‘Monuments Men’ Explores Hunt for Art Stolen by Nazis

November 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown talks to author Robert M. Edsel about his new book "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History."

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: a tale of war, art, and an unusual group of soldiers. Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a drama that largely took place behind the scenes of the great sweep of destruction, violence and final triumph of the Second World War: the systematic looting of art by Nazis and the response and rescue effort by the U.S. and its allies. Much of the work was undertaken by a small group that came to be known as the Monuments Men. And their story is told in a new book by that title. Its author, Robert Edsel, joins me now. Welcome to you.

ROBERT EDSEL, author, “The Monuments Men”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: To help set up the story, describe the loot — let’s talk about the looting first. I said it was systemic. It was a vast scale. How did the Nazis go about it?

ROBERT EDSEL: Well, this is a scale we have never seen. Hitler was determined to build this museum in his hometown of Linz. It was going to be called the Fuhrer Museum, the greatest museum of the world’s greatest works of art. And, of course, they had to have them. They are in these other countries. And they went about systematizing and changing the laws, going about confiscations, not just of Jews’, but also other wealthy collectors. And it was systematized from the standpoint of developing lists. These different parts of the Nazi troops were in countries months before the invasion making lists of these works of art they intended to confiscate.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in the midst of a war, you wouldn’t think that rescuing art would be a high priority with so much going on. How did this effort get under way? How big did it become?

ROBERT EDSEL: Well, I think the great vision was on the part of a small handful of men and women in this country who, years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, were in touch with museum colleagues in museums in Europe. And they understood from their colleagues about Hitler’s rise to power, how art was being used as a weapon of propaganda. And I think they had the vision to see, at some point in time, the United States was going to become involved in this war. Within weeks after the bombings in Pearl Harbor, museum officials met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. And they discussed the protection of works of art in this country. But I think, in the months that followed, they could see, the great risks were to the great Western civilization cultural treasures that lay in the path of war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I said this was a small group of people who became known as the Monuments Men. Some of them came from arts backgrounds, restoration, preservation, and all. There was systematic looting. Then they systematically went about, it sounds like from your book, to try to get it back.

ROBERT EDSEL: As much as they could do this. I mean, it really was an experiment, an untried experiment. The Monuments Men somewhat of a misnomer. They were museum directors, curators, artists themselves who volunteered for service, average age about 40 years old, most with accomplished careers, many with families. They had every reason to not volunteer and go do this. But they felt it was important to try and preserve the great cultural treasures of Western civilization, lest it become a stain, not just on the United States, but the Western allies, for all time, if the great treasures were destroyed. Their focus initially was on structures — hence the name Monuments Men. But, as they got to Europe, the more and more, they began looking for the missing works of art that weren’t in the museums.

Saving the Mona Lisa

JEFFREY BROWN: And we are talking literally about great treasures of Western civilization.

ROBERT EDSEL: Yes, these are not minor artists.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the Mona Lisa. We have a photo here.

ROBERT EDSEL: The Mona Lisa was one of 400,000 works of art evacuated from the Louvre in a matter of a few weeks, trying to keep them out of war's path. Of course, initially, the concern was to try to get them out of way of damage from bombings and fires. But, in the course of time, it was to try and keep them away from the Nazis in the theft that went on. So, the Monuments Men arrived on the ground. There were no more than a dozen Monuments Men in all of Northern Europe responsible for covering a vast, vast area. There was a separate group of Monuments Men in Italy charged with this awesome responsibility, really no playbook, if you will. Many of them were hitchhiking their way across Europe.

They were pathetically resourced, but they were empowered by this monumental order by General Eisenhower that said, we will protect cultural treasures, so much as war allows. And that really was a sea change in how this army went about fighting a war on the one hand and trying to mitigate damage to cultural treasures.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are so many amazing people and stories here. Is there one favorite character of yours in all of this that could help encapsulate...

ROBERT EDSEL: Well, I -- you are right. I mean, there are -- you have got the future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the front cover of our book standing on the steps of the Castle of Neuschwanstein in southern Bavaria, where they discovered many thousands of works of art stolen from collectors in France.

George Stout, who really was the brainchild of this operation, who was a pioneer in the development of conservation, who had the vision to see this was going to be necessary.

I think one of the fellows that we enjoy so much getting to know, a living Monuments Man, is a fellow named Harry Ettlinger, who, as a 13-year-old boy, was the last Jew Jewish boy to have a bar mitzvah in Karlsruhe, Germany. His family fled Germany and came to the United States. He went to school here, worked two jobs, and was drafted into the Army when he was 18, found himself on a truck headed off for the Battle of the Bulge, on his 19th birthday, was pulled off the truck. He didn't know why, and later found out they were pulling him into the Monuments Men section because he was a native German speaker. So, here is this 19-year-old returning to his country of origin, his old country, to fight a war on behalf of his new country.

Unrecovered art

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you mentioned General Eisenhower. We have a photo of him looking at some of the works that were recovered. So much was recovered, but a lot was not, right?

ROBERT EDSEL: Well, that's right. So many of the things that were recovered -- the Monuments Men stayed in Europe for more than six years after the war, by 1951, had returned more than five million cultural objects, library books, stained glass, church bells, and hundreds of thousands of works of art, to the countries from which these things had been stolen. This photo of General Eisenhower, General Patton, and General Bradley in a salt mine in Merkers, one of thousands of places these monuments officers found works of art hidden by the Nazis, including so many of the works from their own German museums.

But, as you point out, there are still hundreds of works of art, over a million when we get into documents, musical manuscripts, that are missing today. They are with people that liberated some of these documents or treasures. They are with armies of all sides, displaced persons. And I believe, over the next five to 10 years, as we see the World War II generation pass, many of these things that are today in basements and attics hanging on walls are going to begin to surface. It is one of the things we hope at the Monuments Men Foundation we can play a role in helping illuminate the path home for them.

Protecting art from war

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you mentioned one of them who went on to become the head of the Metropolitan Museum. Another was Lincoln Kirstein, who went on to co-found the New York City Ballet, one of the great art patrons in post-World War II. And, yet, I mean, a lot of -- so, some of these people went on to very famous careers, yet, their story is so little known. And that is what is kind of striking about what they did during the war. Why is that, do you think?

ROBERT EDSEL: Well, I think there are some people that wish this story would go away. I think there's different people that have agendas here. There's a lot of works of art that are still missing. As I mentioned, some are in private collections. Some are in museums around the world. I think, when we get into the topic of Nazi looting, it is a very sensitive topic, even to this day.

So, that is one of the things we try and break down with the Monuments Men Foundation is to discuss the story of these heroes and the role model that they can be, not just from World War II, but also how their work can serve to avoid some of the aftermath as we saw in the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. How is it that, in a world war with a dozen people empowered by General Eisenhower, we could do so well as a nation and as Western Allies, and we couldn't do better in a small -- complicated, but small regional conflict?

I think it's important to understand I think it worked during World War II because the orders came from the top. They were empowered by President Roosevelt, orders issues by General Eisenhower. And I think that is an important model for us. We should never lower the bar on the protection of cultural treasures during war.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is "The Monuments Men," a remarkable story from World War II. Robert Edsel, thank you very much.

ROBERT EDSEL: Thank you.