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.

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