Monthly Archives: February 2014

Monuments Men II


By William Urban

Last week I wrote about the Monuments Men movie, which the history department and the history club attended together. I knew all the places featured in the movie — Normandy, Ghent, Bruges, Aachen, Singen, Neuschwanstein — which probably provoked a stronger reaction from me than it did most of our crowd, and I thought of how those places looked when I first saw them, twenty years after the war. They had been restored already, because Frenchmen, Belgians and Germans alike believed that art and architecture defined them as a civilized people. This was a partial answer to the question raised repeatedly in the movie, “Is it worth risking a life to save a painting?”
I also had mental images of pictures I had seen of the wartime damage at each place — total destruction in some cases. None, fortunately, in Neuschwanstein, which would have been almost impossibly expensive to rebuilt. It wasn’t a real palace, anyway, but more a country hideaway for a mentally disturbed king. The other places were piles of rubble — Americans had plenty of ammunition and did not hesitate to use it. It was like Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe cartoon, where a British Tommy comes up to the two exhausted GIs at Anzio and comments “You blokes leave an awfully messy battlefield.”
Nick Mainz, who had read the book, said that the movie left a lot out. I can believe it. I hadn’t read it, so I can only guess that the episode right at the end was elaborated on somewhat. The squad had raced to Aussee in Austria in an attempt to get to the mine where the art was hidden, knowing that the Red Army was on its way, too — a brief scene at the capture of Berlin had suggested that Soviet Monuments Men knew about it.
That may have been so, but the movie improvised the ending. The real German officer refused to obey Hitler’s direct orders to destroy the art, and local miners removed the 500 pound bombs placed there by the demolition teams. Thus the Monuments Men had the time to carefully remove the Michelangelo statue — my thoughts about this week’s Associated Press story was to wonder if my uncle had written the 1945 AP story, but checking his letters I learned that he had hurried back to England because his daughter was ill. Still, he would have liked the movie. He was the correspondent who followed Eisenhower everywhere until the war had ended — they were both Kansas boys and became first name friends. He stayed in Germany and covered the Nuremberg Trials. When people tried to tell him that the Holocaust never happened, he would blow up. In a similar fashion, some people just can’t believe that Hitler would order the art destroyed. But if you can kill millions of people, why not art? Especially, if Wagner’s Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods) is your favorite opera. And if many of the thefts were from Jews.
Americans were stealing stuff right and left, too, including some of the gold shown in the movie. That story I know he wrote, as well as the one about the theft of the jewels belonging to the duke of Hesse. He didn’t get much himself, except in playing gin rummy with other correspondents. At a penny a point he was making $1000 a year. The lesson is, I guess, that reporters have a lot of time on their hands, and some of them didn’t know how to count cards. I learned not to sort my hand, but to leave the cards in random order. He also knew baseball well — give him the name of a team and a year, and he could rattle off the starting line-up and all the batting averages. A memory like that was useful for a correspondent, or for the art historians among the Monuments Men.
As for the Red Army, it at least had a justification for looting German art — the Nazis had leveled city after city in Russia and stole everything that they couldn’t blow up. The foremost example was the amber room that Nazi Monuments Men had taken the palace at Tsarkoye Selo in 1941 and transported to Koenigsberg, where it was apparently burned when the palace was stormed by the Red Army in 1945. When the Soviets denied having it, westerners suspected this was something like their denying they had evidence that Hitler was dead, when they did. If you run a government on the basis of obvious lies, it is hard to persuade people you are telling the truth even when you are. Parts of what might be the amber room keep appearing, but most likely it was destroyed during the house to house fighting.
I know one story of destruction by design. A friend that Jackie and I met when the Iron Curtain was falling told us that his first job as an art historian was to draw sketches of stolen art hidden in a cave. The Communists had not revealed having captured it, so they were destroying it. He couldn’t get paintings past the guards, but he carried out several iron stove decorations in his bag of sketchbooks, saying they were scrap metal. He showed them to us — museum quality work, but much less valuable than a rare painting.
Lastly, we lived in Yugoslavia in 1986, the year the Communist government decided that the high school building would be better used as an art gallery. The collection acquired by Ante Topic Mimara was controversial, to say the least. The story I heard was that he had acquired a train-load of Nazi art that he shunted around Eastern Europe until he got to Zagreb, where Tito allowed him to hide it until all potential heirs were dead. He presumably saved himself from prosecution by timely donations to important officials, who then denied that the items in question existed at all. In the end, most were second-rate, but second-rate can still be pretty good.
This was why the woman in Paris was so reluctant to cooperate — she believed that everyone was out to steal the art. Even Matt Damon.
Yes, preserving a cultural heritage was important.

Review Atlas (February 27, 2014), 4.

Monument Men I


By William Urban

Reviews almost kept me from this movie, but I’m glad I went. Especially so because I liked the question that was constantly being put to the squad trying to recover the stolen Nazi art — Was it worth risking lives for art?
This is a variety of the question put by those who think there is nothing worth fighting for. Why risk a life for art? Why fight for a country? Yes, there is a difference, but a nation’s heritage is seen best in its art. Music can be played after a fire, drama can be performed and literature reprinted. But art is fragile, even art made of marble. That is why we honor Dolley Madison, the president’s wife in the War of 1812. Nothing was going well on the battlefield — and even the successful defense of Baltimore, where the National Anthem was composed, was successful only in that the British didn’t take the city, but the British sailed up the Potomac River and advanced on Washington. When warned that the redcoats were coming, Dolley Madison left her meal on the table, where the redcoats found it still warm. But she took the time to cut George Washington’s portrait out of the frame and save it from being burned. .The Executive Mansion was called the White House after it was painted to cover up the fire damage.
Certainly the 345 men and women who were Monuments Men thought it worth-while. They came from thirteen different nations, some from lands that had been looted to provide private art collections for Hitler, Goering, Rosenberg and other Nazi thugs who saw this as a cheap way to buy culture. That and listening to Wagner.
The movie was well-done, though critics have not praised it highly — they suggested that George Clooney couldn’t decide whether it was to be a serious film or a comedy, or if he was just another actor who should have majored in history before starting to write a script. The only point that bothered me was that the squad was “tasked with” this duty. The practice of making a noun (task) into a verb was not common until recent decades. In the 1940s they would have been “assigned the task.”
The movie brought many memories to mind. First of all of past colleagues who had talked to the students in my World War II classes about their experiences in the European theater — John Ketterer, Bob Buchholz, and Woody Ball. Carl Waring, a Wallace Hall janitor I spoke to daily for many years, drove a jeep ahead of Patton’s advance. He had incredible adventures right at the end of the war as the tank column roared into Germany and he was pushing to stay ahead. Once running into a road block put up by Hitler Jugend, he got out, rounded up some old men who then marched in parade step to the kids and told them the war was over. Of course, there were some youthful fanatics who insisted on fighting, so they got killed. When mothers complained, the commander got Carl back to France in a hurry. Mike McNall, his boss at Monmouth College, remembers that story, too.
My dissertation advisor, Archie Lewis, earned the Croix de Guerre for driving ahead of the American advance in France to ask if there were any snipers in the church towers. This was important, I understood, because surveyors used the tips of church steeples to measure property boundaries. He would ask villagers to check, then presumably see if they could get the snipers out. Our tank crews were of the opinion that their lives were more important than steeples, and they were in a hurry.
Fortunately, much of the most endangered art was put into safe-keeping at the onset of the war. Entire churches were stripped of their medieval windows and paintings, art galleries were emptied, and facades were covered with protective panels. The “phony war” of September 1939 to May of 1940 gave curators plenty of time, but also made politicians think that it was a waste of time and money.
The one country that took almost no precautions was Nazi Germany. Hitler called such fears “defeatism” and forbade any action that might lead civilians to doubt that he could prevent the allies from bombing German cities. As a result, once American bombers hit cities by day and British bombers raided by night, the cultural losses were severe. There was no such thing as “precision” bombing. First of all, German weather means lots of clouds and rain, then there was smoke from the first wave of bombers. Secondly, Germans did everything they could to throw off radio direction signals that navigators relied on to find the targets. Thirdly, German fighters disrupted formations, attacking from the front so fast that nose gunners couldn’t see the tiny dots coming until too late; and radar could not tell friend from foe at better than 95% accuracy, which would have had Americans shooting down a lot of their own aircraft. Last, since high-flying 8th Air Force bombers could only get 20% of their bombs within 1000 feet of the target, the best tactic was to have a mass of bombers drop all their bombs at once. Some were sure to hit.
Where I studied, in Hamburg, there had been three raids of more than 700 aircraft. The third night carpet bombing completely missed the target, but plastered the area hit by the first raid. The fire storm ate up the oxygen, suffocating everyone in the underground shelters. 42,000 people died. All the churches were destroyed. The downtown was gone.
Berlin was a wreck, too, made worse by the desperate fighting when the Red Army stormed the city defenses. 80,000 Russians died, 100,000 Germans. Then the city was divided into occupation zones the Russians getting most of the museums. Not surprisingly, it was Soviet Monuments Men who had the task of recovering stolen art and deciding where it would go.
Least cooperative were the Swiss, who had decided that whatever art was not claimed by the owners or their heirs would belong to Swiss bankers.
As for the Jews, who had a reasonable claim to some very important pictures, there has been some recent progress. Five Gustav Klimt paintings in Austria were restored to heirs in 2006, and two more are in Vienna law courts right now. Americans are discovering that some of the mementoes their grandfathers brought home were technically stolen property.

Review Atlas (Feb 20, 2014), 4

No Global Starvation, Part Two


By William Urban

As noted last week, there are no global food shortages except in areas of war, insurrections and prolonged droughts or floods. Even China, where artificial famines caused by government programs once killed millions, the nation feeds itself. Today’s Communist rulers have generally recognized that individual farmers are more productive than state enterprises or communes, but for decades it was more important that the state take most of the harvest to support industrial development; in those years life was hard. The American equivalent of this is to protect the snail darter.
We have long known that modifying our agricultural methods has both good and bad aspects. Insecticides raise production significantly. Last summer I lost all but one plum — picked early— of what promised to be a bumper crop because I did not want to spray for the Japanese beetles. I have a neighbor who raises bees, and I thought that was a good reason to take a chance on the bugs; I also miss the fireflies that were once so plentiful. Not spraying may still have been the right choice, because bees are almost an endangered species.
The downside to insecticides is that they are effective only until the bugs evolve to resist the poisons; and fertilizers are expensive and easily overused. Changes in field management have consequences — abandoning deep plowing for minimum till allows harmful insects to survive winter freezes, but there is less erosion and all the problems that come from having the best soil washed into the rivers and eventually into the sea. Deforestation produces erosion, which is often made worse by raising goats on the denuded lands, because goats eat everything that could hold what soil remains. I’ve read that the first step toward restoring arid lands in Italy and North Africa is to eat the goats.
One promising means of breaking this cycle is genetic engineering. If, for example, scientists can modify corn so that its roots produce nitrogen as soy beans do, farmers could reduce the use of fertilizer. If corn stalks could be made less tasty to pests, farmers could use less insecticide. However, there are two major obstacles to overcome. Both are in public perception.
First, the public has been taught by decades of horror films to mistrust scientists, so that today the term Frankenfood is understood by almost everyone to represent the danger that modified genes would get loose, changing the genetic composition of other plants and even animals. There are good reasons for taking this seriously. The overuse of antibiotics may have speeded the evolution of dangerous bacteria that threaten everyone’s health. Also, the unwise disposition of hormones (as in flushing birth control pills down the toilet) may have contributed to the increasingly early sexual maturation of females and even the global epidemic of obesity. Note the use of “may” here. It could be diet, it could be our use of electric lights to stay up late, or it could be not having enough hard physical work. We don’t know enough except to say that something is going on. In short, are the returns worth the risks?
The public reaction to such scares is, alas, often as irrational as the belief in UFOs or global warming flooding us tomorrow. Not too many years ago the fear was that nuclear power station accidents would change our DNA, creating monsters where it did not kill everyone outright. It was wise to stop above-ground testing of nuclear weapons, but the concern evolved into a fear of irradiating food. No serious scientist believes that irradiating meat does anything beyond killing bacteria, but the public is afraid of anything to do with radiation except taking an occasional x-ray. Hence, we do almost no irradiation of food products despite the potential health benefits.
Sustainable agriculture is the flip side of commercial agriculture in that it produces too little food to sustain farmers .The Sustainability movement is strong and amazingly diverse. It is a close cousin of Environmentalism, Eat Locally, Recycling, and Community Gardens. But it is nothing new, and not altogether bad. It appeared in America before the Civil War, often in the form of religious groups (most prominently, the Latter Day Saints and the Amish), secular groups (Oneida, New Harmony, and Walden), and utopian socialists (the Fourier settlement in Nauvoo). Sixty years ago there was the Catholic Renaissance and its more secular cousin, the Rural Living Movement, both of which emphasized breaking with the modern world in favor of simple living.
Vegetarianism has a long history, based partly on a desire to have more a healthy diet, partly on distaste for killing animals, partly on political fashion that included a rejection of contemporary society. Vegan eating habits are more recent in the West, but were common among small sects in India. Humans have long associated hunting and the raising of animals with meat with masculinity and the military virtues of courage, strength and persistence, so vegetarians should be pacifists. Awkwardly, Hitler was a vegetarian. Nevertheless, progressives were eager to find some way to move toward the future society of cooperation and sharing. Bees, not wolves and deer, were the proper models for human beings.
It was also important that family farms were part of a competitive capitalist culture that had all the wrong values. So co-ops became popular in the Sixties and still remain so in the form of “fair trade” products such as coffee; feminists often praise third-world women’s cooperatives. Natural gas was the cure-all for our energy problems until it turned out we had lots of it. Now the push is for natural energy — wind and solar, but not the long-established use of make electricity. Alternatively, farmers — now wearing the white hats — can make ethanol from corn and other bio-fuels from a variety of we thought were useless plants.
Ethanol brings us right back to food. It allows us to import less oil, and it is somewhat cleaner than gasoline. Western Illinois and Iowa benefit, but tortillas become more expensive in Mexico. Prices go up for all food products with ingredients coming from corn.
This shouldn’t make us uncomfortable. It is not like we are taking food out of poor people’s mouths.
Review Atlas (Feb 13, 2014), 4.

Urban: No Global Starvation


By William Urban

We hear periodically that starvation is a world problem. Yes, there are places where people are dying, and more where hunger persists. The difference between starvation and hunger is significant, though alarmists seemingly seldom understand why. Starvation has an immediate impact — death. Hunger is long term — people still have enough strength to protest, to join in food riots.

However, the scenes of panic we associate with Indiana Jones movies (set in Asia in the 1930s) have vanished from India and China, and it’s hard to remember if any American mothers have ever formed mobs, brandishing empty food dishes and yelling that their children are dying. Black Friday sales day yes, but not in front of grocery stores.

There are malnourished Americans, usually because of a poor diet that reflects poor education, poverty, alcohol, drug use or just bad habits. We sometimes face hard choices — either diet drinks that are unhealthy or regular soft drinks that make you fat, or the local water. People with no fat on their bones are either mentally diseased homeless people who live under bridges rather than go to shelters or models in New Yorker ads. Obese people have been making poor nutrition choices, too — so much so that being overweight is a greater health problem than being too thin. Although we are told that “you can’t be too rich or too thin,” my own take, informed by the tabloid press, is that those ultra-thin people aren’t all that happy. We all know that it’s not easy to take off the pounds that holidays put on us, but the people who get back to normal by moderate diet and moderate exercise are happier than those who resort to extreme tactics.

The matter of being unhealthily fat is not simple. The charts are only moderately helpful, and anyone being weighed at a doctor’s office where they don’t care if you have ten pounds of clothing on can legitimate suspect that the nurses are looking for folks who have put on thirty or forty pounds since their last visit. There are multiple reasons for obesity, some of which we do not understand well. What is clear is that the world is producing enough food for everybody, and providing it in greater variety and abundance than at any time in human history.

We find shortages of food mainly in war-torn regions or where floods or droughts have occurred, or where — as in the Irish potato famine — crops have been hit by disease. Ireland had wheat, but grain farmers preferred to export it to England than give it to people who had no money. Crop failures usually result from cyclical patterns of weather — a hot decade in the Great Plains combined with plowing fields that should have been left as pasture produced the Dust Bowl of the Thirties.

My grandmother said that she didn’t need to travel. She could just sit on the porch and watch the states blow by. She could laugh because the next decade brought more rain and by the time the hot cycle returned when I was young, farmers (and the state and federal governments) had learned how to avoid a recurrence. Changing crops was one answer, putting more land in pasture was another, and small farmers just moving to the cities was yet another.

Short term natural disasters are not a problem in well-organized states. Even in Illinois, where we had little rain for much of the past summer, the crops were good. Long term problems, like the Sahel in Africa may be impossible to solve. Only the Israelis have been able to make the deserts bloom, and the Arabs will not forgive them for doing that (and for many other reasons, including for existing). Most regions remain habitable if people adapt and governments are responsive.

My example is the aforementioned Great Plains, which switched from raising corn to wheat. Corn needs water in the summer. Cycles of wet and dry means that some years there simply isn’t enough rain in Central Kansas for corn. Wheat, in contrast, needs moisture in the fall and spring, then is harvested in June and July, just before the summer dry spell sets in. Today Kansas farmers don’t plow until fall, but it wasn’t always that way. I remember the clouds of smoke from burning stubble, a practice now abandoned.

Forty years ago alarmists predicted that population growth would lead to massive starvation, the breakdown of law and order, and even the closing of universities (which would cause the alarmists to lose their jobs). Even in Monmouth people who had three children were chided for not caring about the future, while childless couples flaunted their superior morality.

So what happened? Why no massive starvation? Why was there a collapse in American births so great that most communities have had to consolidate schools? Why do we need immigrants to keep the economy going?

White and Black pregnancy rates have fallen below what is needed to replace those who die, and many pregnancies are unmarried teenagers who did not plan the blessed event. Even there the number is going down. Hispanic immigrants still have three and four children, but the second generation is taking up the voluntary two child policy.

Europe is below replacement, too, and Japan, too. Aging populations make people wonder who will pay the taxes needed for health, education, and welfare. Those are real problems, not starvation.

World food production has increased. First there was the Green Revolution that taught Asians and Africans how to use better seeds, then to apply fertilizer and insecticides. Experimentation produced better seeds and reduced the number of bulls that ranchers summarized as all horns and balls. More recently we have genetic engineering, which has been so successful that alarmists call it dangerous — perhaps even making people infertile. Lastly, the ability to move foodstuffs around, and the willingness of governments to give emergency aid, has practically put the traditional private charities out of business. The problem now is that deliveries of free food to troubled areas are ruining local farmers, so that when times become better, the food crisis will remain.

Ironic that a natural food shortage will be replaced by an artificial one. That’s the law of unintended consequences, and another reason not to jump blindly into radical solutions for any problem, especially not problems which appeal more to our emotions than our brains.

Review Atlas (Feb 6, 2014), 4.