Monuments Men were civilian volunteers who helped save Europe’s treasures during World War II. The survival of priceless works of art goes beyond the importance of the images themselves. Da Vinci’s Last Supper, for example, survived a bomb blast that cratered the four refractory walls enclosing it and is just one of hundreds of masterpieces that managed to survive during World War II.
George Clooney’s upcoming movie, The Monuments Men, explores the account of the men and women who were sent to Europe during World War II to preserve and save the treasures from destruction and thievery. This portion of history is rarely mentioned yet these Monuments Men were a select company, representing 13 nations, who volunteered for a unique military service in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA). They were art lovers – museum curators and directors, architects, archaeologists, art historians and archivists.
These art authorities were older civilians who lacked military service experience. As a result, they stood out. In the opinion of many soldiers, they had no business on the front. The notion of protecting European art and culture from destruction was unheard of in modern day warfare. Under the guidance of FDR, these art experts undertook a nearly impossible mission – go behind enemy lines and rescue artistic masterpieces. Among other things, Hitler had wanted to have the largest collection of art in the world. These artistic men and women were assigned to save and preserve as much of the art and culture as they could in the course of the German invasion of Europe.
Initially the unit sent two men, Captain Edward Croft-Murray and Major Lionel Fielden, to Sicily. However, recognizing the grave crisis to the historical and artistic monuments worldwide, over 300 individuals were involved in the immense undertaking officially formed in the spring of 1943. Each individual unit had to secure local guides or local authorities to identify which monuments and historic structures were in their districts in order to assure their protection.
The commission helped the War Department by dispensing maps of European municipalities. They were used by bombing crews and commanders when setting up an operation. The Monuments Men were additionally required to indoctrinate troops on the cultural heritage of the region that they occupied. They were armed with guidebooks instead of weaponry and an art lover’s intrigue.
In every location – from Sicily to France Austria and Germany – they assessed the damage whether it was private or state-owned. Subsequently, the division implemented a salvage and restoration operation. While dodging bombs, booby-traps and gunfire, each unit removed countless pieces of fine artwork and architectural fragments. These artistic individuals had managed to salvage and store bits of marble, stucco and wood adornments from destroyed buildings and monuments. These bits and pieces became the foundation of postwar restoration of masterpieces and architectural treasures. By the end of the MFAA operation, the Monuments Men had surveyed the entire region and commenced repair work on 700 historical structures.
In August 1944, the Exhibition of Masterpieces of European Painting opened at the Palazzo Venezia. Forty-six masterpieces, stored and protected in the Vatican were selected from hundreds of other rescued artworks. The exhibit was intended to thank Allied troops, and as a showcase of the Monument Men’s dedication to safeguard Italy’s artistic heritage. The exhibit attracted nearly 100,000 visitors by its end in 1945. Keen to get back to peacetime and their families, the Monuments Men resumed their old lives, seldom mentioning their wartime service.
Further details about how Monuments Men helped save Europe’s treasures is available in Richard M. Edsel’s book, Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis. The movie, The Monuments Men, will be released in February.
By: Dawn R. Levesque
Edsel, Robert M. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2013. Print.
Monuments Men Foundation
Photo credit: Cpl. Ornitz, April 15, 1945, U.S. soldiers examine Edouard Manet’s Wintergarden that had been placed in a salt mine vault by the Nazis.