A wonderful book for anyone interested in art, history or both. The book tells the largely forgotten story of a small cadre of American and British military personnel who strove to recuperate, preserve and protect the patrimony of the European countries that had been steamrolled by the Nazi war machine - including Germany itself! A handful of dedicated art lovers followed the advancing Allied forces after the invasion of Italy and D-day, trying desperately and with minimal support and resources, to keep priceless art safe. This could mean anything from organizing local masons to shore up the crumbling walls of a bombed-out church, to following the trail of the art treasures looted from the Louvre through the Nazi bureaucracy, to supervising the removal of paintings and sculpture from the underground salt mines where the Nazis had stored them. This effort was led by George Stout, art preservation specialist at the Harvard Fogg museum, and James Rorimer, specialist of Medieval Art at the Cloisters in NYC. Despite physical danger and hardships, lack of support and the general chaos of war, this handful of men, with the help of local art specialists, succeeded in rescuing thousands and thousands of pieces of art.
The book succeeds in weaving together several strands and themes. There is the chronological and geographical progress of the monuments men as they work their way from the beaches of Normandy or Italy to the salt mines and castles of Austria, where much of the art was hidden. There is the underlying theme of the chaos of war, especially as the Nazis start to retreat, leaving behind starving, lawless communities. There is the theme of the "love of art" that prominent Nazis like Hitler and Goring used as an excuse for their pillaging and looting. One of the things that I liked about the book was that it showed, in a non-sentimental way, how art and history can be a uniting force for communities and people. For instance, there is a story describing how the inhabitants of a Belgian village that was completely destroyed by the Battle of the Bulge, were united in an effort to carry their most precious art treasure, a medieval wooden Madonna, to safety. Sometimes the love of art could unite people from opposite sides of the war, as in the case of the German art expert who worked with the French director of the Louvre in order to minimize the looting of that museum. The horrors of war are only slightly touched upon, although never avoided or whitewashed. A lot of attention is also given to the local art experts, like Rose Valland of the Musee du Jeu de Paume in Paris, who quietly worked behind the scenes during the Occupation to keep track of the disappearing art treasures and was instrumental in having a train full of stolen art stopped before it diseappeared into Germany (a story later turned into the movie "The Train" with Burt Lancaster). My favorite human interest story was that of Harry Ettlinger, a Jewish boy growing up in Karsruhe, Germany, who was prohibited by anti-semitic laws to enter the local museum where a famous Rembrandt portrait was on display and a print of which was the pride of his grandfather's modest personal collection. His family emigrated to the USA within hours of his Bar Mitzva in 1938, and a few years later the teenaged Harry entered the US army. Assigned to work with the Monuments Men as a translator, he found himself part of the team that retrieved not just the Rembrandt painting, but his own grandfather's print of the work !
This book is a great read for non-specialists with a general interest in the history of art, art theft, or some of the forgotten aspects of WWII. It is well written, with enough technical, historical and military detail to allow the reader to follow the story, but it never becomes tedious.