It’s no secret that Adolf Hitler was an art enthusiast and that he even pursued a career in that before he became the despotic leader of Nazi Germany. A teenaged Hitler was rejected from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and told that he was not good enough to study there. Although he went onto find another calling – something far less artistic – Hitler never lost his interest in the arts.
During the course of World War II, the Nazis plundered numerous famous artworks from a range of private and public collections throughout conquered Europe. These works included the likes of Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and Vermeer’s The Astronomer.
The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section
This looting of museums and private collections would not go unanswered by the Allies. Historians and museum directors from all over the world pleaded for their governments to protect the cultural artefacts from the Nazis as they swept across Europe. In response to these pleas, the Allied Forces created the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section in 1943.
This unit became affectionately known as the Monuments Men. It was largely made up of volunteers and consisted of around 350 people from 13 different countries. They weren’t soldiers, but were rather scholars, curators, archivists, artists, historians and architects. All of them were there to try and protect the artistic and cultural works that were being seized by Nazi soldiers for Hitler’s personal use.
This team was made up of people who were generally over the age of 40 and had little to no training in war craft. When they signed up, most did not expect to see any kind of combat. However, they suddenly found themselves on the frontlines, protecting buildings of cultural importance and helping soldiers to look after works of art. During the war years, only two members of the Monuments Men lost their lives while on duty.
Remembering Their Contribution
Sadly, this unit was not well known during their active years and were largely forgotten after the war. This all changed when Lynn H. Nicholas, a scholar working in Brussels, stumbled upon the story of a member who had spied on the Nazis in France and saved around 60 000 art works on her own. This led to Nicholas researching and writing a book called The Rape of Europa. It was all about the plundering and pillaging of art done by the Nazis and the people who worked to prevent those important pieces of culture and history from being stolen and lost forever.
The release of this book in 1995 spurred the idea for Robert Edsel to write the book The Monuments Men, which was released in 2009. This novel then led to the film of the same name being created in 2014. It was directed by George Clooney and had an all-star cast that was exciting as real money spins consisting of Clooney himself, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Hugh Bonneville. All of this seems a fitting tribute to the team’s contribution to history.