The Legacy Of World War Two’s The Monuments Men

There have been so many stories told about World War Two that most people assume there would be no more epics about this period of history. But there is a heroic tale about a group that came to be known as the monuments men. This group was tasked with helping to protect the cultural treasures in Europe and other war-ravished areas. It consisted of a about 400 military and civilians and their adventures are right out of a novel. In fact a feature film directed by George Clooney is being released soon.

Widespread looting by occupying forces, primarily the Nazis, and the destruction of significant structures was of major concern. In 1943 the Civil Affairs and Military Government section of the Army created the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives division). This group was manned by experts in art, architecture and history from the top museums and university in the United States. The reason was simple: safeguard the cultural and artistic treasures in the various theaters of war around the world.

Even before the U. S.’s formal declaration of war on the Axis nations in 1941, many in the art world began raising the issue of looting and theft of art and the possible destruction of cultural treasures. In response to an effort by a group lead by the head of the Met in New York, President Roosevelt established the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Historic Monument in War Areas. It was this commission and their findings which lead to the MFAA creation and the monuments men.

One very important task the group had to do was to alert Allied bomber pilots to the locations of culturally significant sites, such as monuments, buildings and outdoor sculptures. Using aerial reconnaissance photos, experts would mark and prioritize sites. In some cases bombing plans were completely re-worked to avoid destroying historic sections of a town.

MFAA men would be assigned to forward ground troops and often preceded troops into cities, towns and villages to document damage. In some cases they made temporary repairs to structures, monuments and sculptures so further damage was limited. They were also tasked with locating hidden art and treasures by interviewing and working with local officials and citizens.

The Nazis were systematic and prolific looters of cultural treasures and artwork of Europe. Unfortunately they also destroyed countless art and sculpture they found to be unacceptable by their standards. Part of the job the monuments men did was too determine what pieces survived and which had been destroyed.

The MFAA also discovered many hiding places that the Nazis used for their plunder. Some have called the work the greatest treasure hunt in history, as the team had to follow many leads and explore many difficult to reach locations. One such location was Berchtesgaden in the German Bavarian Alps where the U. S. Army located more than 1,000 paintings, sculptures and other treasures looted by Goring. Over 6,500 paintings where found in a salt mine in Austria.

The story of the monuments men is truly fascinating as it combines all the elements of good tale. Mystery, excitement, bravery and justice. The new focus on these efforts has spawned not only a Hollywood film, but a number of newly produced books and documentaries. The interest is a testament to the work of the brave men and women in the MFAA and their dedication to preservation of great art.

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