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The art rescuers

Jochen Kürten / lbhNovember 11, 2013

They were the art detectives of World War II. Monuments Men tracked down Nazi looted art and fought to preserve European culture. Now George Clooney has even filmed a Hollywood movie about the legends.

A black and white photo shot in May 1945 with Monuments Men George Stout (left), Walker Hancock (center right), and Steven Kovalyak (right) during the excavation of Bernterode. The soldier standing between Stout and Hancock is a Sgt. Travese. Photo: Walker Hancock Collection
Image: Walker Hancock Collection

Even Hildebrand Gurlitt faced questioning from the Monuments Men. The art dealer, whose art treasures were willed to his son and were recently found in a Munich apartment, was no stranger to the art detectives. In fact, Gurlitt was one of the Nazis' best-known art dealers. At the time, however, he wasn't interviewed about Nazi-classified, "degenerate art," but rather about paintings and sculptures from France which had found their way into the German's collection.

Timely topic

Just who were the Monuments Men and what exactly did they do? Robert M. Edsel tells the story in his book, "Monuments Men Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History," published in 2009 in the US and in Germany this year. For historians and art experts, the story of the Monuments Men is well-known. But only since the release of the amateur historian's non-fiction book has the story resonated with a larger audience. Adding to the story's appeal, Hollywood star George Clooney bought the movie rights and filmed a movie about it this past summer in Germany. The film is set to premiere at the Berlinale international film festival in February next year.

The case of Hildebrand Gurlitt has rekindled public interest in the Monuments Men story because it's not only a historical tale but an ongoing drama. Paintings and sculptures are always plundered during times of war, Robert M. Edsel writes, drawing parallels between incidents in the Second World War and the Iraq War in 2003.

A black and white photo from 1945 with Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as they inspect the German museum treasures stored in the Merkers mine. Photo: "Walker Hancock Collection"
US General Eisenhower (right) inspects some looted art findsImage: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

Eisenhower's idea

Given the suffering of civilians, women and children, the destruction of material goods may appear secondary to many people. However, for soldier George Stout, head of the Monuments Men, underscored the urgency.

"What if we win the war but lose the last 500 years of our cultural history?" Stout asked as he began his mission in 1944. American commander Dwight. D. Eisenhauer also addressed this question when making the preservation of European cultural heritage one of his aims during the war.

When Allied troops in Italy and Normandy began pushing back the Germans, a special unit of Monuments Men were embedded amongst the 100,000 Allied troops. The small group had only one task: to protect the threatened cultural heritage and secure the looted art. In their retreat from the frontlines, Nazis often employed the "scorched earth" tactic, burning everything in their wake, and undermining the value of all cultural and historical monuments. Allied bombings and pillaging soldiers also presented a danger to the European cultural treasures.

Black and white photo from 1945 in which Monuments Man Walker Hancock (front left, in U.S. Army helmet) assisted residents of the town of La Gleize with the relocation of the Madonna of La Gleize to a more secure site. Photo: Walker Hancock Collection
Monuments Men assisted residents of the Belgian town of La Gleize with the relocation of the Madonna of La Gleize to a more secure siteImage: Walker Hancock Collection

Museum professionals in uniform

On top of the challenges of combat, Monuments Men dealt with the robbery of hundreds of thousands of paintings and sculptures from museums, churches and private collections resulting from the National Socialists' greed. The so-called Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section was comprised of 350 women and men. They were mainly Americans, as well as a few Brits, French and German expatriates. Most of them had an art education and were museum professionals, conservators, architects or archivists.

Their work was tedious. And in the chaos of war, it was life-threatening.

Initially, the unit sought mainly the registration of monuments. After the Nazis had withdrawn, Allied soldiers did not concentrate on the elements of art and culture. In contrast, the Monuments Men assumed this role - sometimes using tricks to their advantage. If their barrier tapes with the inscription, "Monument - no trespassing" didn't work they would switch to signs reading "Caution, mines!" That worked. Many churches and palaces, mostly in northern France, but also in Belgium and Holland, were rescued from destruction in this way.

Black and white photo from 1945 as the removal of priceless works of art from the salt mine at Alt Aussee posed problems for Monuments Man George Stout unlike any ever contemplated. Stout constructed a pulley to lift Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna onto the salt cart to begin its long trip home to Belgium. Photo: National Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Monuments Man George Stout constructed a pulley to lift Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna out of a salt mine in Austria before loading it onto a salt cart for its long trip home to BelgiumImage: National Gallery, Washington, D.C., Gallery Archives

Treasures in mines and caves

During the last days of their occupation, the Germans simply raged, wrote George Stout in August 1944 in a letter to his wife: "From here, they no longer appear as an innocent people with criminal leaders. They all appear to be criminals."

Stout's sentiment became particularly evident as the Monuments Men arrived in the last weeks of the war to find numerous depots, where the Nazis had hoarded and hidden stolen art - mostly in salt mines and abandoned coal mines, but also in palaces and castles. The art-obsessed Nazi leaders had buried paintings from Leonardo da Vinci und Vermeer, Rembrandt and Michelangelo. Many European cultural treasures of inestimable value were discovered beneath the earth.

The depots were tracked down by the Monuments Men, and the artworks were hoisted from hiding and brought to a central collection point. From there, they were delivered to museums following the war. For the first few years, there was little concern that the paintings and sculptures had not been delivered to their original - mostly Jewish - owners. Only decades later, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, were efforts made to return works of art to their true owners or their descendants.

Chatting at a bar, Matt Damon and George Clooney play Monuments Men in the upcoming film. Photo: 2013 Twentieth Century Fox
Matt Damon and George Clooney play Monuments Men on the silver screenImage: 2013 Twentieth Century Fox

The case of Hildenbrand Gurlitt

The story Robert M. Edsel tells in his book, and the one George Clooney recently filmed in Germany, may have taken place decades ago. But it is a topic that continues to resurface in modern Germany - like the case of Hildenbrand Gurlitt. During interrogations by the Monuments Men directly following the war, Gurlitt was asked about the origin of some 200 paintings that stemmed from French ownership. He reported that he had legally acquired the works between 1942 and 1944 from a French art dealer in Paris. Perhaps this statement from the past will now be evaluated for its truthfulness as prosecutors proceed with present the investigation.

Matt Damon as a Monuments Men and Cate Blanchett as a French art historian in the upcoming Monuments Men film. Photo: 2013 Twentieth Century Fox
Matt Damon as a Monuments Men and Cate Blanchett as a French art historian in the upcoming filmImage: 2013 Twentieth Century Fox

For more information: Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter): Monuments Men Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, 496 pages, ISBN 1448183154.