Saturday, January 09, 2010

What's Worth Fighting For?

Robert Edsel has written a book called "The Monuments Men", which is a pretty fascinating piece of history.

As Hitler's armies invaded most of Western Europe, they collected many important paintings an sculptures and sent them back to Germany while destroying works of art that Hitler deemed "inferior". One of Hitler's biggest ambitions was to build a massive museum in Germany that would house all of the greatest art that Europe had to offer.

After the Allies landed in France and the German army was forced to retreat back towards Berlin, a group of American, British and Canadian art historians and conservationists (known as the "Monuments Men") arrived in Europe to try and catalog what was left of the art there as well as protect important architecture and landmarks from further damage by advancing (or retreating) forces.

An excerpt:

The chateau of Compte de Germigny had been set ablaze by Allied bombers. As he approached, Rorimer could see the shards of wall, blackened on the edges, sticking up like enormous shoulders of stone.In their shadow, a bulldozer was backing, preparing to knock down one of the last nearly complete walls. It was common practice to knock down damaged walls; the army used the stone as base material for roads. But this chateau was on the protected monuments list, and this particular wall was part of the chateau's private chapel. On the back side, Rorimer noticed two large eighteenth-century statues.

"Stop the Bulldozer," he yelled at the startled engineer, who no doubt had spent the last few days knocking down other walls at the damaged chateau. "This is a historic home." He held up his list of protected monuments. "It is not to be destroyed."

A few minutes later, the commanding officer came stomping through the rubble. "What's the trouble here...Second Lieutenant." The mention of Rorimer's rank, the lowest commissioned-officer rank in the army, was intentional. The Monuments Men had no authority to give orders; their role was purely advisory, and this officer knew it.

"This is a historic monument, sir. It's not to be damaged."

The officer looked at the broken wall and fragments of stone. "The flyboys should have thought of that."

"It's private property, sir. It must be respected."

The officer buttonholed the junior man - junior in rank, at least, if not in age. "We have a war to win here, Lieutenant. My job in that war is to see that this road gets through."

The officer turned to leave. In his mind, the conversation was over, but James Rorimer was a bulldog: short, squarely built, and not afraid of a challenge. Through persistence and hard work he had advanced to the highest levels of the Metropolitan Museum , America's greatest cultural institution, in less than ten years. He had that potent mixture of ambition and belief: in himself and in his mission. He had no practice in failure, and he had no intention of starting now.

"I've photographed this wall for an official report."

The officer stopped and turned around. The cheek of this bastard. Who did he think he was? Rorimer held out a copy of Eisenhower's proclamation on monuments and war. "Only in the event of necessity, sir. Supreme Commander's orders. Do you want to spend the rest of your tour explaining why this demolition was a military necessity, not a convenience?"

The officer stared the little man in the eye. He looked a soldier, but damned if he didn't act like a fool. Didn't this screwball know there was a war on? But he could see, just looking at James Rorimer, that it was no use. "Okay," the officer grumbled, signaling the bulldozer back from the wall, "but this is a helluva way to fight a war."

Rorimer thought about the abbey of St. Sauveur-le-Vicomte, where he had found American GIs feeding children out of their rations. The soldiers had been camped out in the rain, ordered out of the monk's warm, dry beds by a combat general who understood the historic and cultural value of the abbey. That general probably wasn't too popular with the troops, but Rorimer knew it was men like that who won the respect of the French.

"I disagree, sir," Rorimer said the the officer at Compte de Germingny. "I think this is exactly the way to fight a war."

I enjoyed this passage, which illustrates a common theme in the book. From the Army's point of view, no soldier's life should be put at risk just to preserve a famous work of art, and no advance should be halted because it endangers a historic building. But the other side of the coin is this: if we don't fight to preserve our culture and history, then what, exactly, are we fighting for? If the Allies had wantonly destroyed works of art out of convenience, could they really claim a moral superiority over Hitler, who destroyed artwork because he didn't like it?


Matt J said...

Fascinating book-I'll have to track that down . . .

SKS said...

Wow that looks really interesting. I liked how it was written like a novel instead of just repeating facts. Is the whole book like that? I'll probably have to look around for it too. Thanks!

mark kennedy said...

Glad I did it justice...yes, it's well written - it reads like a novel, feels like it could be a movie. I'm only about a quarter of the way into it, but so far it's good.

mark kennedy said...

For more information, visit

Bram said...

Thanks for the news — I've produced a comic that the MFAA figures into, but am perpetually working on one about them as well.

An additional incredible resource, mostly for the photography, is Rescuing Da Vinci by — as it turns out — the same author.

The whole idea that the government realized the importance of preserving and repatriating the looted art is a pretty amazing one.

Robert said...

A great story from WWII that we've never heard before.

I think the notion of preserving art could get more traction in a time when only the very educated had the keys to power. The aristocrats saw value in art. Now anyone who's shot a moose is a plausible national candidate. Saving art would be too elitist.

Our local NPR station interviewed the author a few weeks ago.

A caller asked about a movie. The author liked the idea but thought there might too many characters in the book to faithfully consolidate down to a screenplay.

You can hear the interview on this page:

You'll have to scroll down a bit.

Gabey Dimaranan said...

such interesting read, sir. it is indeed hard to balance things during war...but in the long run, people like Rorimer are the ones that keep us from regretting over things we cannot get back once we've destroyed them.

thank you for this post. it's very inspiring

Wes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wes said...

Here's a few video clips about The Monuments Men:

The Morning Joe Show video clip with Doris Kearns Goodwin discussing The Monuments Men

The Greatest Heroine of WWII, Rose Valland -

Passing the Torch: Touching video clip of Robert M. Edsel discussing his last conversation with Lane S. Faison. -

Robert M. Edsel discussing the amazing story of one of nine living Monuments Men, German born Harry Ettlinger. -

Jett said...

"If the Allies had wantonly destroyed works of art out of convenience, could they really claim a moral superiority over Hitler, who destroyed artwork because he didn't like it? "

Well, if that were the only note of comparison between what Hitler did vs the Allies, then it's easy to assume no moral superiority between the two parties. Destroying art is one of the least of the most egregious acts of the Third Reich.

Myself, I'm glad for both types...the general who wants to get the road built as quickly as possible and the other who takes the time to point out WHY the road is being built.
Room for both types.

It does sound like a fascinating book. I'll be certain to check it out.

MikeS said...

I believe there was a program back in November on Canadian Television called The Rape of Europa that spoke of the very same subject. I only managed to catch part of the second part though.

Here's a link to the documentary at amazon.

Most fascinating.

Kiki said...

The Rape of Europa was co-produced by Robert Edsel the author of The Monuments Men. Another great website to check out is The author also has a foundation in which he is carrying on the legacy of the Monuments Men (and women!)