Artistic Treasures Define Civilization / Heroes Rescue Cultural Heritage:
A film planned for release in the U.S., February 2014, will honor WWII special forces. Plans are underway for the construction of a Permanent Art Exhibition to honor the legacy of these same special forces. Ground breaking for the first permanent exhibit to honor these forces is planned for 2014/2015 at the National World War II Museum, Liberation Pavilion, in New Orleans, USA.
The film and permanent exhibit celebrate WWII corps made up of men and women who literally saved the world's finest art masterpieces from destruction – destruction at the hands of Nazi fanatics. These special forces became known as The Monuments Men.
Unlikely heroes of WWII, these forces were comprised of men and woman who were professors, artists, art historians, and middle aged family men. They fought on the front lines preserving our world's finest artworks and our cultural heritage, with courageous spirit that enabled “the best of humanity to defeat the worst”.
History of this extraordinary spirit began in 1943, when United States President Roosevelt founded a commission – the ‘American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas’ widely known as ‘The Roberts Commission’. This commission, its members, and the Allied Forces they empowered are heroes who are the subject of this article.
The Roberts Commission, was headed by vice chairman Dr. Francis Henry Taylor. Famed art historians, artists, and scholars joined as the commission began its work with a proposal that the “U.S. government support a corps of specialists to deal with the matter of protecting monuments and works of art”. – Under the auspices of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied Armies, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFFA) section of our fighting forces was founded. The corps, would work along side and within the ranks of the Allied Forces.
It was on the eve of the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943, that American General Dwight Eisenhower empowered these new soldiers to protect the worlds historic riches. They were a group of approximately 345 men and women from thirteen nations – museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects and educators. They didn’t carry machine guns or drive tanks.
They were men and women who led the greatest treasure hunt in world history. Their hunt was to locate and preserve human records of western civilization’s cultural heritage, "customs and practices of traditional and indigenous culture". These artists and scholars were to track billions of dollars of stolen art, including works by Michelangelo, DaVinci, Donatello, Titian, Caravaggio, Botticelli, Durer, Van Dyck, Murillo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso and others. The history of this treasure hunt and its outcome, is chilling.
Western European key cities played an important role in this hunt. In Berchtesgaden, Hamburg, Siegen Grasleben, Merkers, Nuremberg, Fussen (Neuschwanstein Castle), to name some locations, Monuments men found more than a thousand Nazi repositories/ hiding places of art. Here, in mines, caves and castles were repositories filled with precious art, sculpture, furniture, and religious artifacts, stolen by the Nazis from churches, synagogues, museums, and individuals throughout Europe. Also, hidden in the repositories were German and Austrian museum collections which Hitler and his thieves evacuated during the fighting, with the thought to preserve and protect them during the ensuing war, for themselves.
The Monuments Men were spurred onward by these findings, realizing the magnitude of the discoveries – particularly what these treasures mean to western world historic legacy. The heroes broadened their focus to locating and safeguarding movable works of art – removing what they could from respective museums and transporting them to Allied repositories for safe keeping. Western Allied Forces established Collection Points in Offenbach, Milan, Munich, Frankfurt, Moscow and Leningrad – to name some. These Collection Points served as central storage facilities for the safety of the movable objects and recovered works. – Imagine the evacuation of these works. For example, think of the treasures of the Louvre in Paris, such as the Greek 'Winged Victory of Samothrace'. This marble statue, 10' 9" tall, created in 190 BCE, was "rocked onto an inclined wooden ramp, held by two groups of men." It was rolled slowly down a long staircase, "stone wings trembling slightly", making its way to being crated for shipment. Ofttimes works were moved and subsequently relocated. For example, Da Vinci’s painting of the 'Mona Lisa’ was on the move for several years as the French were fearful of the painting's likely appeal to Hitler. It was moved by museum officials six times, before its return to Paris in 1945.
The Allies declared invalid, all Nazi transfers and takings of property – looting by the Nazis through plunder or forced sales. After the war millions of objects were sorted through to determine ownership and begin the process of restitution, i.e., returning works to original owners. As discussed in one of our earlier blogs, while many of the recovered artworks and artifacts were subsequently returned to rightful owners and/or their heirs; much art is still missing and some found art remains the subject of ongoing debates, even today.
After the war, legends of the Monuments Men continued. These men and woman have been responsible for building some of the greatest cultural and educational institutions throughout the world. They became directors and curators of world renowned museums including, in America, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, Toledo Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and others. Renowned institutions including the New York City Ballet, National Endowment for the Arts for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts owe their founding to the ideas of the Monuments Men.
In June 2007, the United States Congress honored the service of the Monuments Men, as heroes of civilization. Four Monuments Men officers were present for this occasion. The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, was founded that same year, as an organization dedicated to preserve the historic legacy of the men and women who served in the Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives section of the armies during World War II. In December 2012, the American Jewish Historical Society presented the Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award to the Monuments Men. This award is the highest honor presented to an individual or group which has demonstrated outstanding leadership and commitment to the American Jewish community. Honoring these heroes, additionally, is the Foundation’s receipt of the National Humanities Medal, America’s highest honor for work in the field of humanities.
History, art, travel, and adventure lovers will enjoy books written about these world events and their heroes. Two books are reviewed in brief videos, posted with this blog. (See the column to the side of this article.) Further, recommendations include the film, ‘The Rape of Europa’, which is a stunning account of the fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, based on the book of the same name. – The December 2013 George Clooney and Grant Heslov film entitled, ‘The Monuments Men’, is another.
We, as world citizens, owe incredible debt to The Monuments Men and Women. They tracked, found, hid, and protected billions of dollars of looted artworks, artifacts, public and privately owned treasures, and historic collections. They began the project of the treasures' restitution. These World War II heroes saved thousands of messages for western civilization. Precious and irreplaceable cultural treasures were preserved for World History, and Cultural Heritage was saved from destruction.
Note: Comments gleaned from Monuments Men Foundation writings and ‘The Monuments Men’ and ‘Rescuing Da Vinci’ .