Legacy of The Monuments Men

the monuments men, entertainment

With the Hollywood movie The Monuments Men opening in theaters this week, Hollywood has opened the door and cast light upon the real Monuments Men, a group of individuals with a story and legacy that continues to be felt to this day.

George Clooney’s new movie is based on the exploits of an eclectic band of volunteers that waded into Europe during the Second World War to locate and recover works of cultural significance.

The merry band consisted of 345 men and women from 13 different countries. They were collected under the umbrella of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, or MFAA. Some were already in the military, others volunteered, but they all had one thing in common; they were nuts about art. Curators, artists, museum directors, architects and educators all came together to stem the cultural carnage that was taking place in war ravaged Europe.

The Germans were looting and hoarding works of art on an unprecedented scale. As the Allies made inroads in Western Europe there was great concern that more historical buildings and monuments could fall casualty to the fighting. The Allies also realized that after the war there would be a time of rebuilding, and it was one thing to rebuilt infrastructure, but how does a nation “rebuild” its cultural heritage.

The Monuments Men were originally to offer their services from a safe distance, but as realities took hold they convinced the powers to be that they needed to be in the field. As a result they became the first “art-specialist” officers in war.

the monuments men
A Bombed Cathedral in Italy

Their initial responsibility was identifying historical buildings to the Allies so when bombing runs took place the buildings could be put off target. Carpet bombings of the Second World War were not a precision exercise, but the Allies did their best to save historical buildings and landmarks from obliteration.

As the war progressed and the Germans began to vacate territory, the Monuments Men’s next task was to seek out artwork that had been looted and hidden by the German soldiers. Underground salt mines, castles, houses and museums were just a few of the places where artistic treasures were found.

At wars end the Monuments Men’s mission continued and their dedicated actions would lead to a legacy that continues to unfold to this day. They remained in Europe until 1951. It took that long to recover, sort, and repatriate over five million items to their rightful owners.

For many the story ended there, but that was the abbreviated version. The Monuments Men may have returned to their respective countries in 1951, but not all the artwork was recovered. It has been almost 70 years since the Second World War ended, but there are still many pieces unaccounted for. Many were no doubt lost to the destruction of war, but how many, and where, will never be known.

The search continues today. Visiting the Monuments Men’s website is a fascinating journey in itself. There are historical recounts, archives, descriptions of works of art still waiting to be found, and there is a fascinating page on “Significant Restitutions.”

That page leads the reader to different pieces that have been “recovered” over the years. It is broken down by year, with the latest taking place in 2012. The stories and circumstances are quite revealing. One restitution, a Romanino painting, Christ Carrying the Cross, was part of a collection on loan to a museum in Florida from a government run museum in Italy. When the painting entered the States in 2011, Interpol was alerted and U.S. Attorney Pamela Marsh ordered it seized. The painting was then returned to the heirs of Gentili di Guiseppe, the original owner. It had been taken from Guiseppe during the war and sold in 1941. In later years it found its way from a private collector to the Italian collection. The heirs had asked for it back, the Italians had refused. Then it went to the States and the Italians lost a stolen treasure.

Most war movies are just that, but The Monuments Men tells an interesting side to a very important historical adventure. An adventure of dedicated men and women determined to help preserve the very foundation of a nations essence, its culture. The results of their work are on display in museums today, and with each visitor that casts an eye on a recovered piece, the Monuments Men legacy lives on.

By Scott Wilson


United States Army

The Smithsonian Institution
Monuments Men Foundation

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