TOPICS > Arts

Telling the story of ‘Monuments Men,’ soldiers who helped save Western civilization’s treasures

February 11, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT
During World War II, the Nazis systematically looted art works from all over Europe, while combat and aerial bombing unintentionally destroyed major landmarks. The story of the quest to protect, rescue and restore Europe’s cultural treasures is told in a new movie, "The Monuments Men." Robert Edsel, author of the book that inspired the new film, joins Jeffrey Brown for a conversation.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: A new film explores the theme of war and art, the quest to save great works of art during World War II.

Jeffrey Brown recently sat down with the author of the book that the movie is based on.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was systematic looting on a huge scale: Nazis targeting art works from all over Europe. One response came from a small and in many ways unlikely group that came to be called the Monuments Men.

Robert Edsel told their story in his 2009 book by that name. He continued the tale in “Saving Italy,” which came out last year. And he joins us now.

Welcome to you.

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

JEFFREY BROWN: For those who don’t know, remind us, what were the Monuments Men?

ROBERT EDSEL: This is a group of middle-aged museum directors, curators, art historians, men and women, who walked away from having life made.

Many had families. Some had kids. And they put on a military uniform to become a new kind of soldier during World War II, one charged with saving, rather than destroying. It was an incredible effort, never been done before or since, and their efforts in saving some five million cultural objects from theft and destruction during World War II stands.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because the scale of the looting, as I said, was quite, quite — it was systematic and huge.

ROBERT EDSEL: It was.

And we live with the altered legacy today because there’s still hundreds of thousands of cultural treasures missing. Our effort with The Monuments Men Foundation continues to try and illuminate the path home for some of these missing objects.

JEFFREY BROWN: I referred to them as an unlikely group. Right? Tell us a little bit about some of the individuals.

ROBERT EDSEL: Well, you have kind of the father of the idea, George Stout, who’s a pioneer in the conservation of works of art, who works at the Harvard Fogg Museum.

Stout’s so old, he fought the last year of World War I, and has the vision to see that the United States is going to be drawn into another war and the great risk being that, in the process of trying to defeat Nazism, we destroy so much of Western Civilization’s heritage unintentionally.

So he pursues this idea. It includes people like Jim Rorimer, who becomes the sixth director of Metropolitan Museum of Art after the war, Lincoln Kirstein, who is the founder of the New York City Ballet. And there are women involved, one of whom is one of the great heroines of World War II, a lady named Rose Valland, who worked for four years under the eyes of the Nazis, keeping information and records of their looting activities.

JEFFREY BROWN: And were they — we referred to systematic looting. How systematic were they able to be? They were feeling their way to figure this out. Right?

ROBERT EDSEL: Yes, you’re right.

At the beginning, the focus of the monuments wasn’t as art detectives, as it later would become. It was to try and prevent Allied damage to churches and monuments.

JEFFREY BROWN: From aerial bombing.

ROBERT EDSEL: From aerial bombing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, because that’s important to say, right? This isn’t just about the combat, the ground war. This was about the aerial bombing.

ROBERT EDSEL: Absolutely right.

And in “Saving Italy,” I start the book off describing how a British bomb landed 88 feet away from the building housing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, and obliterates the east wall of the building. The roof collapses. And the painting is exposed to the elements for almost two years before it can all be reassembled, so, you know, a very, very close call in the case of something that we all know about.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you document — there are a lot of successes. Where — what did they succeed at? What did they — what were they not able to do?

ROBERT EDSEL: Well, the — I think the monuments officers succeeded in so many ways.

I mean, these are men and women that weren’t just sitting in an office somewhere. They were out there in combat. Two monuments officers were killed in Northern Europe in the process of trying to recover works of art.

I suppose the biggest mistake or shortcoming was that the Army wanted to get out of this restitution business and wanted to close down their effort. The world had moved on. A cold war was upon us. And yet we know today from recent announcements and ongoing discoveries, some not so dramatic, that there are still many, many works of art and cultural treasures missing, and it’s one of the ongoing legacies that we’re trying to solve.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have written two books on this. And I know you have devoted a lot of your life and many years, recent years. What was it like to see it put on film, made into a film?

ROBERT EDSEL: Well, it’s a pinch-me moment.

You have a hope that at some point in time, others will see the bigness of this story and the great dramatic element to it to make a feature film of it. It seems remarkable that, all these years after the war, with the whole history of World War II movies that we have, that no one’s taken on the telling of this heroic group of men and women and the role that they had.

George Clooney, to his great credit, and Grant Heslov, his business partner, had the vision to see that it is a great story and a dramatic story. And George thinks no small thoughts. They were willing to tackle it and invest some three years of their life in bringing it to the big screen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, finally, the problem of culture at risk or harmed in wars of course has not gone away.

ROBERT EDSEL: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re watching it in Syria. We’re watching it in many places.

ROBERT EDSEL: Absolutely. You all report on it regularly.

JEFFREY BROWN:  We do.

ROBERT EDSEL: Syria, Mali. Cairo the other day, the effort to blow up the Egyptian police office ends up damaging the Islamic museum.

So this is a problem that we’re going to have to live with. And I think, in the past, the history of the monuments officers and one of the reasons to honor their legacy is to reestablish the protection, the high bar for protection of cultural treasures. And the lessons that we need to know in the future reside there in the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Robert Edsel is author of “The Monuments Men” and “Saving Italy.”  Thanks so much.

ROBERT EDSEL: Thank you, Jeff.