Caroline's Reviews > The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel
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's review
Oct 25, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: world-war-2
Read from October 25 to 30, 2012

The Nazis were perhaps the greatest art-thieves in history, intent not just on conquering nations and enslaving and murdering large groups of people, but also on appropriating the most important cultural and artistic items in Western Europe for the benefit of Germany and the Third Reich. Untold numbers of paintings, sculptures, prints, documents, even stained glass windows and carved doors were all packed up and transported to Germany, many for Hitler and Göring's private collections. But many more by far were hidden away in secret storehouses, bunkers, abandoned mines, all for the future day when the war would be over and Germany victorious.

That such a day never came is obviously the subject of an endless number of books - this book is concerned with the effort of a small group of men and women to discover the locations of these artistic treasure troves and to ensure the art was returned to the nations and individuals it had been stolen from. The MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program) scarcely numbered more than 400, and the majority of these were only assigned after the end of the war. In the final years of the war, the main figures in the MFAA, followed in this book, operated almost entirely alone, with no resources, no infrastructure, no guidance, sometimes not even transportation - often in a race against time to discover the locations before they were destroyed in accordance with Hitler's scorched earth 'Nero Decree'.

It's a fascinating story, a real life Indiana Jones tale, and it's no surprise this book is now being turned into a film. The men and women detailed in this book are real heroes, risking their lives for the sake of artistic treasures, to return the cultural heritage of nations to their rightful places, even those belonging to Germany. It's very easy to overlook such 'minor' considerations in the middle of war - one only needs to use as example the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the invasion of Iraq in recent years - but the culture of a nation plays such an important part in its identity, all the more important in the wake of a devastating war like World War 2.

My one criticism is that is almost entirely US-focused; there is scarcely a mention of the work done by any non-American members of the Monuments Men, which was an Allied venture, not merely an American one.

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