Sunday, July 7, 2013

Book Review: "The Monuments Men" by Robert M. Edsel

I seem to have a knack for stumbling upon books about historical events that are more like something out of a movie.  The Monuments Men* features a collection of American GI's leading French slave-laborers in the process of rescuing priceless works of art from mines that are wired with explosives.  Electricity going out. Russians racing forward on the Eastern Front. The war is still raging all around them, as they scramble to locate and rescue the hundreds of thousands of works of art and other property stolen by the Nazis from museums and homes throughout western Europe.

Steven Spielberg would have a big time with this story, except he's already sort of done it. These guys were playing  Indiana Jones* before Spielberg invented him.

There are so many interesting layers to the story, not the least of which is the one revealing letters the men wrote to their wives commenting (carefully so as not to invite the censors to carve them up). I was fascinated by the perspective on the final months of the Third Reich, written by military men who were not part of the fighting.  The fighting was going on around them, often behind them because they were charged with going ahead of the combat line to find and save the treasures of European cultural history.

The loathing they have for the Germans is visceral, and with good reason. The characters in this book saw the evil done by the Nazis not only to the slaves in the work/death camps but also to the cultural heritage of all of Europe, including the Fatherland itself.  If all that wasn't bad enough, Hitler had ordered that the stolen art be destroyed rather than to allow it to fall into American or Russian hands.  The evil of that man is unfathomable to me.

The heroes of the story may not have been involved in actual combat, but they were fighting on multiple fronts. Fighting the military bureaucracies of several countries (the US, Canada and the UK), fighting the deprivation of being behind enemy lines with no supply lines, German soldiers everywhere, and racing to beat the Russians to the treasure.  The Americans and the Russians may have been technically political allies at the highest levels, but on the ground, not so much. In addition, the German civilians (and probably a lot of former Nazis) generally understood that they'd be better off being captured by the Yanks than by the Russians, so there's a human push westward as the Russians approached.  There's so much people-movement, it's a little hard to follow at times.

Prior to the last chapter, these guys reminded me of the character played by William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai*.  After reading the epilogue, I was back to seeing them as more like Indiana Jones. What remarkable people!

The Allied forces saved the countries of Europe from Fascist dictatorship, with the British and Americans jockeying to try to contain the Communists as well.  The Monuments Men saved Western Civilization. Sadly, most of us have never heard of them.

The saddest thing in the book, however, was the statement that there are no Monuments Men in Iraq. We have been fighting a war in the very birthplace of Western Civilization for more than a decade and no one is responsible for guarding antiquities.  How can that be?

 Buy the book here on Amazon*.

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