Monuments Men Author Speaks at University Campus

October 24, 2014

An audience of more than 130 students and community members gathered at University Campus this month to hear the original story of The Monuments Men–a special World War II unit whose previously little-known efforts to save works of art and architecture from the destruction of war–which was made into a popular film starring actor-director George Clooney, released earlier this year.

As the first event of this year’s University Speaker Series, author Robert Edsel shared a multimedia presentation on the inspiration and research behind his book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. Mr. Edsel is a former entrepreneur who had been able to sell a successful company and relocate in 1996 with his family to Europe. Time spent in Italy allowed him the opportunity to read and explore art, architecture, and art history, which in turn led to his discovery of the history of the special Allied Forces unit. “Florence was my classroom, and Europe was my school.” He learned that it was the work of American and British arts specialists that helped preserve many cultural works including paintings, books, sculptures, and stained glassworks, that still survive. Researching the work and lives of these “solider-scholars” has become his mission.

During the pre-War period, Mr. Edsel explained in his presentation, the Monuments Men (they were mostly male) worked in museums, universities, and arts organizations. Eventually about 350 became part of the Allied Forces to help protect or retrieve works of art that were stolen by Nazis, or to help safeguard buildings or works of art in danger of destruction from bombing campaigns, which might have been waged by either the Allies or German forces. Paintings and other works stolen by Nazis were found stored in caves, castles and mines–including a Rembrandt, a Renoir, a daVinci, and works by many, many artists who were not as famous, but who nonetheless contributed to the cultural landscape. The guiding principle for the recovery mission was that recovered works should and would be returned to the country from which they were stolen. Sometimes works were not stolen and exported, but were hidden in the countrysides, away from bombing targets, and had to be retrieved.

The work of the Monuments Men was just beginning as the war was winding down in Europe in 1945, Mr. Edsel explained, and the officers stayed until 1951. Not all works were recovered, and some still surface from time to time, but the work of the soldiers ended. As the troops came home, they quietly resumed work in their fields and went largely unnoticed for their war duties. “This story has been sitting here in front of all of our eyes,” Mr. Edsel said.

He believes that circumstances, in part, kept the story of the Monuments Men from being told more broadly during the early 1950s–by then the Korean War commanded the nation’s attention.

Now Mr. Edsel said he travels “incessantly to try to visit with surviving Monuments Men and their families.” On his trip to Florida just before arriving at Saint Leo, in fact, he visited with a 94-year-old Monuments officer still living in an Orlando suburb. The author was alerted to the man’s existence by a newspaper reporter who found out about the elderly veteran (from a family member) after the film version of The Monuments Men was released. It turned out that Rouben Sami had worked in an archival depot in Offenbach, Germany, that became a centralized collection point for the return of books and manuscripts that had taken by Nazis. “This is the 19th Monuments Man I’ve interviewed,” Mr. Edsel said. In instances such as Mr. Sami’s, the author archives the person’s story through the nonprofit he founded, the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, (www.monumentsmenfoundation.org).

Mr. Edsel also advocates for the preservation of arts in modern-day conflicts, and said the successes of the World War II Monuments Men set a good example. The United States suffered in world public opinion, he said, when artworks were not safeguarded during the 2003 bombing of Iraq by the U.S. He has come to the view that the knowledge of cultural scholars and preservationists should also be respected and incorporated when armed forces are deployed, he said.

Mr. Edsel signed books following his talk.

For information on upcoming University Speaker Series events, contact Dr. Mary Spoto at mary.spoto@saintleo.edu.