Source: Hachette Books
Hardcover, 473 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo
The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter expertly combines the search for art with the internal mechanics of military operations. These Monuments Men are struggling to justify their mission to their compatriots and superiors, even though they are given a mandate from the U.S. government, and they are forced to get creative as they are continually denied the resources they need to locate, transport, and protect the art they are searching for. Stout at one point decides to place signs on monuments that will ensure they are not disturbed: “Danger — Mines!” Through a series of chapters that not only delve into the fall of the Third Reich but also the confusion of orders from Adolf Hitler with regard to the Nero Decree, Edsel and Witter personalize the stories of these unassuming and dedicated men.
“But with that, the portrait was complete. Balfour the British scholar. Hancock the good-natured artist. Rorimer the bulldog curator. Posey the Alabama farmboy. And, lurking somewhere in the back, dapper, pencil-mustached George Leslie Stout.” (page 58)
“This was not to say the job was easy: far from it. The men had all realized that they really were on their own in the field. There were no set procedures to follow; no proper chain of command; no right way of dealing with combat officers. They had to feel each situation out; to improvise on an hourly basis; to find a way to finish a job that seemed more daunting every day. They had no real authority, but served merely as advisors.” (page 86)
These men are not only dedicated to their mission, but some are longing for home and the future they have dreamed about. Like other soldiers in the war, their lives are at risk as the military meets sustained combat and pockets of resistance even as the Nazis retreat into the Alps. Even after the art has been found and collected, it takes more than six years after the end of WWII before the art would be returned to the museums, owners, and countries from which they were taken. In many cases, the success of the mission was aided by luck, infiltration of key French personnel, and the meticulous record-keeping skills of the Germans themselves.
“‘A number of our officers went up to see the camp,’ he wrote. ‘I did not go, because much of my work depended on friendly relations with German civilians, and I feared that after seeing the horrors of the camp my own feelings toward even these innocent people would be affected. …'” (page 310)
The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter brings to life a part of WWII history that had been buried and forgotten for far too many years, and it pays tribute to the modest and dedicated men who fought to preserve not only works of art but entire cultures in the face of great evil and destruction. These men were hardly alone in their fight to save the art, but they continued to have the courage to push onward and achieve their goals in spite of the obstacles they faced. As Jacques Jaujard, one of the integral players in France, said, “It matters little that you are afraid if you manage to hide it. You are then at the edge of courage.” Moreover, he said, “There are fights that you may lose without losing your honor; what makes you lose your honor is not to fight them.”
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