New Book Reveals Secrets About Nazi-Plundered Treasures

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In World War II, the Allies fought a Germanic threat intent on taking over the world. Beyond the familiar history lesson lies the untold story of the Nazi plot to also seize the world’s greatest cultural treasures, thwarted by one tiny band of soldiers as detailed in the new book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (Center Street, September 2009, $26.99). This overlooked story from WWII is relevant today in that irreplaceable historical artifacts are still missing from the greatest plunder committed in human history, with restoration, search and discovery ongoing. In fact, a Monet and Renoir among several other paintings were discovered in 2007 in the safety deposit box of a former Nazi official in Switzerland, begging the question what priceless and missing piece of art will turn up next?

The Monuments Men details how art objects—either stolen from museums in conquered areas or from Jewish individuals sent to their deaths—were secreted away in hidden storehouses carved into mountains, buried deep in salt mines, sunk in boggy marshes and concealed in chalets and fairy-tale European palaces for the purpose of creating Hitler’s vision of a Germanic Über-museum, along of course with the enrichment of top party officials. More than five million cultural objects were taken during the war, including valuable paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt, and sculpture by Michelangelo and Donatello, threatening to erase human history as we know it. Chronicling the most unlikely band of heroes who comprised a little-known unit called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section, The Monuments Men presents in thrilling detail the race against time and the ever-changing frontlines to liberate the world’s most priceless art pieces from the Fuhrer’s grip.

Reading partly like a war memoir of the principal soldiers, most of whom volunteered for the unit and possessed expertise as museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects, and archivists, the book includes personal diary entries, letters and statements from interviews with the few remaining surviving unit members, representing more than 13 years of interest in the subject by author Robert Edsel including five years of intense research. Sprinkled amongst the facts is invented dialogue animating the story—all based on available research. The Monuments Men captures the harsh elements of combat along with the futility these few men—swelling to around 60 by the end of combat and then to 350 after the war’s end—felt in chasing down what amounted to needles in a haystack. Even 44 years later, hundreds of thousands of pieces of art, documents and books are missing including Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man,” stolen from Poland and last possessed by Nazi Governor General Hans Frank.

Detailing the amazing caches of cultural objects hidden all over greater Europe, The Monuments Men reveals the treasure troves at sites such as Neuschwanstein castle, the mythical proportions of which inspired Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland, and the truth behind the motherlode concealed in the Altaussee salt mines, sealed by palsy mine charges where arguably the most precious finds existed, in addition to the recovery of the ‘art train’ through persistent spying by a volunteer member of the Jeu de Paume. Despite the adventure of the treasure hunt detailed in the book, finding the stolen belongings brings alive the atrocities commited by the Nazis when one understands the fate of some of the items’ owners. Harry Ettlinger, an MFAA soldier and German Jew who emigrated to America just 6 years before joining the service, said, “My knowledge of the Holocaust started really with the realization that it was not only the taking of lives–that I learned much later in my experience–but the taking of all of their belongings… [For me] Neuschwanstein was the start of really opening up that part of history that should never be forgotten.”..

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