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Transcript: ArtCurious Episode #29: The Monuments Men

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Ah, Hollywood. Nothing goes further than a big celebrity-studded movie to grab your pop-culture attention and to inspire countless articles and think-pieces about a particular topic. A really solid blockbuster can raise a niche book to bestseller status or inspire hopeful imitators. And it can lead to a renewed interest in a certain time period or subject matter. In the case of the 2014 film, The Monuments Men, all of this was certainly true. With superstar George Clooney directing and acting alongside Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and American treasure Bill Murray, among others, The Monuments Men was almost a guaranteed hit when it was released in February 2014.  But if your knowledge of the incredible individuals known as The Monuments Men stems only from this movie--well, then, I’m sorry. And I say that with no disrespect to Mr. Clooney and his team, but honestly? This cinematic take is a well-meaning but saccharine mess. The real story of the men--and women--who risked their own lives to save thousands of works of art is far more fascinating, dangerous, and important, even today.

Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those can be paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. And today, we’re sharing the true story of the Monuments Men-- a team of elite curators, art historians, professors, and art professionals without whom some of Europe’s greatest treasures would have been destroyed during the darkest days of World War Two.   Welcome to the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

The term “Monuments Men” is a really a catchy moniker for the myriad individuals who risked life and limb for the good of cultural property- but really, it limits the vision of what this intrepid team did-- as well as who they were. They didn’t simply take care to preserve monuments, as we typically think of them-- a statue, building, or structure produced in commemoration of an important event or person. Their job was to safeguard anything of significant historical or cultural value-- not just architecture and, yes, monuments- but also paintings, sculptures, books, manuscripts, prints, and drawings. The key reason that the name “Monuments Men” came into being is because it became a quick and easy way to shorten the name of the department that these individuals worked for: the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program. And really, it sounds way cooler than MFAA, though that acronym was--and still is-- hugely in use. And right off the bat, we should also make it clear that the Monuments Men weren’t just men-- there were women who were closely involved and instrumental to the rescue efforts as well. But I guess that “the Monuments People” doesn’t have as nice a ring to it-- and I certainly do love a good use of alliteration.

One of the things that particularly interests me about the Monuments Men is that it was really a small group of people self-tasked with the job of managing the safety of the world’s great artistic and cultural treasures. On the last episode of the ArtCurious Podcast, we talked about the Ghost Army, which effectually numbered 1500 servicemen working to impersonate tens of thousands of their wartime counterparts. But for the Monuments Men, the hope of preventing the destruction of invaluable works of art--spread across the world but specifically focused in Europe-- rested on the shoulders of less than 400 civilians and servicemen. That’s nothing. And yet what they were able to pull off was really extraordinary. But how, and when, did it all start?

As we have mentioned numerous times throughout this season, the Second World War was well underway by the time the U.S. officially entered battle. This long lead time effectively meant that many historians, engineers, scientists, and military personnel were able to observe the war and its effects long before being called to both the metaphorical and physical frontline. Among the individuals observing the war from the sidelines were concerned art professionals: historians, museum directors, and professors who watched with worried eyes as bombings destroyed cities by the dozens and Nazi soldiers, under Hitler’s orders, pilfered priceless paintings-- try saying that five times fast, by the way. In early 1943, they had had enough, so representatives from the American Council of Learned Societies and the American Defense Harvard Group, in conjunction with museum representatives, such as the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Francis Taylor, made their way to Washington to air their grievances to Congress. As one of the co-founders of the Monuments Men, George Stout, wrote in a 1942 proposal, quote, “In areas torn by bombardment and by fire are monuments cherished by the people of those countryside’s or towns: churches, shrines, statues, pictures, many kinds of works. Some may be destroyed; some damaged. All risk further injury, looting or destruction.” Unquote. It was no longer time to just stand by and witness the potential ruination of humanity’s cultural treasures and the wiping away of its history. It was time to step in and do something about it.

But it’s always easier said than done. In the case of Taylor, Stout, and the folks from the ACLS, they knew that a brain trust of artsy smarty-pants types could only go so far. Their efforts to support and protect works of art needed to be backed by military might in order to actively achieve something. Thankfully, FDR agreed, and the president established the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas on June 23, 1943. That mouthful is what ultimately became the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Commission, a multi-nation Allied effort. Though American-run and organized, the MFAA wasn’t limited to American participants-- approximately 15 Allied countries had representatives in the MFAA throughout its run in the 1940s. Together, these Monuments Men and women were recruited to search for looted cultural treasures, assess damage, and prevent future obliteration to both moveable objects-- like paintings-- and immovable ones, like churches.  Rightfully, many organizations across the world were providing or working for humanitarian aid-- and here, finally, was a small but dedicated group of people dedicated to doing the same for the world’s best works of art.

As you might imagine, the MFAA employee would be on the move-- always heading off to the sight of the most recent battle, or to a museum seen as being too close to a potential front line. But not all Monuments Men were required to be directly in contact with the art itself. Several members of the Commission were also tasked with educating Allied troops about art in order to make sure that they would purposefully avoid its unintentional destruction in the line of duty-- this is noted in a line item in the Army’s Historical Archives as quote “interest the troops by lectures or otherwise.” Unquote. By educating members of the military about the significance of the artworks and monuments they might encounter in the line of duty, the hope would be that they would be gentler and more careful with them. And it wasn’t only these lectures that the Monuments Men provided-- the department also developed a special series of aerial maps designed to pinpoint areas of historic and artistic interest throughout Europe so that pilots, bombers, and other air personnel could purposely avoid them. These efforts were quiet and are pretty unshowy compared to the exploits depicted in the Clooney film- but they produced an important outcome, which was that they were able to minimize any potential damages by American soldiers to artworks or important cultural heritage. Thus, the workload, and the goals, of the MFAA were eased with this peace of mind and their ability to focus firmly on the Axis. Not that it always went so smoothly. Architect and professor Ralph W. Hammett, a member of the Monuments Men’s communications unit, known as Com Z, wrote of his experiences of the war in the January 1946 issue of the College Art Journal, stating, quote, “Occasionally officers were found who were unwilling to take the responsibility for protection of valuable works of art; these were forced to move on. Sometimes our soldiers were not warned of the value of their surroundings in time; and in spite of directives and orders, they often installed themselves first and consulted afterwards.” Unquote.

Such educational endeavors were tricky for those members of the MFAA who were coming from a layperson’s point of view and without military experience. Luckily, straddling the line came easily to George Stout, who, by the way, was fictionalized by George Clooney as character “Frank Stokes” in the 2014 film. Stout had the art cred from his work as an art conservator at Harvard’s renowned Fogg Art Museum, but he had the military chops, too-- he was not only a World War One Vet, but he enlisted in the Navy at the beginning of 1943 before transferring into what would become the MFAA. He was thus the whole package: someone with a strong background in fine art who would be able to keenly assess and repair damages while simultaneously thinking and acting with a soldier’s mind in the face of danger. And indeed, it seems that Stout, fueled by these two strengths, found his mission- to inspire others to work alongside him to think about the preservation of cultural artifacts in the face of the worst war in recorded history. Naturally, his concern for these artifacts began on a more local level: like other museum professionals at the time, he was worried that an air strike or bombing on U.S. soil would destroy his country’s own collections, so he began distributing pamphlets and held seminars aimed at museum officials to ensure that they would take proper care of their artworks in case of emergency. But soon, Stout began to think bigger-- and beyond his home continent.

An obvious beginning for the MFAA’s efforts was to secure and return items that were quote-unquote “relocated” by the Nazis. As we discussed in episode 26 about Hitler’s Fuhrermuseum, multiple agencies set up under Hitler’s orders, including but not limited to the ERR, or Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, targeted both cultural institutions and individuals throughout occupied Europe, removing thousands of valuable artworks, furniture, archival documents and more with the intention of presenting them to Adolf Hitler for his own gains and his longed-for museum, as well as for other Nazi higher-ups. While some of the greatest gains were presented directly to the Fuhrer as gifts, the vast majority of works stolen by the Nazis-- an estimated 40,000 pieces in all-- were scattered in various strongholds throughout the continent, in a castle here, in a fortress there, and, most famously, in salt mines. Now, I will never advocate for the Nazis in any way, shape, or form--but I’ll be the first to admit that they weren’t dummies. Their selection of salt mines as repositories for their loot wasn’t just because their remoteness would keep them safe from possible Allied discovery or eradication, but also because the climate of such caverns was consistently cool and dry. Therefore, the delicate treasures housed there were maintained perfectly in terms of the environment, even if they were hastily stored or piled. On top of all that, the Nazis were nothing if not efficient documentarians, and kept meticulous notes about their haul in each location. Ironically enough, the attention and care that the Nazis provided to these works of art would eventually make the job of the Monuments Men easier-- less damage occurred, so less conservation needed to be done, and the records of the loot made it much faster to identify and return the artworks to their rightful homes.

Coming up next after the break: the biggest salt mine art repository in Europe, and a special callback to the very first episode of ArtCurious. Stay with us.

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Welcome back to ArtCurious.

In 1938, Austria was annexed as part of the German Third Reich, and with that came access to a vast series of salt mines that had been integral to the land for over three thousand years. Yes, you heard me right-- one particular mine, the Hallein mine, just on the outskirts of Salzburg, has been worked consistently since Celtic tribes decamped there over 2600 years ago and began profiting from this so-called “white gold.” That, by the way, is why Salzburg has that particular name-- which translates literally to “salt fortress,” because salt had been the city’s driving force for millennia. And towards the end of World War Two, this salt mine region became one of the last bastions of the Nazi party, as government officials- including bigwigs like Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann and SS commander August Eigruber, began retreating there en masse and bringing along their riches with them. And the best place to hide their goodies--and especially their cache of stolen art-- was the mine at Altaussee.  

The Altaussee mine might ring some bells to longtime listeners of this podcast, because it was a purported location of the Mona Lisa during World War Two, which we discussed in our very first episode of this show. The mine complex at Altaussee as a safeguard location wasn’t actually initiated by the Nazis-- it was initiated by Austrians who weren’t associated with the SS or the Nazis whatsoever. As early as 1943, Austrian museums and churches began moving their artistic treasures to the mine for legitimate safekeeping, rightly assuming that they would otherwise be in harm’s way. But by the following year, the Nazis had completely taken over, with the total number of looted paintings alone ballooning to 4,700 items, mostly coming in via the Sonderauftrag Linz, or the Linz special commission, which we talked about briefly in episode #26, about Hitler’s Fuhrermuseum. The majority of these works were specifically meant to be housed in the Fuhrermuseum, Hitler’s impossible vision for his hometown art institution as the greatest museum in the world. And in the last year of the war, that number had risen to over 6,500 paintings and an additional 6,000 other types of items, including sculpture, drawings, coins, furniture, and rare books-- with most destined for the glorification of Hitler himself.

Amongst these purloined items were two iconic works of art feared lost forever-- one an incredibly rare sculpture, and the other a gorgeous altarpiece, both stolen by the Nazis from sacred spaces. The first was the only work by Michelangelo to ever leave Italy during the artist’s lifetime-- his so-called Bruges Madonna, a rather modest sculpture-- only about 80 inches tall- featuring a small, somber Mary and her chubby toddler, Jesus, braced against her left leg. Compared with the heft and monumentality of his David, created at roughly the same time, this marble sculpture is intimate and surprisingly solemn in a way that even the vast Vatican Pieta just isn’t. This was certainly recognized by the Madonna’s original purchasers, who may have had the intention of installing it as part of an altarpiece for the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium, where it had lived a comfortable life since 1514-- well, except for a moment when it was declared part of the Napoleonic Empire and shipped off to France, but that’s an ArtCurious tale for another day. On the night of September 6, 1944, the Madonna and Child were again removed from their home, but this time, it was by German occupiers fleeing the city, who smuggled it out in the back of a Red Cross truck. It was later described by author Lynn Nicholas in her wonderful 1995 book, The Rape of Europa, as looking like a quote “large Smithfield ham,” unquote. Wrapped up and swaddled, it was ferried away into the night, and onwards to Altaussee.

Altaussee’s other most famous denizen was the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, created in the early 15th century and attributed to Flemish master Jan van Eyck and his brother, Hubert. The scope of this work is incredibly complex and large-- especially considering the modest Madonna that we’ve just referenced. When the wings of this altarpiece are fully opened, it extends up to 11 feet tall and 15 feet wide, and has been presented in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, since its creation. It is a true turning point in Northern European art history-- what many scholars believe to represent the junction between medieval artistic traditions and the exacting depiction of nature that the Renaissance would bring. It was lauded for centuries-- and so, of course it would be highly sought out for Hitler’s art museum. Hermann Göring, too, also wanted it for his own personal collection. And thus, a tussle of seesawing ownership ensued, with this incredible altarpiece stuck in the middle. It turns out that the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb had been stolen multiple times throughout its existence-- and not just in World War Two, as art historian and art theft expert Noah Charney has elucidated. But this theft has proved, thankfully, to be the last, and it, too, was shepherded secretly off to Altaussee.

How the Altaussee mine was discovered by the Monuments Men is a truly wonderful stroke of luck. As reported in Smithsonian Magazine in February 2014, it was by means of a toothache that the Allies learned of its existence. As reported by Jim Morrison (the writer, not THAT Jim Morrison), Monuments Man Robert Posey had a serious toothache and sought out a dentist to remedy the situation. As Morrison writes, quote, “The dentist he found introduced him to his son-in-law, who was hoping to earn safe passage for his family to Paris, even though he had helped Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command, steal trainload after trainload of art. The son-in-law told them the location of Göring’s collection as well as Hitler’s stash at Altaussee.” Unquote. So the Altaussee mine-- one of the largest stolen art repositories in Europe-- had been discovered by the Allies. But how were the Allies going to access it away from the prying eyes of Eigruber and his cronies-- and how were they going to rescue all that art?

Truly it’s incredible that the Altaussee mine remained intact at all, because Eigruber nearly had it all bombed to smithereens. Smithsonian Magazine reports that one of George Stout’s earliest discoveries about the mine was that  Eigruber had been working under Hitler’s so-called “Nero Decree,” which stated in part, quote: “All military transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory, which could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the prosecution of the war, will be destroyed.” Unquote. To Eigruber, this was clearly and simply stating that Altaussee--and everything in it--should be demolished rather than ending up in Allied hands. So as the Monuments Men crept closer to the mine, Eigruber ordered that eight crates be moved to the center of the mine complex. These crates were marked with warnings proclaiming “Marble - Do Not Drop,” but actually contained 1,100 pound bombs. And Eigruber was ready to set them off.

The strange thing is that we actually might have Hitler to thank, at least in part, for the fact that the mine was not destroyed. Being that the large part of the works stored in Altaussee were destined for the Fuhrermuseum, his pet project, Hitler was reluctant to let that particular mine be bombed out, so he countered Eigruber’s orders.  However, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, so Eigruber thought, great. Let’s go back to my original plan. Luckily for us, though, not only did other Nazi officials think that Eigruber’s plans were unorthodox and best and plain ridiculous at worst, but there was significant backlash when local miners learned of the potential destruction of the mine and were horrified that their millennia-old livelihood could be coming to an end. So, Eigruber backed down-- but not before local miners made a significant change. The bombs were removed, but in their place miners swapped in some small explosive charges that were subsequently ignited. These didn’t destroy the artworks inside-- but they did seal off the entrances to the mine, and thus kept everything safely stored inside. Eigruber and his team, then, could not go in to order the destruction of any artwork ever again. And in May 1945, the Monuments Men arrived--and some truly serious hard work began.

George Stout and the Monuments Men assumed that they had a significant amount of time to clear out the Altaussee mine-- both excavating their way in, and also to catalogue and pack the treasures inside for return and restitution. Especially after Germany surrendered on VE Day on May 8, 1945, the Monuments Men collectively sighed and thought, great! The war is over, and we can just take our time with this process. But it wasn’t to be-- because there was great concern that, in the vast divvying of control of Europe that occurred amongst the Allies in the immediate post-war period, Russia might gain control of the region surrounding Altaussee. The Monuments Men were told to hurry up to make sure that the world’s most beloved artworks didn’t end up in Joseph Stalin’s hands. They were given less than two months to ferry the most important of the 12,000 pieces out of Altaussee over to a central collection point in Munich.

Remember that the Monuments Men was a teeny-tiny secret operation, and one with a minimal amount of resources and manpower on hand. Asking that Altaussee be cleared of its most important assets by July 1st, 1945, was too tall an order-- and yet they did it, albeit a few days late. They struggled through 18-hour workdays, a shortage of food, and uncooperative, rainy weather-- but they did it, and on July 11, George Stout accompanied two very special passengers-- the Bruges Madonna and the Ghent Altarpiece-- to Munich. According to Lynn Nichols, in the year that Stout spent working in Europe for the Monuments Men, he took only one and a half days off.

This episode of our podcast by no means covers the vast importance of what the Monuments Men did-- besides what they did at Altaussee, this group spent most of 1945 seeking out more than 1,000 troves containing an estimated 5 million pieces of artwork and cultural items stolen during the war-- and they continued their work for years after, and the process of art restitution, which we’ll be discussing in an upcoming episode, is still going on today. The Monuments Men were active not only in Europe, but also in Asia as well. And I didn’t get to tell you about one of the most incredible figures involved with the Monuments Men-- Rose Valland, a French art historian and curator at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris who single-handedly saved thousands of works of art by secretly cataloguing Nazi looting. But that’s an entire episode for another season of the ArtCurious podcast-- and don’t worry, I definitely want to tell you all about her.

Many of those who were involved in the Monuments Men during World War Two were humbled by their work, Stout included. But even many years after the war, when the work of the Monuments Men was finally declassified and revealed, there was a small amount of pushback – why would the allies have spent money and wasted manpower, some said, on saving works of art instead of human lives? In a 1978 oral history of the Monuments Men, George Stout succinctly and beautifully explained their impetus, stating, quote, “These monuments are not merely pretty things, not merely valued signs of man's creative power. They are expressions of faith and they stand for man’s struggle to relate himself to his past and his God.” Unquote. For an art historian and curator like me, there’s no question of the value of the incredible work that the Monuments Men did. But people are still sometimes surprised or confused by this story. In researching this episode, I stumbled across a travel blog, of all things, by a writer and humanitarian named Roger Hansen. In one post from 2014, he mentions spending time in the presence of the Bruges Madonna on a trip through Belgium, which allowed him to ponder the rationale and existence of The Monuments Men- and I found his final words of this blog post perfectly moving. He writes, quote, “Is a work of art worth a human life?” before including a small sidebar about the fact that two of the original Monuments Men died in in service. But then he continued, writing, quote, “For me, yes-- it’s worth it. But I’ve never been asked to sacrifice my life.” Unquote.

But many people did sacrifice their lives--and most of them did so not because they wanted to, but because they were forced to. And as they held onto what remained of their lives, they made art about it. That’s coming up next time on the ArtCurious podcast.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Our super great theme music is by Alex Davis at Research assistance is by Stephanie Pryor, and social media help by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at

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Transcript: ArtCurious Episode #30: Art and Remembrance

Transcript: ArtCurious Episode #28: The Ghost Army