Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review of The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel (Center Street, 2009)

As America enters the war after Pearl Harbour leading member of its GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) community become fearful for the safety of the nation’s art treasures.  They move towards putting in place a strategy for protecting them, in the process turning their attention to art works already in the line of fire in Europe.  The result is the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) program consisting of a small group of archivist and curators, art restorers and historians, and architects who would advance with the Allied forces and try and protect a list of key buildings and art works and unearth the location of stolen pieces of art, which were looted wholesale by the Nazis and transported to Germany and Austria.  The Monuments Men tells their story, charting their journeys, battles (both with their own bureaucracies and commanders and in the field) and discoveries up to shortly after the war. 

To try and provide an accessible narrative, Edsel drifts towards a fictional-style telling, and concentrates on a handful of leading characters.  This does make the account relatively straightforward to follow, although because he keeps the timeline linear the narrative jumps around between threads quite a bit.  It also centres the story on a small number of people and decontextualizes it somewhat from the wider story of art plundering during the war and its recovery and its restitution after the war.  This was clearly Edsel’s intention, to focus specifically on the MFAA and the men he casts as heroes in their efforts to save and return priceless art (and initially they were just a handful of men).  And they certainly were dedicated, brave and tenacious.  Personally, though, I would have liked the story to have a bit more depth with respect to the MFAA beyond the personal narratives and to have been set in the wider context, especially the Nazi efforts to plunder and hide materials, and the various networks and intermediaries involved.  The book could have also been improved by removing the unnecessary repetition.  Overall, an interesting account of a little known Allied endeavour.

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