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The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men

On saving European art from the Nazis and The Monuments Men

by Claudia Moscovici

Winston Churchill is well known for a famous quote (among many others) about the importance of art to civilization. When asked if he planned to cut out art funding to channel more money into the war effort, he responded with a rhetorical question: “Then what are we fighting for?” Indeed, one of the battles against Hitler and the Nazi regime during WWII was over art. Since Hitler’s men pillaged museums and private collections and hid the artworks throughout Europe, the Allies were obliged to look for it and try to retrieve it. This effort was spearheaded, however, not by Winston Churchill, but by Franklin D. Roosevelt.


FDR had long supported the arts as an important part of the New Deal projects. The Federal Art Project (FAP) became the visual art component of the New Deal Works Progress (active between August 29, 1935 and June 30, 1943), whose goal was to revive the U.S. economy and overcome the effects of the Great Depression. The FAP encouraged public art of all kinds: paintings, murals and sculptures. It sought to bring art, once again, to the foreground in the country. Unlike Hitler, who repudiated modernism, Roosevelt maintained a pluralist stance, encouraging both representational and abstract art works. FAP displayed, for instance, the works of Jackson Pollock long before abstraction became a mainstream movement during the 1950’s, establishing New York City rather than Paris as the new epicenter of the art world.

Hitler, too, had his own art program and ambitions. A frustrated artist who was denied admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, he nonetheless pursued his artistic dreams in his own way. Hitler wanted to create the world’s largest and best art museum, called the Führermuseum. During WWII, he pillaged many of Europe’s best museums in the countries he conquered, as well as private collections owned by Jews and other people he deported and sent to concentration camps. The art he stole and the art he destroyed reflected his particular taste as well as his intolerance to the tastes of others. Unlike FDR, who embraced all kinds of art, Hitler launched a culture war against modern art, which he viewed as “degenerate”.  He ordered that many of the masterpieces of Cubism, Futurism and Dadaism, including works by Pablo Picasso, modernism’s most notable figure, be systematically destroyed. Launching a propaganda campaign against modern art, Joseph Goebbels called such art “garbage”. On March 20, 1939, Hitler ordered the Berlin Fire Department to burn over a thousand paintings and sculptures and over 3000 watercolors, drawings and prints of modern art.

While repudiating modern art, the Nazis coveted the masterpieces of past centuries. Pillaging conquered and occupied countries, they looted their museums and private collections. Then they surreptitiously shipped and hid the artworks in caves and private houses throughout Europe. Hitler’s plan was to eventually collect most of these works in the Führermuseum, which was to be built in the town of Linz, Austria, where he spent most of his youth and which became a cultural center of the Third Reich.

In 1940, Hermann Göring, known for his ostentatious wealth, greed and pretentiousness, ordered the Nazis to seize Jewish art collections (including the collections of very wealthy, notable families such as Rothschilds, the Rosenbergs and the Goudstikkers) and collect it at the Musée Jeu de Paume in Paris before sending it to Germany. This operation was organized by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (or ERR, the Reischsleiter Rosenberg Institute for Occupied Territories, led by Alfred Rosenberg), which dealt with the patrimony of countries under German control. Göring placed Bruno Lohse in charge of Musée Jeu de Paume, its curators and staff. He supervised the shipping of artifacts to secret places in Belgium and Germany. Between 1940 and 1942, Göring traveled to Paris numerous times to oversee the shipment of art and artifacts. These looting operations, which by 1945 included hundreds of thousands of works of art, spread to other countries around the world, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia and North Africa.

The allies took note of the plunder of European art by Nazi Germany and established their own agency, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) organization, to protect artwork from destruction by bombing and retrieve the stolen art objects. A recent movie called The Monuments Men (February, 2014), directed by George Clooney, with an all-star cast which includes Clooney himself, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett, follows the efforts of several art connoisseurs—museum directors, curators, art historians and architects—to enter European combat zones during WWII and reclaim the artworks and private collections stolen by the Nazis. This entertaining and informative film is, in turn, based on Robert M. Edsel’s best-seller, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (Center Street, New York, 2010).

Although The Monuments Men received mixed critical reviews, I think this  movie deserves a lot of credit for reminding us of Churchill’s wise words about the value of art: if we don’t save art and culture, perhaps the greatest achievements of our civilizations, then, indeed, “what are we fighting for?” Today art is not threatened by war as much as by a growing public indifference to it. It seems that nowadays art and literature risk being replaced with entertainment. Artists, critics, movie producers, actors thus face another challenge: making art and culture visible and relevant again to the general public. After all, to paraphrase Churchill—with a difference–what are we living for?

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com