Have you ever been somewhere in Europe, like the Louvre or the Rijkmuseum, and wondered how on earth all of these paintings survived the fiery destruction of the Second World War? Or had the privilege of visiting Mont St. Michel in France or Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, and marveled at the fact that they are still intact?
If you stop and think about it, you will realize what a miracle it actually is.
Until you read Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History and realize that it was less of a miracle and more due to the hard work and dogged perseverance of a select group of art historians, architects and sculptors.
Sometimes the advent of a movie based on a book is a great thing. It brings attention to a book that might otherwise have been overlooked by most people. I’m not sure I would have been aware of this book if it weren’t for the movie. I’m ashamed to admit it, but there you are.
The book itself is incredible. At first my eyes kind of glazed over at the mention of battle particulars (a common failing of mine) but I soon got used to the pace of the novel: the battle details are mentioned to set the scene for you, so that you, who never lived through anything resembling World War II, can have an idea of the scope of the devastation. Once I got through that, I realized that Edsel is talented like Erik Larson at telling a non-fiction tale in the style of a novel. He introduces us to real-life people that sound like storybook heroes and villains, from the always impeccable George Stout, to the bull-dog like James Rorimer, the quiet brilliance of Rose Valland, and the immense bulk and self-serving ego of Hermann Goering.
We follow these men (and one woman) as they make their way through Europe, trying to save as many historic monuments as possible. We feel the pain of history lost at Saint-Lo where the whole town is basically levelled; the frustration as the Brugges Madonna slips through their fingers again; the elation upon their discovery of hundreds of famous paintings hoarded in one place.
The book is full of interesting tidbits that are sure to come in handy next time you play Trivial Pursuit. For instance, the word salary comes from the salt that was paid to Roman legionnaires since, at the time salt was the basis of all life. Or that the Nazis pillaged hundreds of private collections and stored hundreds of them in the fairy tale castle, Neuschwanstein.
I loved this book and now I can’t wait to see the movie. The work these men did to save hundreds of years of cultural history is an enormous gift to humanity and I’m glad that they are finally getting some recognition.
I leave you with the movie trailer in the hopes that it inspires you to search out the book. Also – a little George Clooney or Matt Damon never did anyone any harm.