Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Monuments Men – A Book Review

Monuments MenWith riding season now at an end for a few months I get to catch up on my reading, tackling some of the pile of books I have managed to amass which threatens to topple over causing grievous bodily harm to the unwary.
The Monuments Men is my current read. It contains nary a mention of two-wheeled motor vehicles so it is not a “motorcycle” book, but it is a great story nonetheless.

The “Monuments Men” were a little known group consisting of a small number of Allied soldiers tasked with the responsibility to protect, to the extent possible, all the cultural treasures of Central Europe during the latter months of the Second World War. I’d never heard of them before and, for that matter, had never really thought about it, but when you consider the destruction wrought on so many cities during the war the fact that any artworks remained at all is in itself amazing.

Although they had a mandate from President Roosevelt and the support of General Eisenhower the initial team of a dozen or so men had no specific orders or logistical support once in the field. They were on their own, scattered across Europe, competing with operational needs while trying to follow the advancing armies. Transportation was usually by hitching a ride with someone going, hopefully, in their general direction although abandoned cars and bicycles were also commandeered when possible. Once in theatre these men had to convince field commanders to protect priceless cultural artefacts from the ravages of battle, looting, or the wanton destruction caused by retreating armies. They were of low rank (Private through Major) so moral suasion was their only tool to accomplish this. Sometimes it didn’t work. Other times they were too late, able only to document the ruins. But often enough they managed to convince commanders to take a particular course of action that would preserve an historic building or work of art.

In the process they also uncovered vast treasure troves of stolen paintings, sculptures, gold and silver. These, and other artworks, had been systematically looted by the Germans from museums, private collections, and Jewish homes. Intended to become the greatest collection ever amassed, representing the magnificence of the Third Reich, these artefacts had been stored in basements, abandoned mines, and remote hideaways while Hitler awaited the construction of his Führermuseum in Linz.

It was an incredibly daunting task, and dangerous - some Monuments Men lost their lives in the process – but the very fact that we can, today, go into the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and see  Rembrandt’s Night Watch, or view the Bayeux Tapestry at its home in Bayeux, or even experience the Louvre’s collection is a testament to how extraordinarily successful these few men were.

It’s well worth a read. Highly recommended.

4 comments:

  1. I'm totally fascinated by the story you have summarized and envious of the books you are reading ... for me, this week it's Pete the Cat and his School Shoes (and I hear there's a sequel - Pete the Cat saves Christmas!)
    Different Worlds (... but ya gotta google Pete! He's always got great advice no matter who you are.)

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    1. I'll have to check out Pete, although I admit I'm glad Pete the Cat and his ilk are all well behind me now. But if you do ever need an adult-time break I think you'd enjoy this book.

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  2. I didn't realize it was a book. When we went to see Captain Phillips in the theater a few weeks ago they showed a preview for the movie (not yet in theaters). I didn't realized it was based on the book.

    Funny quip - There were two ladies at least in their 70's sitting a few seats over from us and when the preview for this was done one of them said to the other "I love Nazi movies." To which the other replied, "Me too."

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    1. And I didn't realize it was being made into a movie. As long as Hollywood doesn't overdo the good guy/bad guy thing and stays more or less true to reality it could be a good film. But I won't hold my breath.
      As for it being a "Nazi movie" that's what I'm afraid it will become, which would be too bad.

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