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The Ghent altarpiece, one of the treasures stolen by the Nazis and retrieved by the Monuments Unit

My sister Ruth told me about this book after reading what I had written a few weeks ago about Anne Sinclair’s book (21 Rue la Boetie). It’s funny how things seem to connect with one another, but it turns out that the two books are on similar subjects, albeit from different angles. And both are linked to two subjects that have been fascinating me for quite some time — art, on the one hand, and the Second World War, on the other. Ruth had a version in Hebrew, but I preferred to read it in the original language.

So I ordered the book (‘Monuments Men’ by Robert Edsel) from Amazon, and found that once I started reading it I simply couldn’t put it down. Quite simply, it tells the tale of the special Allied unit set up during the Second World War whose job it was to protect the architectural and historic monuments and art treasures of Europe, both from the retreating German forces and from the advancing Allies. In addition, their mission also involved tracing and finding the art treasures of Europe that had been pillaged by the Germans and hidden in mines, castles, marshes and sundry other places throughout Germany and Austria. These also involved many treasures stolen from Jews (Anne Sinclair’s family, among others), and a few years ago the German government organised an exhibition of some of these unclaimed items, which later went on display at other sites around the world, including the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

According to Edsel, it all stemmed from Hitler’s desire to establish a museum in the Austrian town of Linz, his birthplace, that would house all the art treasures of Europe and outshine the vast treasurehouse museums of Paris, Florence, Rome, etc. In addition, fancying himself as something of an artist and an architect himself, he planned to rebuild Linz as a splendid urban site, and spent hours with his architect, Albert Speer, discussing the plans and inspecting the scale model of the city. If Hitler’s megalomaniac ideas had come to fruition not only would the entire character of Europe have changed, so would the face of world art.

For we know that the Nazis had firmly-entrenched ideas about what constituted ‘acceptable’ and ‘degenerate’ art — all Impressionist, post-Impressionist, Cubist and Expressionist art falling into the latter category. In Paris as well as in Germany many works of art by artists such as Picasso, Braque, Matisse and others were burned. Many others were used as currency in transactions of various kinds or secreted in hiding places to be extracted at a later stage. Of course, we mustn’t forget the cupidity of the Nazi leaders, and Hermann Goring, in particular, who appropriated art from every possible source in order to aggrandize his own private collection, which he housed in his various opulent domiciles in Germany and Austria.

So the small group of former museum employees and art specialists who comprised the ‘Monuments Unit’ were faced with a daunting task. In addition, they were not provided by the army with the equipment (support vehicles, office facilities, etc.) that would have made their task easier, often found themseves in dangerous parts of the war theatre and had to manage their affairs by being resourceful and determined.

Robert Edsel researched the subject for thirteen years, interviewing many of the individuals involved, managing to obtain private correspondence sent by many of them to their families back home and tracing the sequence of events with admirable application and perseverance. His book, which was published in 2010, reads like a detective story, and indeed much of the work of the unit involved work very like that of a detective, tracing the individuals connected with the Germans’ involvement in managing existing museums and stealing their contents. Just the packing and transportation of the works by the Germans (and later by the Monuments unit) involved an enormous amount of resourcefulness and organisation.

Fortunately, the Germans pedantically listed and catalogued their activities in this sphere, and it was possible, as the war ground to an end in 1945, to get hold of most of these, making the task of the Monuments unit slightly easier. Some former Nazi officials were prepared to cooperate in bringing the art treasures back into the public domain, though others were not. One was even prepared to fulfil Hitler’s ‘Nero decree’ (scorched earth policy) into operation and prepared to blow up one of the mines containing priceless works of art. This plan was foiled by other Germans, but only by a hair’s breadth.

The dedication and fortitude of the men of the unit, most of them accustomed to the stale air of libraries and museums rather than the battlefield, is something that must be admired, and it is to Robert Edsel’s great credit that he has brought their story out into the light of day.