Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Monuments Men - Robert Edsel

"The reconstruction of Europe after World War II was one of the most complicated and comprehensive international efforts of modern times. The identity and infrastructure of the nations of Europe had to be rebuilt and the restitution of artwork was a vital component. To say the war was the greatest upheaval of cultural items in history would be a grave understatement. In the end, the Western Allies discovered more than one thousand repositories in southern Germany alone, containing millions of works of art and other cultural treasures, including church bells, stained glass, religious items, municipal records, manuscripts, books, libraries, wine, gold, diamonds, and even insect collections."

This book tells the little known story of the Monuments Men, experts in the art field tasked with locating, recovering, preserving and repatriating art looted by the Nazis. This small band of men faced an almost insurmountable task. The amount of irreplaceable art and artifacts taken by the Nazis was staggering and whole of the Monuments Men consisted of less than 400 people to look after the entire western half of Europe.

What I loved about this book was how these men came from ordinary backgrounds and accomplished extraordinary things. They were architects and scholars, working in museums and universities; some had little to no training in the preservation and transportation of precious artwork. The odds were against them from the start but it's their dedication and the fact that they were willing to put their lives at risk to save mankind's art history that make you root for them. They are the ultimate underdogs where they not only fought against the Nazis but against the clock. "What if we win the war, but lose the last five hundred years of our cultural history on our watch?" Much of the art was stored in mines to protect them from bombing but these places were not always suitable for storing fragile works of art for years at a time. They were prone to cave ins and flooding while the art was also susceptible to moisture and looters.

I really liked the chronological nature of the book. As the war unfolded, so did the search for the art. I was caught up as much as the Monuments Men were and I found myself filled with anxiety over certain works that were missing. I also got to follow various members of the group as they tramped around Europe, following troops, striking out on their own, stealing supplies, commandeering vehicles, men and the help of local civilians if needed.

There are also some great photos and maps to illustrate what Edsel is talking about. A main character crew list with photos and short bios is included in the beginning which puts faces to the men the reader follows. I wish the art photos hadn't been clustered together though but rather interspersed throughout. For example, whenever the Ghent Altarpiece was mentioned I had to keep flipping back to the photo to remind myself what it looked like as there's a wide variety of works mentioned and it's tough to keep everything straight.

Learning about these men and everything they went through, I shared in their triumphs and failures. I worried about them and feared for their safety. Edsel made me feel like I was there. It was exciting and nerve-wracking and hearbreaking, a great read! If you like art history and WWII then this book is for you.

Rating: 4/5

On a side note, George Clooney is apparently going to be co-writing, directing and starring in a movie based on this book. I look forward to this if it happens but I'm hesitant about whether it will be any good. Many war movies have romances shoved into the plot where they have no business being because "it will make the movie more commercially successful". I hope Clooney will stick to the source material though as the story is interesting enough without adding in some random peasant women for the MMS to moon over.

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