The art of war

The story of those who did everything in their power to protect European cultural heritage in WWII.

As American troops fought the Nazis, UScommanders were given an unprecedented military assignment: Defeatfascism without destroying European monuments and the continent'scultural heritage. Military needs would always trump culturalpreservation, but monuments and artworks were to be protected, wherepossible, from war damage, ransacking and military requisition.

Thiswas a tall order filled by an unusual assortment of painters,sculptors, architects, historians and curators who begged, borrowed orscrounged the means to protect monuments in the Allied military's path,repair those that had been damaged by war and find caches of lootedproperty. These were the "monuments men," members of the Monuments,Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section, a minuscule part of the USmilitary. Along with British counterparts, they were officers of lowrank and "superior" education who were charged with the preservation ofEurope's great treasures.

Although the monuments men were virtually unknown for ahalf-century after World War II, two new books tell the story of themission and the men who fulfilled it. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, covers the wartime and immediatepostwar work of the monuments men in Northern Europe. Ilaria DagniniBrey has written The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II.Both books are ambitious, beautifully written and compelling history.(Edsel took some liberties by recreating dialogue, which was not tootroubling.)

Edsel has painted vivid pictures of the monument men's courage,skill and moxie as they began their mission in the middle of the war.He also gives one of the most detailed accounts in English of France'sformidable Rose Valland, who worked in Paris's Jeu de Palme museumduring the Nazi occupation and bravely kept track of the artworks thathad been looted. The monuments men briefly helped repatriate artworksfound in the US Occupation Zones immediately after the war.

The number of objects was staggering. In westernGermany alone, the Allies had discovered more than 1,000 repositoriesand caches of cultural properties - millions of works of art andcultural objects, including Torah scrolls, church bells, ceremonialreligious items, archives, manuscripts, books, wine, gold, diamonds -and an insect collection.

Neither Edsel nor Brey shies away from revealing thefrustration, fatigue and loneliness of the monuments men. Working aloneor in pairs, they faced herculean challenges, at times amid enemy fire,with inadequate or unreliable support from the military, whichreasonably put its battle plans and the welfare of its men above thewelfare of monuments. Yet, to the monuments men's credit, theypersevered.

"Frommy point of view, this is not a bad job," George Stout, formerly ofHarvard's Fogg Museum, wrote to a colleague in October 1944. "Duringthe last three weeks I've been in harness with an Englishman who's goneterribly sour and says we're wasting our time. I don't know what heexpected. Some strange romantic adventure, personal glory or greatauthority, perhaps. He doesn't convince me. We can't count the resultbut I'm satisfied, not with what I've done but with what the job standsfor."

In Italy, political disarray and changing military conditionsimperiled monuments and artworks. Monuments men attempted to salvageworks they could not easily protect and became known as the "Venusfixers." (This moniker apparently began as something of a joke, butsubsequently was worn with pride.) Brey tells of one of the men,Frederick Hartt, an Allied officer who, in addition to rescuingFlorentine art, had helped save churches and palazzi in Sicily from thethreats of weather, vandalism and theft. Hartt wrote they had savedthem "from slipping from history into oblivion."

Edsel has done something similar for themonuments men. Long before the publication of his book, he was seeking- and winning - recognition for their wartime work. Men like Hartt,Stout and James Rorimer returned to important careers in Americancultural and art historical circles. When Hartt died in 1991, The New York Timesreported that he had been a widely published scholar of Renaissance artand listed the American universities at which he taught. But itoverlooked his work in Italy.

FOR ALL the public discussion on Nazi-era looting in the lastdozen years, and demands for information regarding the provenance ofartworks, systematic research of plunder and acquisitions seems to besorely lacking. There are few comprehensive and easily accessiblesources that identify and trace the fates of objects that wereconfiscated or displaced during World War II.

Nancy H. Yeide, the head of curatorial records at the USNational Gallery of Art, has made a profound contribution to thehistorical record by cataloging the art collection of ReichsmarschallHermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe and a self-styledRenaissance man. With images and provenance information on some 1,800works Goering acquired, Yeide's book Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: The Hermann Goering Collectiondramatically illustrates the extent to which Goering was indeed theNazi master plunderer. Yeide's work on Goering was not an academicexercise. While researching Goering's artworks, she located a FrancoisBoucher painting that had been looted from the Paris art dealer AndreSeligmann in 1940. The painting, which had been donated to the UtahMuseum of Fine Arts in 1993, was returned to Seligmann's heirs in 2004.

With its archival and scholarly depth, Yeide's book isimportant to historians, museums and art professionals. Unfortunately,a book of this heft was quite expensive to publish, and its price tagputs it beyond individual reach. But it should be essential forcollections in universities and libraries.

None of these books is about Jewish cultural losses, althoughthese losses are briefly touched on in Edsel's book. However, thesevolumes are welcomed additions to the small batch of books onHolocaust-era looting. They are valuable in their own rights and forkeeping attention focused on the magnitude and unresolved issues ofNazi looting.