Books: How we got the loot back from the Nazis

The story of the US Monuments Men

Monuments Men tells the story of the Allied officers who recovered works of art in former Nazi Europe at the end of World War II. US author Robert Edsel has made it his mission to record the achievements of the 350 men and women who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allied forces from 1942 to 1951. He runs the recently established Monuments Men Foundation.

Initially, the “Monuments Men” focused on the protection of historic buildings. But in 1944 their efforts shifted to locating, storing and restituting movable works of art. Thanks to their remarkable success, wartime caches (such as the Altaussee salt mine) were quickly located, and their treasures safeguarded.

Edsel’s book concentrates on the period from June 1944 to May 1945 and deals with the Monuments Men in France, the Netherlands and Germany (Italy was to have been included, but was dropped for reasons of space). The author tells the story through the adventures of eight officers, all North American (they include James Rorimer, who went on to become the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 1955).

Although the achievements of the Monuments Men represent an important (and relatively untold) story, Edsel’s presentation is disappointing. Disturbingly, much of the material in quotation marks is invented. This is stated in small print at the very beginning of the book: “Most of the dialogue that appears without a chapter note has been culled from research by the authors in order to provide a sense of immediacy within a historically accurate context. While the actual words may not be direct quotes [sic], the facts are documented.” Although authentic quotes are indicated with numbers and referenced chapter notes, one has to read the text very carefully to distinguish these from the made-up words.

The book is also unnecessarily long (54 chapters and 472 pages), and the accounts of the eight officers are full of fairly irrelevant detail about their wartime adventures. This should have been edited down. The undue focus on the eight individuals also means that little context is provided about how the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives operation fitted into the wider context of safeguarding works of art at the end of the war. In short, Edsel’s book represents a valuable resource to be tapped by art historians (via its index), but overall the book fails adequately to analyse what the Monuments Men achieved.

o Robert M. Edsel, Monuments Men: Nazi Thieves, Allied Heroes and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (Preface Publishing/Random House), 496 pp, £20 (hb) ISBN 9781848091016

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The story of the US Monuments Men'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 205 September 2009