I recently watched an excellent documentary, The Rape of Europa, about the Nazi plunder of art treasures during World War II and Allied attempts to return those treasures to their rightful owners after the war.
Hitler was obsessed with creating the world’s greatest museum in his hometown of Linz and to that end, he ordered the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) to confiscate art collections from the countries the Nazis invaded. These property seizures started with “ownerless” Jewish collections and spread exponentially from there. Hitler, a painter himself, had tried to join the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna, Austria, in 1907 but was rejected. This rejection drove him to label modern art, such as that of Akademie members Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, as “degenerate.” The Nazis sold these degenerate works at pennies on the dollar (when they didn’t just burn them outright) but the artwork Hitler valued was stored all over Germany, awaiting the day he could build his dream museum.
As the Allies began their push through Europe, the Roberts Commission was established to help the Army protect cultural monuments from the ravages of war. According to the National Gallery of Art,
its purpose was to promote the preservation of cultural properties in war-ravaged areas with the stipulation that this mission should not interfere with military operations. The Roberts Commission provided information concerning the nature and location of cultural treasures to military units with the goal that they should be protected whenever possible.
Which is a wonderful goal, but someone had to actually go into the field and identify these “cultural treasures” and ensure their protection. And that’s where the Monuments Men enter the story.
[Private Harry L. Ettlinger] would join an extraordinary outfit known as the “Monuments Men,” whose mission was nothing less than to help find, recover and preserve the artistic and cultural heritage of Europe.
Formally titled the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section, the elite organization eventually numbered more than 350 men and women from the armed forces of the United States and a dozen other nations. Its ranks consisted largely of art historians, museum curators, artists, architects and other such specialists. They were dubbed “Monuments Men” because their primary task after the 1944 invasion of France was to protect statues, historic buildings and other important cultural landmarks.
Once the Nazis were defeated, the Monuments Men focused on finding the stolen artwork and returning it to its rightful owners. Again, Hitler had hidden the work all over German territory, from salt mines to gothic castles. The amount of work involved in finding, cataloging, and restoring all of that art must have been staggering. Nonetheless, according to Robert Edsel, president of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art and author of Rescuing Da Vinci, “These courageous individuals rescued and returned more than 5 million cultural items to the countries from which they had been stolen . . .”
This Veterans Day, I’d like to extend my personal gratitude to all the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section for their outstanding service, not just to their country, but to the world.