By Robert M. Edsell with Brett Witter, Center Street, Nashville, 473 pages, $26.95.
Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi regime maintained a policy of confiscating fine art from its victims for removal to Germany. Adolf Hitler’s plan was to display the finest of the plundered works at a “Fuhrermuseum” he intended to build in his hometown of Linz, Austria. By the end of World War II, millions of works had been stolen from private collectors, dealers, museums, governments and houses of worship. So vast was the plundering that, 64 years after the end of World War II, litigation still persists over the ownership of many works.
Nazi art thefts have been extensively chronicled by historians. But until recently, comparatively little attention has been paid to the Allies’ military efforts during and after the war to: (a) preserve Europe’s cultural patrimony; (b) locate the stolen treasures; and (c) return the works to their owners. This void has now been filled by author Robert M. Edsel, who tells the story of “The Monuments Men.”
This group consisted of approximately 350 Allied soldiers from 13 nations. As stated by the author, it was officially designated in 1943 as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section. The author’s narrative deftly tells the MFAA’s story through the lives of eight of its members (Ronald Balfour, Harry Ettlinger, Walter Hancock, Walter Huchthausen, Lincoln Kirstein, Robert Posey, James Rorimer and George Stout) and two French museum officials (Jacques Jaujard and Rose Valland) who aided their mission.
Much of the story focuses on the Nazi plundering of France, which was subject to German occupation between 1940 and 1944. In occupied France, the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris was used by the Nazis as a central depot for looted art. Adjacent to the Louvre, the Jeu de Paume was a favorite wartime destination of leading Nazi officials, including Herman Goring, the head of the Luftwaffe. According to the author, Goring made 21 separate trips to the Jeu de Paume to confiscate stolen works for his own massive art collection. Looted treasures that were not personally confiscated by Nazi leaders for their own collections were transported to secret storage facilities located inside the Third Reich. The MFAA members’ discovery of these secret troves makes for a compelling narrative.
The book’s most striking figure is not an MFAA member, but Rose Valland, an employee of the Jeu de Paume. As temporary custodian of the museum and depot for stolen art, Villand secretly spied on the invaders for the Resistance and, at great personal risk, preserved detailed information in a personal diary about the origins and destinations of works stolen from Jewish families and art dealers.
After the liberation of Paris, the MFAA’s James Rorimer, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Seventh Army, spent several painstaking months trying to convince Valland that he could be trusted with her valuable information about the Nazi troves. Time was of the essence in locating the secret troves so that they could be saved from the advancing Red Army, which was expected to confiscate valuable works and transport them permanently to the Soviet Union. Valland’s data enabled the MFAA to locate the troves, find stolen items that had passed through the Jeu de Paume, and eventually return those items to their owners.
For her efforts, Valland was later awarded a Medal of Freedom by the United States. As for Rorimer, he went on to develop the Watson Library into a world-class facility at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The author recounts that Rorimer was so proud of his service in the MFAA that, after the war, he continued to wear his Army combat boots every day, even to work at the Met.
The most endearing personal story in the book belongs to Harry Ettlinger, a private in the Seventh Army. Ettlinger was a German Jew who in 1938 fled Nazi persecution with his family to Newark, N.J. The author recounts that, prior to leaving Germany, Ettlinger met with his grandfather, a local merchant who was to remain behind. The old man showed him the prize of his own art collection, an assemblage of 2,000 bookplate prints, including a self-portrait of Rembrandt that hung in the Karlsruhe Museum. Following this meeting with his grandson, the old man decided to lock away the collection in a Baden-Baden storage facility. Soon thereafter, he and the other remaining Jewish men of Karlsruhe were sent off to the Dachau prison camp.
After graduating from high school in 1944, Ettlinger was drafted into the U.S. Army, where his knowledge of the German language landed him a job as Lieutenant Rorimer’s translator. Following the Nazis’ surrender, Ettlinger assisted Rorimer’s interrogation of Nazi officials in Munich, searched Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden, inventoried the looted works stored at a Neuschwanstein castle, and retrieved hundreds of pieces of artwork from a Heilbronn mine.
In an ironical twist, one of those works retrieved by Ettlinger from the Heilbronn mine was the Rembrandt. Karlsruhe Museum officials had decided to store it at the mine for safekeeping. The book contains a remarkable photo taken of Ettlinger and the painting together just outside the mine. The painting was later returned by the Americans to the museum.
But Ettlinger’s personal triumph did not end there. By late 1945, his grandfather had survived the war and had emigrated to New Jersey. In October 1945, while Ettlinger was still stationed in Germany, his grandfather sent him a letter, providing him with detailed information about where his beloved collection of bookplates had been stored in Baden-Baden, which was now located in the French Occupation Zone. One month later, Ettlinger took leave and made the one-hour trip to the storage facility, where he miraculously found the prints, “just as [his grandfather] had left them.” Within a few weeks thereafter, the precious collection arrived in Newark, its journey complete.
Jeffrey Winn is a partner at Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold.