAA and get them into combat areas faster. After all, Eisenhower’s original orders to preserve historical buildings had come 6 months after our troops had landed in Italy. However, on May 26, 1944 General Eisenhower announced, 11 days before the invasion of North Europe that it was the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect all historical monuments and cultural centers, unless military necessity dictates otherwise. The U.S. did not want a repeat of Monte Cassino.
Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler and his troops were making their way across Europe, systematically trying to eliminate any and all people that they deemed “degenerate”. This included their art collections above all else. Hitler was always a huge fan of the arts. His first desire was to be a painter, but his step-father refused to let him pursue this course of studies, and insisted that Adolf be a civil servant instead. Adolf saw how the Modernist art revolution was taking over in Vienna, and was determined to put an end to it. At the time, Germany was going through a great surge in nationalism and his family wanted him to focus his ambitions on that, instead of art, which he did for a time. After the death of his step-father, though, an eighteen year old, Hitler decided to apply for acceptance to The Vienna Art Institute and follow his dream of painting. Of the three applicants, only two were chosen, and Adolf was rejected. He was described as being a competent artist, but not gifted. This rejection was devastating for him. There were many Jews on the admittance board of the Institute, and this only proved to add fuel to Hitler’s already deep hatred of Jews (The Rape of Europa).
Hitler hated all forms of modern art, such as Picasso, Monet, and Gaugin. He felt that modern artists could not see colors accurately, and that their portrayal of many indigenous cultures was unfit for German eyes. In a speech given in 1937, Hitler referred to the images being painted by modern artists as “a form of racial inferiority” and that Germans should not see such “degenerate works of art” (Berge). He made art an important part of his political ideology, and put together a large team of his own art experts. Their job was to compile catalogs of the most valuable works of art in all of the European cities, and coordinate them with his invasions of these places. “This was industrial looting on a grand scale.” (Berge) All the Nazi party elite amassed large collections of stolen artwork.
Hitler had visited Rome, Italy and was in awe of the ruins of the Roman Empire that still stood. He had a dream to create his own Imperial City (to rival Rome), in his hometown of Linz, Austria. He wanted Linz to become a cultural center. Architects were commissioned to build a model of the plans for the future “Fuhrer Museum”. This was going to be his legacy. It was to include an Opera House, Symphony Hall, Library, his mausoleum, and in the middle of it all the Art Museum, with the largest collection of art anywhere in the world.
All the most valuable works of art were confiscated and sent by train to Berlin for safe keeping. Hundreds of thousands of modernist works of art, and art that was not approved of by Hitler was burned. (Not only was art taken but all furniture, jewelry, personal items such as books and family photo albums.) Western Allies discovered more than 1,000 repositories in southern Germany alone. One person that was to be a first-hand eye witness to all this looting was Rose Valland. She was in a prime position to see and make note of all the vast amounts of art that were being trafficked through the Jeu de Paume Museum. She was the 46 year old temporary custodian of the Jeu de Paume, which was an art museum located adjacent to the Louvre. She was very well educated, and held two fine arts degrees from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, and the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris. She also received art history degrees from both the Ecole de Louvre and the Sorbonne University in Paris. In October of 1940, during the occupation of France, the Germans took over the Jeu de Paume and used it to store many of the artworks that had been stolen from the five largest Jewish art collections in Paris. Rose Valland was given the job of helping the Germans organize the vast collection of art. She never let anyone know that she could speak German. For four years she spied on the actions of the Germans, and kept meticulous records of all the comings and goings of every piece of art that came through the museum, where it came from, who it belonged to, and where it was being shipped. She was considered to be an “unlikely hero” because of her unassuming looks. “Valland kept a low profile at the building, due to her simple and quiet demeanor, and because the Nazis did not realize that she spoke German” (Bouchoux 23). She also gathered information from guards, drivers, and packers, and passed it on to the French resistance. “It was a dangerous and even life-threatening job, and she kept her knowledge closely guarded” (Bouchoux 25). She finally confided in one of the Monuments Men, James Rorimer, about all the records she had been keeping. Once Allied forces had established military strongholds in Germany, Rorimer convinced Valland to hand over all the records to him. She did, with the promise from him that he would use all her information in order to help locate and return the artworks.
Rose Valland’s documentation proved to be instrumental in expediting the restitution process tremendously. She and the Monuments Men continued to work on tracking, locating, and returning art well after the war had ended. They were responsible for the return of more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. The roles they played in preserving the cultural treasures of Europe was something that had never been done before, or since. “There was no dedicated unit equivalent to the MFAA section in the Korean War, and there hasn’t been one in any war since.” (Edsel)
Bouchoux, Corrine. Rose Valland: Resistance at the Museum. Dallas: Laurel Publishing, LLC, 2013. Print.
Edsel, Robert M. The Monuments Men. New York: Center Street, 2009. Print.
The Monuments Men. Dir. George Clooney. 2014. Film.
The Rape of Europa Collector's Edition. Dir. Richard, and Bonni Cohen Berge. 2008. Film.
Wistrich, Robert S. Hitler and the Holocaust. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.