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"Two Monuments Men, killed in action, died as much for art as for country," writes Thomas B. Allen in the Washington Post review of The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel. Read BExtraordinaire Blog for more reviews on our next book club selection.
is reading The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History written by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter for December.
During World War II, a front-line military unit known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA) was created to lessen combat damage, primarily to structures—churches, museums, and other important monuments. Their mission grew to include protection of some of the world’s greatest artistic masterpieces.
Modern warfare brought to the forefront, the inevitability of destruction to some of the greatest works of art during Hitler’s assault on Europe. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. art world quickly began to make plans for protection and evacuation of its national treasures. On June 23, 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt approved the formation of the “American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas” also known as The Roberts Commission. The President backing of the MFAA's ambitious plans helped make it a feasible mission.
Some of the members of the MFAA include George Stout, Lincoln Kirstein and James Rorimer. An unlikely, museum official, George Stout came from a blue-collar family in Winterset, Iowa. He joined the army during World War I. Following the war, he studied art at Harvard and later joined the art conservation department at the Fogg Art Museum. He was a well-known art conservationist and was one of the first members of the MFAA.
Lincoln Kirstein from Rochester, New York studied at Harvard and established the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art and Harvard’s literary magazine Hound and Horn. He and fellow Monuments Men tracked down the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers in the salt mines of Altaussee. After the war, he cofounded the School of American Ballet with George Balanchine.
Another Harvard alumni, James Rorimer from Cleveland was a leading figure in the museum world. At 24, he was named Assistant Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He discovered the location of a large hidden cache of French treasures in Neuschwansein, the castle of King Ludwig.
The Monuments Men consisted of museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators. Many served on the front lines to rescue, protect and respect the cultural monuments. Together they helped track, locate and protect more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by the Nazis.