The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel

Sep 16, 2016

If anyone wants to know what I listened to over the summer, well, here it is. One book. It's pitiful. And embarrassing. I started it in June and finally finished it a couple of weeks ago.

Some of you are probably thinking, That bad, huh? I guess I can skip that one. But wait! Don't judge too quickly. This had absolutely nothing to do with the book itself. It could have been the most exciting, nail-biting thriller, and it still would have taken me that long because, it turns out, listening and summer just don't go together for me. Or at least, they didn't this summer. Having my four kids around all day meant that there was rarely a quiet time to listen. And when I'm listening to a book, I do require quiet. I hate missing important information, and it's so frustrating to start it up, get back into it, only to have to pause it thirty seconds later (and then back it up fifteen seconds) because someone started talking to me. So, usually, I just didn't even try. And when you're only listening to about an hour per week, a 14-hour book takes a long time.

The reason I picked up this book in the first place was because of our Europe trip. I wanted to read something that would feature some of the places we were going to visit. My goal was to have it done before we went on the trip, but by the time we left, I was only halfway through (see above comment on summer and listening). As it turned out though, I think this may have been the perfect way to read it. Since I had read half of it, it really did make our trip more meaningful. But when we came home and I finished it, it made the book more meaningful. The cities and places had become real to me, and I felt so connected with certain parts of the story. I'll share some specific examples in a minute.

But first, a little about the Monuments Men themselves. In 1944, a special art division was created in the Allied army to locate and recover all of the art that had been damaged, looted, or stolen by the Germans during the last eight or nine years (interestingly, there had never been such a group created before, nor has there been one since). Headed by George Stout, the division was manned by only a handful of men and women with extremely limited supplies and resources. Here's a small taste of what they were up against:
"The museum directors didn't understand the military. The military still wasn't confident this was a good idea. The Monuments Men were only advisors. They couldn't force any officer of any rank to act. They were allowed freedom of movement, but they would have no vehicles, no offices, no support staff, and no backup plan. The army had given them a boat but not the motor. The men in the field, George Stout could already see, were going to have to row, and he had a strong suspicion they would be rowing against the tide. But once you're on the water, he knew, a schooner might just pass. Just get us over there, Stout thought, still not convinced the operation wasn't about to collapse. Just give us a chance."
But in spite of this lack of support and almost no outside direction, the Monuments Men were able to recover the largest art depositories during the war at Althaussee (Hitler's personal collection), the Merkers mine, and Neuschwanstein castle. The amount of art they found was staggering: thousands upon thousands of pieces, from small paintings that belonged in personal collections to huge treasures, like the Ghent altarpiece. I'm not exaggerating when I say that finding these depositories and then transporting everything back to its rightful owners was like something straight out of a crime novel.

On the third day of our trip, on our way to Paris, we stopped off in Bruges, Belgium. It was the most picturesque little village, cut through by shimmery canals and stone bridges and watched over by an imposing Medieval spire. We went on a boat ride, ate some Belgian waffles, and were about to get in the car and be on our way when we realized that Michelangelo's sculpture of the Madonna and Child was displayed in The Church of Our Lady, not more than a few blocks away from where we were then standing.

The Bruges Madonna has an incredible history. It was sandwiched between a couple of mattresses  and smuggled out of Belgium in 1944 by the Germans. Several months later, monuments men Robert Posy and Lincoln Kirstein found it hundreds of feet below ground at Althaussee. When we walked into the quiet church and saw it safely encased in glass, I'd read the first half of the story, but I hadn't gotten to the second half. It was one of those things where, when you see it, you know you are looking at a masterpiece. No one has to tell you. When we got back home and I finally got to hear the rest of the story about how it made it back to its home in The Church of Our Lady, I could picture Mary's tranquil face and the soft drapery of her garment. The story had come to life for me because I'd been in the same room as that priceless sculpture.

When I was recapping the highlights from our trip, I neglected to mention one of the places we visited in Germany because, for me, it was not a highlight.  It was the Buchenwald concentration camp. Even seventy years later, with the inmates replaced by tourists and all of the barracks gone, it was a dark and dismal place. I felt the weight of it, heavy upon me, as we walked over the grounds and through the buildings. The sadness and misery and heartache of so many thousands still pervades every corner of that place. At the time, it hurt so much to be there that I wished we hadn't gone.

But then, a few weeks later, I was so surprised when I was listening to this book and Robert Posy visited Buchenwald the day after it was liberated. Even though I did not see the horrors he witnessed as he walked through the camp (can you even imagine...), since I had been there, I had the tiniest bit of empathy for what he must have been feeling. And without that experience, I would have passed over that section without much thought. In fact, when I told Mike that Buchenwald was in The Monuments Men, he was incredulous. He had read the book a couple of years ago, but not having that stark and vivid memory in his brain yet, the name Buchenwald didn't actually mean much. For the first time since we'd returned home, I'd found a reason to be grateful we'd gone there (although I felt a kinship with two of the monuments men, Lincoln Kerstein and Walter Hancock, who refused to go in because they didn't want the things they were sure to see there to haunt them for the rest of their lives).

Even places that I hadn't actually seen felt more real simply because I'd seen places like them or been near to them. Now that we're home, there are really only two places I deeply regret not having enough time to see: Mont Saint Michel (an abbey located on an island near Normandy, France--one of the tasks of the monuments men was to restore historic buildings and landmarks, as well as art) and Neuschwanstein castle (completed in 1886 and the hiding place of one of the largest art depositories during the war). I think I regret these oversights so much because we were so close to seeing both of them. They were both on our list of places we wanted to go, but they were both out of the way enough that we just didn't have time for them. If we ever go back, they will be top priorities.

But that's enough about our trip. The point is that, for me, this book did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was to give added meaning and significance to the places we saw on our trip.

One thing I hadn't expected from this book was just how much it deepened my appreciation for art. I would say that up until I read this book, my feelings toward art were, in general, pretty lukewarm. I would look at a famous piece of art and think, What is so great about this? Why does anyone care?

But three things helped change my mind this summer. First, I checked out the book, Art Fraud Detective for Aaron and Maxwell and helped them work through it. Second, Mike and I finished watching the last couple seasons of White Collar. And finally, I listened to this book. And even though I won't say that I understand, or even like, classical or contemporary art any more than I did, I definitely appreciate it more and have a desire to learn more about it. So that's a step in a new direction.

Many of you are probably aware that a film based on the experiences of the Monuments Men was released in 2014. Since I hadn't finished the book by the time we left on our trip, Mike and I decided to watch the movie on the flight over. After we were about forty minutes into it, we turned to each other and asked, "Do you want to finish this?" and neither of us did. It was such a disappointment. All of the names of the key players had been changed, and everything had been dramatized in a way that was not true to the real story. I couldn't help thinking, This story had it all! Excitement, danger, drama, heroism. Why on earth would they have changed it? Feel free to disagree with me, but the book (and the real story) is far superior to what Hollywood tried to do with it.

This review has gone on way too long (but, you see, I've been saving up my thoughts on it all summer!), so I'll wrap it up with one of my favorite stories that really captures the type of people these monuments men were: hardworking, honest, humble, and just so good.

The mine at Merkers was more than just an art depository: it was a literal Nazi treasure trove. There were rooms completely filled with gold bars and jewels and money. Robert Posy was one of the men on the job, and he said,
"At the gold mine, they filled my helmet with twenty dollar American gold pieces and said I could have it," he wrote Alice on April 20th, a few days after emerging from the mine. "I couldn't lift it off the ground. It contained thirty-five thousand dollars, so we poured it back in the sacks and left it. I seem to have absolutely no greed for money, for I felt no thrill at seeing so much of the stuff. Your poem means more to me."
These men (and women) weren't hoping to get rich from the runoff of treasures. Most of them weren't even tempted by it. All of their work and dedication was because they loved their country, they had a deep appreciation for art, and they valued the impact art has on a country's culture and history. 

This is another book I wouldn't mind having in my home when my boys are teenagers. The writing isn't quite as fast-paced or captivating as some of the other similar books I've already added (The Boys in the Boat, Endurance, etc.), but the story is amazing, and you just can't beat a real-life treasure hunt like this one. You just can't.

Thoughts on this book? The movie? Or just the melding of past and present in general?


  1. I haven't read the book, but I did see the documentary The Rape of Europa a few years ago, which covers the Nazi pillage of art in general, and gives a section to the Monuments Men. It's completely fascinating, and I highly recommend the documentary. We did see the Hollywood Monuments Men movie, and even without having read the book and comparing only to what I knew from the documentary, it was disappointing. (For another movie that deals with stolen Nazi art, but not the Monuments Men, I do recommend Woman in Gold, it's pretty interesting).

    1. I'm really glad you brought up a couple of other film alternatives. I haven't heard of either of these, but it's such an amazing story that it seemed like it was just begging to be told on the screen, so I'm not surprised (even if they're not directly about the Monuments Men). (I'm also glad to hear that it wasn't just because I'd read the book that I found The Monuments Men movie super disappointing.)

  2. I love that you got to connect personally with the book because of your travels. Not having that context, I just didn't enjoy this one, though I really wanted to. It was a great story, but I felt like it wasn't a great book. I agree about the movie--I didn't care for it either.

    1. Carrie--you've surprised me again! I really would have thought this book would be one that you would have thoroughly enjoyed. It definitely helped that I was able to put the events in the book into a more personal context, but I actually was enjoying the book quite a bit even before we got to Europe. Maybe it helped that I listened to the audio?


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