Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter, Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (London: Arrow Books, 2010), 473pp
It could not be considered ridiculous to suggest that there has not been a topic covered so extensively and voluminously in Western popular culture as World War Two. Since 1945, that war has served, in both fiction and non-fiction, as one of the predominant reference points in our culture and as the bedrock of our collective passion for popular history. Consequently, it seems hard to believe that there could be a story - a true story - from those six years of conflict that has not already been told. But in 2009, the publishing of Robert Edsel's Monuments Men proved that there was such a story.
Edsel presents to us the story of a multinational army task force set up by the Western Allies to identify, reclaim and preserve the millions of pieces of priceless artwork stolen by the Nazis in their years of conquest and plunder, as well as to protect the countless cathedrals, historic buildings and monuments that stood in the crossfire of the Allied and German clashes. Millions of treasures, yet the 'task force' consisted of a handful of men, barely reaching double figures, many of whom were middle-aged academics from the art and museum communities of Britain and the United States. With the fate of Europe's cultural heritage in their hands, these men faced both a fanatical Nazi enemy determined to destroy rather than surrender these artefacts and its own army which, despite some advocates and enthusiasts, consisted mainly of men who were unhelpful, ignorant or sometimes even downright hostile to the goals of the Monument Men. They faced these enemies with no clear organisational structure of their own, no lofty rank to smooth things along (most were lieutenants or captains), no clear mission or orders, and often without supplies, personnel (one man, for example, would be entrusted with all the cultural treasures in the entirety of Belgium, and another man responsible for all of southern Germany) or even transportation (George Stout, the de facto leader, traverses the European Theatre of Operations in a beat-up Volkswagen left behind by the retreating Germans, whilst others hitch lifts in whatever vehicle is heading in roughly the direction they want to go). Oh, and they succeeded.
Edsel does not hide his incredulity at the facts of this story, nor his glee at having the privilege of being the one to tell it, and his evident admiration for the achievements of the Monuments Men gives his prose a seductive and effusive charm. Whilst light on action (the Monuments Men typically survey damage to a building or track down leads on stolen artwork in the days after a battle), there are still a number of close shaves, and two of the more prominent Monuments Men lose their lives to enemy fire. The sense of danger is also palpable when investigating the collapsing ruins of bombed-out German towns or exploring the claustrophobic environs of salt mines that have been used to stash Nazi loot. The lack of battlefield thrills is more than compensated by the dogged determination with which the Monuments Men chase down leads and pursue their investigations, adding a thriller-esque element of intrigue to the story. Edsel is also good at communicating the awe and wonder of these works of art, both individually (as in explaining why the Ghent Altarpiece or the Bruges Madonna is worthy of pursuit across Europe) and as a collective, such as the innumerable quantities of treasure crammed by the fleeing Nazis into vast salt mines.
A good balance is maintained between narrating the actions of the Monuments Men and recalling the greed of the chief Nazis. There are a number of chapters which break from the Monuments Men narrative to remind us of Göring's disgusting and shallow greed, or of Hitler's plans for a prestigious 'Führermuseum' in his hometown of Linz. Such interludes help Edsel to communicate just why the Monuments Men's mission was so important. Initially, I struggled to grasp how people could fret over pieces of canvas and marble when human lives, surely more precious and unique, were being extinguished in such perversely large numbers. But Edsel successfully paints the retrieval of the art as a triumph of eternal goodness and beauty over the evil of the Nazis, a symbol of the post-war redemption of Europe. So successful is he in this that by the end of the book, despite not being passionate about the arts, I was alarmed at how close many of these unique pieces came to wilful or accidental destruction. Hundreds of years of culture, a European heritage that could not be reclaimed once lost, rested on a knife edge. A handful of men were tasked to their protection, in the maelstrom of a world war. It is a remarkable story.