Dying for Art and Country

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 29, 2009 | Go to article overview

Dying for Art and Country


Byline: Thomas B. Allen, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

On May 26, 1944, 11 days before the one called D-Day, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an unusual order: His officers must protect and respect the cultural monuments that lay in the path of war. The job of carrying out that order fell mostly to the uncommon soldiers who left their work in the world of art to volunteer for a little-known U.S. Army unit, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section. They called themselves the Monuments Men.

Joining Allied troops as they fought their way across Europe, the Monuments Men convinced reluctant senior officers to save treasured buildings from destruction. At the same time, they tracked down priceless art stolen by Nazis, including works by Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt.

The Monuments Men, by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, is a remarkable history of the war in Europe. The book uses key battles - Salerno, Naples, D-Day, Saint-Lo, Aachen, the Bulge - as the backdrop to the story of men who risked their lives saving what Eisenhower saw as the symbols of all that we are fighting to preserve. Two Monuments Men, killed in action, died as much for art as for country.

Eisenhower's decision to add art preservation to his war aims stemmed from the controversial destruction of the mountain-top abbey of Monte Cassino during the bloody campaign in southern Italy. The venerated monastery, built around A.D. 529, had been massively bombed because the Allies believed that German soldiers were in it, firing down on American troops. But there were not any German soldiers in it; they held positions below the monastery.

Eisenhower was determined there would be no Monte Cassino incidents during what he would call his Crusade in Europe. Many cherished buildings, especially French churches, were destroyed or badly damaged. But the insertion of Monuments Men into the battlefields gave a voice to Eisenhower's protect and respect order. Bearing lists of treasures, drawn up by the leading art experts of the Western world, the Monuments Men advanced with the Army and watched for monuments on the list. If a listed structure was hit, its guardians were to record the damage, supervise repair work and prevent any further damage.

In reality, that usually meant convincing a combat-hardened, high-ranking officer to divert time and resources from warfare to art. Their only weapon was a reminder of Eisenhower's order, reinforced by posted signs declaring, in English and French, that certain buildings were historic monuments and off limits to all military personnel. They also hunted for looted treasure.

Monuments Men's discoveries included five railcars containing 148 crates of stolen paintings. In some of the crates were the holdings of the major art dealers of Paris seized by a special German cultural conservation program. Two of France's greatest treasures - the Bayeux Tapestry and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa - remained in France during the war, preserved by French museum officials. But, in Hitler's view of the future, they would become treasures of the great German empire. The world's outstanding culture center would be the Fhrermuseum in Linz, his Austrian hometown, which had became part of the Third Reich when his troops marched into Austria in 1938.

Hitler personally commissioned a Dresden art connoisseur to begin planning the Linz museum, whose potential collection would include choice art from conquered countries. …

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