10 June 2014

The Real Monuments Men—and Women

by Elizabeth Karlsgodt, Associate Professor of History, University of Denver
Elizabeth Karlsgodt
Source: University of Denver,
Arts Humanities & Social Sciences

George Clooney’s latest film, The Monuments Men, offers audiences an action-packed adventure set in Europe during the final days of World War II. The film is based on the true story of American and European art experts who became officers in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section of Allied forces and recovered several million cultural objects from castles and salt mines that had become Nazi art repositories. It is a feel-good saga about American heroes who outsmart Hitler, the ultimate villain. The actual history of the Monuments Men is riveting in its own right, but without the happy Hollywood ending.

Franklin Roosevelt charged the MFAA officers with protecting European cultural heritage from the ravages of war. They initially focused on preserving churches, palaces and other historic buildings but ended up recovering the art found in Nazi caches as the Allies moved into Reich territory. The repositories held objects evacuated from museums in the Third Reich and stolen from German-occupied territories across the continent, such as Belgium’s famed Ghent altarpiece and the Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo. Most tragically, the Nazis had plundered much of the loot from Jewish art collectors across Europe, while agents working for Hitler, Göring and other Party leaders had bought thousands of pieces relinquished by Jews under duress.

Madonna, by Michelangelo 
In Clooney and Heslov’s version of events, the Monuments Men race against time as the Third Reich is crumbling, trying to find art repositories before the Nazis destroy the hidden treasures. The Nazis, the story goes, would rather obliterate masterpieces than let them fall into Allied—especially Soviet—hands. The Germans are implementing Hitler’s Nero Decree of March 19, 1945, which ordered the demolition of infrastructure that could be useful to the Allies—railways, bridges, factories. In the film, the Germans include works of art as potential enemy assets and systematically burn paintings in the Heilbronn salt mine as the Monuments Men race through Germany to stop them.

In reality, Minister of Armaments Albert Speer largely thwarted implementation of the Nero Decree and the Germans did not carry out an eleventh-hour demolition of looted art. In Berlin and Paris, they had burned thousands of paintings they considered “degenerate”—Cubist, Surrealist, and Expressionist works they considered harmful to the Aryan mind and spirit—but they did not methodically destroy art they valued. On the contrary, Hitler aimed to preserve all the art the Nazis had accumulated, using it to glorify himself and the Third Reich.

Why would Hitler, the man who had wrought such destruction across an entire continent, preserve art? He was building the world’s greatest museum in his childhood hometown of Linz, Austria. His planned display of the continent’s masterpieces would symbolize his military power, much as Napoleon had done with the Louvre collection before him. Hitler’s last will and testament written the day before his suicide states that all works of art in his possession should go to the Linz museum: “It is my most sincere wish that this bequest be duly executed.” His drive to preserve fine art, however, was directly connected to the Nazi destruction of people who had owned it. Seizing and profiting from Jewish assets, including artworks, was central to the Nazi Final Solution.

It is true that Hitler ended up endangering the seized works of art by issuing the Nero Decree and feeding a climate of fear and uncertainty among German leaders as Allied forces advanced into Reich territory. In Austria, the fanatical Gauleiter August Eigruber intended to carry out Hitler’s orders and placed explosives inside the Alt Aussee salt mine, repository for 6500 works of art, including the Belgian treasures and works from Vienna museums. In early May 1945, Austrian mine officials received authorization from SS officer Ernst Kaltenbrunner to seal the mine and protect the art inside. Two MFAA members in the Third U.S. Army, Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein and Captain Robert Posey, arrived at the mine on May 16, 1945, a week after V-E Day, and oversaw work by Austrian miners to dig through the rubble and regain access to the mine, locating the cultural treasures.

In the film, we see the Monuments Men organized into a platoon. They survive boot camp in England together, land on the Normandy beaches, and develop a sense of camaraderie in their hunt for looted art. But such a platoon never existed. Instead, the military command scattered cultural officers across Allied armies and they most often worked alone or with one partner, meeting occasionally to share information and avoid duplicating efforts.

The challenge of working in isolation is illustrated by the work of Lieutenant James Rorimer, future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the inspiration for Matt Damon’s character, James Granger. A curator at the Cloisters Museum in civilian life, Rorimer landed with French troops at Utah Beach on August 3, 1944, two months after D-Day. He immediately began surveying the damage to churches and other historic buildings nearby, documenting in painstaking detail the destruction inflicted by German and Allied bombing.

While maintaining contact with superior officers, Rorimer mostly worked alone in Normandy, without a vehicle or assistant. Determined to inspect damage at the grandiose medieval abbey of Mont Saint Michel, he hitched rides on Allied military vehicles and with French civilians. When those vehicles veered from his destination, he walked. Alone. One Air Corps MP Captain suspected he was a German spy, incredulous that a U.S. officer would travel in Normandy without his own transportation. Rorimer and his MFAA colleagues used cunning and imagination to make up for the dearth in personnel, equipment and preservation supplies. Fogg Museum preservationist George Stout, the inspiration for Clooney’s character, managed to secure a beat up German Army Volkswagen without a roof, and New York architect Bancel LaFarge, after weeks of hitchhiking and walking, procured a small British car to navigate country roads.

The terminology “Monuments Men” itself elides a rich part of this history: the role played by remarkable women. One was Rose Valland, a French museum official who inspired the Claire Simone character in the film, played by Cate Blanchett. In the film, Simone shows Granger the extent of Nazi looting by taking him to Paris warehouses filled with everyday objects plundered from Jewish homes, much as Valland did with Rorimer in December 1944. Romantic tension between the film characters is pure Hollywood invention, but in real life the two were a powerful team, as Rorimer used Valland’s records of Nazi art looting to track down the treasures of France stashed in Neuschwanstein castle and other repositories. Valland later became a Captain in the French Army and from 1945 to 1953 worked in Germany to help return the collected art to countries of origin. A recipient of the Resistance Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, she remains one of the most decorated women in French history.
Rose Valland at the Jeu de Paume

Edsel’s non-profit foundation includes Valland and several other women on its list of more than three hundred “Monuments Men” from thirteen countries. Among them was Captain Edith Standen, a Canadian-born art expert who became a U.S. citizen in 1942, joined the Women’s Army Corps, and in June 1945 became director of the Wiesbaden central collecting point. Ardelia Hall was a cultural officer at the U.S. State Department from 1946 to 1962 and worked tirelessly to promote restitution of looted art to rightful—mostly Jewish—owners.

The Monuments Men should be seen as an entertaining entry to a far more complicated history embedded in the Holocaust. The recent international controversy surrounding the revelation of Cornelius Gurlitt’s art hoard in Munich shows how difficult the work of restitution remains. In the chaotic postwar years, restitution was defined in national terms, to countries of origin that would determine rightful owners, despite the fundamentally international nature of the art market. Over the past seventy years, works seized from Jewish collections or sold under duress during the Nazi era have been resold across territories with varying statutes of limitation for illicit trade, even within the United States. For this reason, the central mission of many Monuments Men and women, restitution to rightful owners, is not yet accomplished.