Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel

First Line: This is a long road we have to travel.

While living in Florence, Italy, author Robert M. Edsel wondered how so many brilliant works of art could have survived the cataclysm that was World War II. What he discovered was the MFAA-- the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program-- a group of dedicated museum curators, artists, art restorers, art historians, and soldiers who risked their lives to save hundreds of years worth of European culture. Rightfully overshadowed by the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, the work these men and women did-- often with no weapons, no transportation, and no cameras or film-- has now come to light.

Like many readers, I came to The Monuments Men first through the film starring George Clooney. Although I did enjoy it, I couldn't get over the feeling that most of the story had been left untold. The Nazis stole millions of pieces of art and either kept them for themselves, destroyed them, or placed them in caches for Hitler's master plan art museum (which, thankfully, was never built). I had to learn more; thus, I turned to Edsel's book.

Edsel covers the period of time from D-Day to V-E Day in northwestern Europe. (In a second book, Saving Italy, the author covers MFAA efforts in that country; there's simply too much story to tell in one book.) The first third of the book is rather disjointed as Edsel jumps from location to location, relating the difficulties of implementing the MFAA objectives (which were backed by Eisenhower), introducing the Monuments Men, and explaining the scope of Nazi plundering. I was so fascinated by the subject matter that this choppiness scarcely phased me.

Once the stage has been set and the Allies fight their way out of France and Belgium, the book picks up speed, and the action does take on the appearance of a treasure hunt. When the Allies reach Germany, they discover that it's a race against the Russians to find over 1,000 caches tucked away mainly in the southern part of the country. Whereas the Allies are working to return the recovered art to its rightful owners, the Russians-- who have suffered horrendously at the hands of the Nazis-- will keep everything they find as war reparations.

I found this book to be fascinating on so many counts: the fact that people actually recognized the need to save their culture, the men and women of the MFAA who worked so hard under extreme circumstances (many of whom never spoke of what they did once the war was over), and yet more examples of Nazi rapaciousness. This is a topic that has importance today. Hundreds of thousands of works of art are still missing, and any online news source will provide recent stories of artwork stolen by the Nazis being uncovered. Edsel's book is fascinating reading for anyone interested in World War II or in art, and I fully intend to read more.

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History 
by Robert M. Edsel
Center Street © 2009
eBook, 459 pages

Non-Fiction, World War II History
Rating: A
Source: Purchased as an eBook from Amazon. 


  1. Cathy - You know, I've had the same feeling - that the film didn't tell nearly the whole story. And it is an absolutely fascinating one that should be shared. Thanks for reminding me that the book is out there waiting for me.

  2. Thanks for reviewing this, Cathy. I am definitely adding it to my TBR list for this year. (And SAVING ITALY as well.) Another book that tells the story of the Nazi's plundering of art is THE RAPE OF EUROPA The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicholas, which won a National Book Critics award. That's on my summer reading list as well.

    1. I've got a copy of SAVING ITALY waiting for me now, and I have my sights set on THE RAPE OF EUROPA.

  3. This sounds like a very interesting book, and thanks so much for reviewing it and also putting in a bit of this history. I don't think I can read it now, as I'm way behind the stacks around here and library reservations. But I'm very interested in this.

    Glad you brought up the severe losses by the Russians in WWII. I just read at a WWII memorial website in the U.S. that the Soviet Union lost 24 million people, 10 million in combat and 14 million civilians.

    Also, just read some details about the Nazi siege of Leningrad, which went on for 882 days; it led to the starvation of 1.5 million people and the forced displacement of 1.4 million. I can't even imagine my city being surrounded on all sides, with everything blocked, included food and fuel supplies.

    1. I've read Russian history about the Siege of Leningrad and other Nazi atrocities in that country. I'm not saying it's right, but after reading those books, I fully understand why the Russians felt-- and behaved-- the way they did towards the Nazis.

      I thought I might (pleasantly?) shock a few people by reviewing a book like this on my predominantly crime fiction blog. But... one way of looking at The Monuments Men is to see it as a group of "good guys" who risked their lives to solve and put right Nazi crimes. I guess I didn't read all that far out of my preferred genre after all!

  4. I agree with you on your points.

    I do understand why the Russians behaved as they did towards the Nazis. The Nazis aimed to destroy their country, and kill millions of people and steal their factories, and engage those who lived in slave labor.

    Also, I did some reading about the Ukraine, where the Nazis killed 4 million people, 1 million of them Jewish, and 150,000 Resistance fighters, and then the rest who wouldn't go along with their campaign to kill most Ukrainians and force the rest into slave labor.
    I didn't know this until I saw Wikipedia's entry on this a few weeks ago, while trying to read up about this.

    My grandparents and their families fled anti-Semitic czarist pogroms from 1905-1913, and they supported what the Russians did to the Nazis, knowing what the Germans did to the Jews there and so many millions of others.

    I can't even think about it all; it's too much. Coming from a family with Jewish heritage one grows up with a viewpoint about that war and what the Germans did and it's not all intellectual. It's very profound feelings about this.

    When I was a little girl, I had a friend across the street whose parents were from Europe. Her mother was gaunt, thin and had a haunted look in her eyes, which were always surrounded by dark circles. Yet, she was a kind person. She and her husband both had numbers on their arms; they had been in camps.

    That made an impression on me at the age of five, which I've never forgotten. I feel like a lot of Nazis were allowed or even enabled to escape through "ratlines" (as Gordon Ferris put it in Pilgrim Soul) to the U.S., Canada and South America, and even in Europe not all war criminals were severely punished.

    Ferris mentioned some shocking facts in his afterword to that book, which
    surprised me about the actual punishments these war criminals faced and many
    did not.

    1. Too many went unpunished for the atrocities they were responsible for, simply because they had something other countries deemed valuable to trade for their forgiveness. I tend to be a forgiving person, but not for everything, and most definitely, not for this.

      The occurrence outside the synagogue in Ukraine made my blood run cold. Something like that should never be treated as a hoax unless categorically proven otherwise. Never. Again.

  5. I'm not sure what scene you are referring to. I read in the Guardian and other press that there was a hoax in a city in Ukraine.

    But I'm not forgiving about the war, what the Nazis and their allies did, no. I am criticial of our own government for having such a strict quota against allowing Jewish people to enter during the 1930s and during the war. This was a huge mistake.

    A PBS documentary showed U.S. journalist, Ruth Gruber, bringing 1,000 displaced Jews to the U.S. in 1944. They were housed in a NYS prison-like location, with wire fences, spotlights, alarms, the last thing they needed. And they had to sign papers promising they'd return to Europe after the war. That didn't happen. They were
    finally allowed to stay.

    Also, I could also say that the U.S. government waited a long time to get involved in the war in Europe. And books have explained in the NYT Book Review that FDR wouldn't bomb the railroad tracks to camps. Anyway, I can't think about this too much.

    The problem now is that there are similar groups in Ukraine, Greece, France and other European countries who are very anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant. It's not good.

    Anyway, I have to go read Connelly's "Gods of Guilt," and get ouf ot this sordid history.

    Great you read this book; it sounds very interesting.

  6. I just bought this based on your review and cannot wait to start reading. Thanks!

    1. You're welcome-- I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!


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