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FOR A DECADE, Robert Edsel has avidly delved into how the Allied Armies’ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA) protected and preserved Europe’s cultural treasures during the war, then found, catalogued, and helped return five million objects the Nazis had plundered to their original owners. The results: three best-sellers (Saving Da Vinci, The Monuments Men, and Saving Italy); a 2006 documentary (The Rape of Europa); and the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art (awarded the 2007 National Humanities Medal). Edsel declares, “This is an epic story of the greatest treasure hunt in history.” George Clooney agrees: he co-wrote, directed, and produced The Monuments Men (in theaters this February) based on Edsel’s work, and stars in the feature film along with Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett.

How did the MFAA come to be?

In 1943, President Roosevelt appointed the Roberts Commission to promote the preservation of cultural properties in war zones, provided that didn’t interfere with operations. Eisenhower and some Allied planners agreed: they knew they needed to win the hearts and minds of the people they were liberating. To do that, you’ve got to show respect for their culture. MFAA was the result—less than 150 people with an enormous task.

Who became Monuments Men?

They were older—artists, professors, museum curators—and had families. They weren’t in great physical shape. They weren’t really soldiers. But they felt there was a job for them in this fight to save Western civilization: its great art was in danger of destruction and plunder on an unimaginable scale. They watched Paris fall and London burn. Those at colleges watched their classes shrink as the young men they taught left for the war. Some were wondering how to get into the fight.

Like George Stout, a conservator at Harvard’s Fogg Museum.

He was the main guy to initiate this group. His biggest fear was that we might win the battle and lose the war by destroying much of Europe’s heritage. He wanted a new kind of soldier, one who would save rather than destroy, by steering the war away from cultural targets.

What did that mean on the ground?

They went in as second lieutenants, so they didn’t have a lot of authority. One of their most miserable tasks was getting Allied troops to avoid billeting in cultural sites they considered out of bounds. Imagine young GIs trying to take shelter and get some shut-eye being told to get out of some French chateau or Italian church. They had to stabilize vulnerable works like Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, left exposed after bombs blew out the walls around it. They had to advise commanders: “Don’t knock that church over, it’s damaged but it’s reparable.” The engineers wanted rubble for roads, so that was a continuing battle with a lot of younger commanders.

How did they resolve standoffs?

Most had had positions of authority with few resources in museums and universities, and were used to working with kids. These kids were now their superior officers. They eventually won over most of them by reasoning with them like students: “Don’t you think it’s important we do blahblahblah?” After a few months of despair, they finally began to feel these guys were getting engaged. They’d come up and say things like, “Hey Lieutenant, find any more missing art?”

Why did Ike get involved?

In fall 1943, Eisenhower and George Marshall became very concerned about articles appearing at home about damage to cultural treasures. Naples was destroyed and looted; Allied troops were billeting in landmarks and churches. Ike’s first approach—having the Monuments Men work without any specific directive from him—wasn’t working. The Monuments Men were frustrated. Grumblings got back to Washington. Ike had his senior staff investigate; they told him the Monuments Men didn’t have enough authority. No one paid attention to the out-of-bounds signs they posted. They had no vehicles, no resources. Some were hitchhiking around.

What was Ike’s response?

On December 29, he issued a historic directive: It is the duty of commanders and all troops to respect cultural treasures so far as war allows. For Monuments Men, it was the first solid ground under their feet. It didn’t give them vast resources. But it gave them explicit support from on high.

How did they view the destruction of Monte Cassino?

Unfortunately, that was the first significant test of Ike’s order. The Monuments Men didn’t participate in the decision to bomb it. But afterward, they commented about it in letters and field reports. They largely agreed that, as one wrote, “The decision could hardly have been otherwise, with that building standing there in mocking invincibility over a killing field.”

That’s the question field commanders faced: is art worth a life?

That requires a nuanced answer. Two Monuments Men were killed in northern Europe protecting works of art. But as one put it, “No single work of art is worth a single American boy’s life.” On the other hand, the arts, as a principle like freedom or democracy, are part of what makes our civilization. Are they worth it? Absolutely. This was the cause the Monuments Men embraced in the fight against the Nazis.

Now they are the subject of a major Hollywood feature. How does the movie differ from your book?

A book can give you depth. In 400 pages, you really can get to know people, what makes them tick. My books have to respect the historical record: we’ve done staggering amounts of research in three or four languages. Filmmakers only have two hours, which flies by much faster than 400 pages. They’ve got several key charac ters and an epic story, but they’re expert storytellers, and can take license with the historical record.

What sort of license?

It’s not a documentary. It’s a feature film that’s entertaining but tells a serious story. What matters is that the audience learns the United States and Britain did some thing incredibly noble. They broke with history: instead of “to the victor belong the spoils,” they returned the spoils to the people they’d been stolen from. That’s an amazing story. But the filmmakers had to make choices about how to tell the story, such as compressing timelines, to have the maximum impact.

You hope the movie will help the Monuments Men Foundation. How?

Besides preserving the Monuments Men’s legacy, the foundation’s mission is to illuminate the path home for cultural treasures. I think the movie can change how we deal with cultural property during wartime. Think of all the souvenirs picked up by our soldiers; nobody wants to talk about that. Museum boards don’t want to talk about Nazi-looted art. After this movie, they’ll have to. We’re not interested in getting people in trouble. We’ve already helped recover hundreds of thousands of additional artworks and documents. The movie will broaden the reach of our message. Think of the adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” We didn’t have Monuments Men in Iraq, and look how much we lost.


Originally published in the February 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.