Recently I read a book that has been getting some press coverage of late and I want to recommend it. The book is The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel. It is not the first telling of the many stories about the Allied soldiers (mostly art experts and museum people) who, whithout rank, support, transportation or supplies, not only accompanied troops into Europe from the Normandy beachheads, but also raced all over France, Austria, Germany, Holland and Belgium as territory was opened up to them. It is, however, the most complete. Their job was two-fold: make sure that advancing troops spared important monuments such as cathedrals, museums and significant architecture, but also trace the routes of millions of valuable objects, artworks and treasures that were seized by the Nazis and sequestered in more than a thousand hiding places.
It has been the practice for invading armies to carry away loot from the territory they captured (how do you think the Louvre got such a rich collection during the Napoleonic years?) but the German armies, Hitler and Goehring took everything. They cleaned out cathedrals and museums and, of course, appropriated everything from the homes of displaced (and usually murdered) Jews.
The Monuments Men numbered a paltry fifteen during hostilities and covered most of Europe. After the Armistice, the Allies changed history by returning to their points of origin all art, libraries, furniture, archives and other valuables–including those that belonged to German and Austrian institutions prior to the war. In other words, after the defeat of the most destructive and murderous military force in history, the perpetrators were given back their patrimony.
The book is a detailed series of great stories about these heroes and some others who helped them. It’s exciting, inspiring and informative. You should read it now before the making of the film that is scheduled to be directed by and star George Clooney.
You can, of course, purchase the book from Amazon or Google Monuments Men Foundation