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Monuments Men by Robert Edsel

December 10, 2013

Monuments Men

 

As someone who loves art, and Europe, and World War II history, it is going to be impossible for me to write about Monuments Men without saying I loved it about a thousand times. I absolutely loved it! I would rate it as one of my favorite books of the year and I think everyone should give it a read. I’ll tell you why.

Did you know that most of the famous pieces of art in Europe – paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows, ancient manuscripts, and tapestries – that we admire today are only here today because of intense preservation efforts made during the second World War? When it was clear that the Third Reich would invade France, the Louvre and other iconic French museums were evacuated not just of their staff, but of their valuables. In England, France, Holland, and Germany, safe store houses fitted specifically for art were created to protect pieces of cultural heritage that mattered most. All the while, Germany was looting their conquered territories for valuable art works from public and private collections.

Many pieces were lost, broken, burned, or destroyed during the Second World War, but not nearly as much as destroyed as could have been. As the Allies advanced across Europe they moved with a small group of men (initially, but women joined later) whose only job was to assess and secure objects deemed to be of historical and cultural significance. Originally there were only about 10 of these officers to follow the entire American and English front through northern France, into Paris, and on into the Rhineland. The objects they were sent to protect were things like cathedrals, statues, monasteries, and of course buildings known to contain precious works. Near the original Allied landing site in Normandy nearly 1,000 such objects and sites were identified prior to landing, and the Monuments Men visited and cordoned off every single one.

This book was so fantastic in that it told the history of the last stages of World War II, which everyone is mostly familiar with, but from such a different perspective that it felt like reading a story I’d never heard of before. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the whole book, hoping and praying that the priceless artwork stolen from the Louvre and elsewhere by Hitler wouldn’t end up destroyed in air raids or through Hitler’s infamous Nero Decree (burn and destroy all infrastructure to keep it from Allied hands).

I had never appreciated how narrowly some famous works escaped destruction during the crazy and disorganized time of the early 1940’s. Most of the preservation and restoration was thanks to just a dozen men. All of them came from backgrounds of art and literature and each had enlisted as a service to their country. But they ended up combining these two into what I find to be one of the most precious and under-appreciated jobs carried out by the military during the campaign across Europe.

The style of writing in this book was captivating and moving. Edsel is clearly a great appreciator of art and has enormous amounts of respect for the men and women he writes about in this book. It is hard not to be awed by the job they did in the most daunting circumstances, but he really manages to bring it to life in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible. Reading this book made me want to go to Europe right away, just to visit places like Chartres, Bruges, Bayeux, and the Louvre, to see the art that nearly didn’t make it. I gained an entirely new appreciation for the cultural artifacts of Western Europe reading this book and I loved every minute of it.

I’m going to suggest you read this book right away. I very rarely make a firm recommendation, but I’m going to do so now. If you’re interested in art or World War II history, and even if you’re not, I think you’ll like this book. I acknowledge that not everyone will like it as much as I did, but please let me know what you think!

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From → Non-Fiction

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