Book Review: 'The Monuments Men' by Robert M. Edsel

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 27, 2009


Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

By Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter

Center Street. 473 pp. $26.99

We tend in these permissive times to embrace an expansive and often sentimental definition of heroism, in the process elevating to heroic status men and women whose actions, however admirable, remarkable and courageous, fall short of the self-sacrificial. Were the Allied (mostly American) soldiers who rescued works of art stolen by the Nazis before and during World War II really heroes, as Robert M. Edsel claims in "The Monuments Men," or were they good men -- aided by one resourceful, determined French woman -- who were simply, in the best sense of the phrase, just doing their jobs?

My vote is for the latter, and I suspect that most of those involved in the effort would have said the same. In civilian life they were professional art people or patrons of the arts, and they seem to have regarded their work during the war as an extension and amplification of their civilian careers. They worked very hard and very effectively, but they seem to have had no sense of (or inclination toward) heroics, and my judgment is that they should be viewed accordingly: with respect and gratitude, but not elevated to the exalted precincts of heroism.

Still, for the most part they have receded into the fog of history -- the notable exception is Lincoln Kirstein, who remains well-known as a founder of the New York City Ballet -- and that is a pity, so it is good to have them given recognition in "The Monuments Men." It's a somewhat problematical book: There's a great deal of conversation, and Edsel's acknowledgment that "I have taken the liberty of creating dialogue for continuity, but in no instance does it concern matters of substance and in all cases it is based on extensive documentation" is not entirely convincing. But it's a terrific story, and it certainly is good to give these men (and that one remarkable woman) their due.

In particular it is good to make the acquaintance of George Stout. When the United States entered the war, he was in his early 40s, working at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, where he was doing pathfinding art conservation. The Monuments Men did not have an official field general, but Stout was the number one man. "Stout was a leader," one of his comrades said, "quiet, unselfish, modest, yet very strong, very thoughtful and remarkably innovative. Whether speaking or writing, he was economical with words, precise, vivid. One believed what he said; one wanted to do what he proposed." He was "the resident expert upon whom all the other Monuments Men relied," leading both by his words and by his example.

Stout had been in on the arts-rescue enterprise from the beginning. In December 1941, as the United States entered the war, he was instrumental in organizing a meeting of high-powered arts figures to try to determine how to protect the art of Europe from Nazi looters. These criminals were in many cases motivated by sheer greed, in others by the desire to honor Adolph Hitler, who was as fanatical about art as about everything else. He wanted to corner the world's greatest art and install it in his "F?hrermuseum, . . . the largest, most imposing, most spectacular art museum in the world." Presumably it would last as long as the thousand-year Reich.

Stout's dream was a long time in coming true, held up by infighting among the arts people and the slow-moving military bureaucracy, but in 1943 President Roosevelt created the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe, which in turn led to the formation of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section in the armed forces. It was never more than a tiny operation -- at most it employed about 350 people -- and at first it was minuscule. Edsel -- who has a fondness for putting thoughts into people's heads and describing them in somewhat breathless prose -- describes Stout's reaction:

"It was a good group, [Stout] had to admit. A group he himself might have chosen, if given the chance. Only eleven men, unfortunately, but eleven good men. Not trained conservators, but the next best thing: scholars, artists, museum curators, and architects, men who worked for a living, not ordered others to work. They were established professionals. Almost all had wives, and most had children. They were old enough to understand what was at stake, and perhaps young enough to survive the rigors of the battlefield."

Of these, the one to whom Edsel gives most attention apart from Stout is James J. Rorimer. Before the war he had worked at the Metropolitan Museum -- he had been a founder of its medieval branch, the Cloisters, and after the war became director of the museum itself -- and he embraced the art-rescue effort as "the mission of a lifetime." After Allied troops invaded Normandy, he got "the assignment he most desired: Monuments Man for Seine Section, which meant, essentially, Paris." But he soon determined that "the important work was not here, but in Germany, and Rorimer hated to be too far away from the important work." He got his wish, and in Germany he did brave and invaluable service to the cause.

He had paved the way for that before leaving Paris, by slowly and patiently winning the trust and eventually the friendship of a Frenchwoman named Rose Valland. Throughout the Nazi occupation of Paris she had managed "the small Louvre outpost known as the Jeu de Paume, located at a far corner of the Jardin des Tuileries." She had done so at the specific request of Jacques Jaujard, director of the French National Museums. He knew that "before leaving Paris, the looted artwork was all brought to one spot for cataloguing and crating." The spot was the Jeu de Paume, and his "spy inside" was Rose Valland. He told Rorimer: "Her loyalty to France and to the artwork is beyond question. When you get to know her, you will understand that, too . . . Rose Valland probably saved more important paintings than most conservators will work with in a lifetime."

Saving those paintings and all the other works of art -- thousands upon thousands of them -- was a staggering task, one that lasted well past the surrender of Nazi Germany. As the war ground on and on, German outrages became ever more appalling, because "the greatest danger wasn't when the Germans were in complete control, but now, when they were losing control and realizing this was their last opportunity to act." In Paris alone, "Jaujard estimated that 22,000 pieces of important artwork had been stolen." Edsel writes: "The variety of items stolen was exceeded only by the volume. After all, five years was an eternity to commit robbery, and there were thousands of people involved in the looting operations: art experts, guards, packers, engineers. Thousands of trains, tens of thousands of gallons of fuel. Could a million objects have been taken? It seemed impossible, but Stout was beginning to think the Nazis had done it. Their appetite for plunder was boundless, and they were, after all, a model of efficiency, economy, and brutality."

That so much of what they stole was eventually recovered by this tiny band of determined people was nothing short of miraculous. It makes for a terrific story, even when it's not told very well.

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