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The Movies: The Monuments Men: How Many Heroes Really Act Alone?

September 2019

Soldiers in World War II would not have understood the idea of "a few good men" outside the bigger structure of Allied effort.

Considerable ink has been devoted to reviews of “The Monuments Men,” the newest World War II story to hit the movie theaters. Starring an ensemble cast of A-list Hollywood actors, under the direction of George Clooney, the movie has endured some harsh criticism. It tells the story of a handful of men and women who saved countless cultural treasures from wartime destruction – perhaps a little known facet of the war until now. The most telling complaint is that the movie suffers from an “Ocean’s Eleven” style, with all its jocularity, superficiality and we-don’t- answer- to-anyone formula. There is something to what the critics say. In fact, there were nearly 400 men and women who served as Monuments Men, and they coordinated, to the extent possible, with their combat counterparts in preserving what could be saved during some of the most difficult points in the war.

In essence, Clooney would have had a far richer story to tell if he had touched on the military/arts cooperation that transpired. Perhaps the reason he adopted a simple, one-dimensional approach rests with today’s culture. We worship the idea of what I would call “heroes acting alone.” Good people are more likely to get this designation if they are celebrities or if they are seen to be operating outside of authority, and certainly apart from any military chain of command.

By bowing to this contemporary impulse Clooney lost the opportunity to offer this account in its truly extraordinary context. During World War II, the United States and its allies were in an existential fight against Nazism, a war of brutality and destruction not seen before or since. The trade-offs were often agonizing. While simultaneously meeting the life and death demands of our combat operations, it was deemed that, for the future of our civilization, it was vital to try and save Europe’s cultural treasures. Time was of the essence. We had to win the war decisively and in doing so assure the survival of millions of people, including victims of the Holocaust. Despite these grave considerations, Clooney’s film made gratuitous swipes at the armed forces for, among other things, failing at times to get out of the art professors’ way.

At the same time, saving Europe’s magnificent cultural artifacts required much more than President Franklin Roosevelt’s recognition of the mission’s value — contrary to what the movie implies. It took General George Marshall’s assent, as well as the commitment of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was held responsible for winning the war as quickly as possible. It also required an operational framework. On December 29, 1943, General Eisenhower issued an unprecedented order to his commanders, charging them with protecting the monuments and other cultural artifacts “as far as war allows.” The Monuments Men, or the A.M.G. (Allied Military Government officers), would work with pilots to identify the locations of these cultural sites so that military efforts could be made to avoid bombing them, if at all possible. The A.M.G. officers reported directly to the Operations Division of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces, Europe (SHAEF) headquarters, under Eisenhower’s command. Even with glitches and overriding military requirements, if not for these commanders and countless warfighters it would have been impossible for the Monuments Men to do their work.

The Greatest Generation would not have understood telling this story Clooney’s way. “Heroes acting alone” is part of our ethos, not theirs. It is a pervasive notion throughout contemporary culture, from sports “heroes” who somehow earn this status independent of their teammates, to corporate leaders who take all the credit when their companies succeed. It also exists in the arts and scholarship communities— where geniuses often think their work should speak for itself, even though it is teams of gallery owners, museum curators, and publishers who bring their work to the public.

Robert Edsel’s book, Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, which served as the basis of Clooney’s film, has inspired its share of controversy in arts circles. But if it was Edsel’s book that caught Hollywood’s attention, and not earlier works by art scholars, there is a reason for it. Edsel built a constituency for the story.

It is clear that Robert Edsel’s book stands on the shoulders of other scholars — he did cite them and even helped some in their work. But, he understood that in today’s world it is not enough to write a book — or even produce a documentary film. So, he turned his unshakable commitment to this story into a cause, and he applied focus and a relentless determination to do what had to be done to inspire others and engage them in his quest. This demanded more than a decade of personal sacrifice and a ready willingness to contact and enlist strangers to his mission. As part of this plan, Edsel established the Monuments Men Foundation to serve as a repository for the artifacts, documents and stories that surround this tale. In 2007, the Foundation received a National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in the presence of a number of surviving Monuments Men.

After years of hard work, today the Monuments Men Foundation has become a valuable resource for veterans, their families, art lovers, and World War II buffs who want to connect to this history. The Foundation currently has a program to encourage American GIs to return to their country of origin the cultural treasures they themselves took home as war “souvenirs.” It has already borne fruit. Additionally, over the years, Edsel and his Foundation have also discovered new stories and unearthed artifacts and other archival material not previously discovered.

I was exposed to the depth of Robert Edsel’s passion on this topic many years ago, just after the publication of his first book, Rescuing Da Vinci, in 2006. He came to the Eisenhower Institute to speak on the subject. A few years later, he contacted me about a newly discovered audio tape of General Eisenhower after the war. The General was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art receiving an honorary lifetime fellowship for his role, and that of the Allied military under his command, in saving these treasures.
Since then, Edsel has traveled the world on behalf of his foundation, written Saving Italy (2013), chased new leads, lobbied Congress on the Monuments Men’s behalf, and held the hands of dying veterans to convey our collective gratitude. The movie would have never been made without him.

Whether you like Clooney’s interpretation of this World War II story or not, at least this major motion picture brought the Monuments Men into the national consciousness and won these remarkable veterans the appreciation they deserve. The Allied Force’s cooperation and coordination with the Arts communities, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, saved many of Western culture’s priceless treasures. Robert Edsel and the work of his Foundation brought this story to Hollywood and to the international stage.
It reminds you of what can be accomplished when people make a determined effort — together.