Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel (2009)

When I saw a trailer for George Clooney's recent movie version of the story told in The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel (2009), I was intrigued. This was a part of World War II that I didn't know much about, and the focus on cultural history and some non-traditional soldiers (plus George's dreamy eyes) made it seem rather appealing.

Shortly after I watched the trailer, a friend from college who has edited our alumni magazine for several years contacted me about writing an archives-related article for the magazine. It happened that Jesse Boell, a fellow alum of Nebraska Wesleyan University (class of 1925), was also a Monuments Man during and just after WWII, AND was also an influential archivist in Wisconsin. This piece was right up my alley, and I had lots of fun researching Boell's life, watching the Clooney movie and ordering a copy of Edsel's book.

Life being what it is, I didn't get a chance to read the book until after the deadline for the article, but it made a nice follow-up to all my research and a good cap to this project. The Monuments Men were a group of cultural professionals who were enlisted to document, protect, and preserve buildings, artwork, archives, and libraries that were being put at risk during the war. In the larger picture of battles, destruction, and a growing awareness of the victims of the Holocaust, resources for the scattered Monuments Men were few, but the soldiers did a lot with what they had and ultimately saved and returned innumerable works of art, personal libraries, and archival collections (including collections of Nazi archives used to persecute war criminals and to locate and return private property). Edsel focuses his story on a handful of the earliest and most charismatic of what would grow to be about 350 Monuments Men (and women), and centers his story on the work done in France and Germany during and just after the war.

As many people know, Hitler was a frustrated artist and he put a high importance on confiscating large collections of Europe's art and bringing it together under his control in Germany. Oddly enough, many works of art may have ultimately been saved from destruction by bombing or looting because Hitler's troops packed them up and hid them in isolated castles and deep mines. Still, the haste with which the treasures were stolen, the disregard for their well-being, and the ultimate urge to destroy everything as defeat crept closer undercuts the unintended altruism of the Nazi's actions.

Edsel (writing together with Bret Witter) is an engaging writer and goes to great lengths to make this history read like a novel. In some cases he is successful and his literary turns enhance the historical documentation, but more often than not he veers a little off course and distracts the reader who is interested in history with made-up dialogue and conjecture. The archivist in me really liked the inclusion of transcripts of complete letters from the soldiers home to their families, as well as orders from both the U.S. and German forces. An unexpected bonus was a look into the professionalization of conservation and the influence of the experiences these men had on their later work at prominent museums and other collections back in the states.

Not a perfect book, but an engaging read and worth exploring if you are interested in art history or World War II.

[If you are interested in my article, you can check it out here!]

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