Under the Radar

The Man Behind 'The Monuments Men'


For the last decade, author Robert Edsel has been on a mission to educate the world about the Monuments Men and their efforts to preserve European culture in the final days of World War II. Edesl's books are the basis for The Monuments Men, a new movie starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett (and directed by Clooney).

Edsel learned about the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program while living in Florence, Italy after selling his oil and gas exploration company. He was amazed that he'd never heard about the efforts of the Monuments Men and decided he wanted to share what he'd learned with the world.

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Robert Edsel's not a trained art historian or a trained military historian. He's a guy who fell in love with the story of wartime heroism and has devoted a huge part of his life to sharing an untold story with the world.

He self-published Rescuing Da Vinci, a collection of photographs chronicling the story, after the major publishers told him there wasn't really a market for the book. After its surprising (to publishers) success, Edsel has written two more books that tell the stories of the men and women behind the preservation efforts. The Monuments Men, the besteller that inspired the movie's screenplay, covers the events in northern Europe and the followup Saving Italy tells the southern European story. He's also started the Monuments Men Foundation For the Preservation of Art to collect the stories of the MFAA program and assist in the recovery of still-missing works of art.

The belief that a military force should make extra efforts to preserve art and culture during wartime isn't necessarily a universal one, but Edsel makes a compelling case that paintings, sculptures, churches and other monuments are critical to a society's understanding of itself. It's a great story and one that should resonate with anyone who's seen the low priority cultural preservation has been given in every conflict we've fought since.

Robert Edsel talked to Military.com at The Monuments Men press junket in Los Angeles.


Why don’t you recap the story of how you got interested in this and how you became the expert on this topic?

It's been a treasure hunt on my part, and the part of our team, trying to track down these people. It's an unusual situation because with World War II is the most written-about, documented event in history. There are so many books on all the battle aspects and a lot of more prominent people, but this is such an epic part of World War II that the public doesn’t know.

There are some scholars that know about the Monuments Men (or feel that they do) and I think a lot of times scholars think that everybody else already knows what they know and thinks like they think and we don’t. People don’t like being made to feel dumb or that they should already know something. And, of course, it's not a matter of being dumb. We just can't all know everything. We all have our own areas of passion that we know more about than somebody else does.

So it's been hard gathering all of this information and tracking down these leads to try and find the people and find their kids and find their letters. I’ve had a lot of arguments with some of the kids my age (I’m 57). They say we don’t have any letters when I'm sure that they do, because I just know the parents never throw away their letters and military uniforms. They may throw a footlocker away, but these letters are just sacred.

Those letters have been a critical element of our ability to tell the story because, at the end of the day, what people want to know about this people story is: “What were people thinking? How did they feel? Were they homesick? Were they lonely? What was it like going into a salt mine? What was it like not seeing your kids 4th, 5th, and 6th birthdays, and not knowing that you'd ever see another one again?” And so the letters tell us that.

Their field reports are important. They give us dates and places and what the events were that they were taken care of, but there's no way for us to reconstruct what they were feeling without having those letters.

An unusual aspect of writing about World War II history is that it's such a living, breathing story. We have to find these people to get the information. It's not necessarily out there in archives. It's still with people. So much of World War II has already been interviewed and compiled into oral histories. It's in an archive somewhere; you go find it.

But it’s really the firsthand reconstruction of events in solving the theft, trying to find documents that were part of a crime scene. No one thought of it as crime scenes back then. Many times, evidence was picked up and removed as souvenirs by well-intended soldiers, not knowing they were at a crime scene, and brought home. And, you know, those are important things that can help us solve some of these still unsolved elements of the story.

Stout and the Ghent Altarpiece

So when you were putting together “Rescuing Da Vinci,” were you thinking about writing a book or were you just publishing your collection of photographs? How did you come to write Monuments Men?

Before Rescuing Da Vinci, I had never really thought about writing a book. But I was so frustrated that, for all the photographs taken in World War II, there was no book that had assembled photographs to tell this particular part of the story.

I asked some scholars who had written about Nazi looting if I had missed it, if there was a book out there. And they all said, “No, there isn't, but that'd be great to have. It would be a great resource for us.” And I, naively, really naively just thought, okay, well, if it hasn’t been done, it's just a matter of hard work. At the beginning, I hired companies to help clear photos and then we realized there's no black box there. It's just a lot of grunt work. And you're paying somebody a ridiculous sum to do grunt work, so we just figure out that we’d do it ourselves.

When I went to New York to see publishers with this enormous zeal and enthusiasm, thinking everyone will be as excited as I am, my parade got rained on quickly by publishers that said, “Well, no one cares about this. It's World War II. It's the past. Tom Brokaw has told it; Stephen Ambrose has told it.” And I said, “You know, I don’t think that’s right. Everybody I talk to says they’ve never heard of it and they just keep asking me questions.” Then they said, “There's already books on this.” And I said, “Well, funny that you say that, because all the people I ask say there isn't and it would be great to have one.”

So I figured out that the economics of a big book like Rescuing Da Vinci with photographs done in a first-class way are not favorable and that’s why there probably hasn’t been one. And the only way it was going to get done was to self-publish it. And so thus began my very painful introduction into the world of publishing and then ultimately becoming an author.

Vermeer Astronomer

I wanted to tell the story through images because that’s how I learn so quickly. We live in a really visual world and this story is so visual. It's so captivating to audiences because you see things that you know you know, like Michelangelo’s David. Everybody knows David, but you never seen it entombed in brick or, in the case of my last book, Saving Italy, with all the rubble lying around the base of it when they tore all the brick off. So people thought, “How have I not seen that photo? How do I not know what story that is?” And now you’ve got a very interested audience.

After I got through with that, I realized that this story is also a people story. It's not just a visual story. It's not about the works of art. It's about these people. What were they thinking? Why did they want to do this?

I had this fateful meeting with Lane Faison, who was a professor of art and art history at Williams College. At one time, there were five museum directors in the country that had been his students, including Rusty Powell, who is still at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. He was a Monuments Officer and also served in the OSS during World War II. At the very end, he and two other officers were charged with responsibility to write reports, interrogate all the bad guys, and figure out what was Hitler and Goring's plan for all this art. How did that fit in? And that was important documentation used during the trials at Nuremburg.

I saw and interviewed Lane and spent four hours with him just a few days before his 99th birthday. He was 98 and his boys told me he wasn’t in good enough health. They said, “He only stays awake for 45 minutes at at time and we don’t know how much he's going to be able to remember.” And I sat down and I had taken Rescuing Da Vinci with me. And we flipped through that and we talked for four hours. The twinkle in his eye was there. He was remembering names. He was correcting my pronunciation on certain words. He was asking me if I had seen some things that I hadn't seen yet.

He corrected us on a couple of names we’d switched on the photo captions and his boys were astonished. They couldn’t believe it. When I left, he pulled me close to himself and said, “You know, I've been waiting to meet you all my life.” I went on to a speaking engagement in Nashville and he died ten days later. He died ten days shy of his 99th birthday, on Veteran's Day.

After that, I felt this calling after he had acknowledged that I had the passion and the interest. And, that because I lived in Europe for five years, I had a capacity to understand how Europeans look at their cultural patrimony. And yet, being an American, I had a great appreciation for the role the United States had in the war. I don’t know, I just knew then that I was going to do it, but to do it, I needed to find the other people like Lane Faison and their kids and the letters because now I looked at it in a totally different light. And that’s when I started planning.

George Clooney Robert Edsel Grant Heslov

How much do you think what the Monuments officers were doing fit in with the Army culture? Did the Army care or understand what they were doing? Did they under the noses of the rest of the military?

I believe that President Roosevelt very quickly understood this project was a no-brainer. He authorized the creation of this commission and then it worked its way up to General Marshall, the Chief of Staff, and then General Eisenhower, and they endorsed having these officers as part of the Civil Affairs divisions, which were already part of the Army, so there's no innovation there.

By the time of December '43, we've landed and succeeded in getting through Sicily and onto the mainland through Naples, and we're slugging it out in Liri Valley and stuck on Anzio. We're trying to get to Rome and we're not making any progress.

At this point, he effort of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archive Section has been a pretty abject failure. There have been a lot of reports of looting by soldiers in Naples. Not organized looting, but just, you know, the “we're here, we're conquerors, pick stuff up” variety. There was not surprisingly a lot of damage to churches. It was a consequence of trying to soften up landing beaches, get soldiers and boots on the ground. People understood that. But it was generating a lot of negative press, in particular because the Nazis were experts with all their propaganda. And the Western Allies were wholly unprepared for it.

So we're getting pummeled in the press and it's not occurring to people there's another war going on here that’s being fought with a pen and typewriter and not necessarily bullets and guns. And, as a consequence, General Eisenhower, who was encouraged by General Marshall, acts in December '43 and issues an historic order to all his commanders that says that it's everyone's responsibility to protect cultural treasures, so much as war allows. If it comes down to the lives of our men or an object, the lives of our men count more, but too often that’s used as an excuse of convenience. He places everybody on notice that they’ll be held accountable.

No one’s ever done that before. The monuments officers grabbed hold of that edict. One of them said that the command was the first solid ground under their feet, because they had something they could go around and show other superior officers, many times half their age, that they weren’t making this up. This is an order from the Supreme Allied Commander.

Stout Bruges' Madonna

Eisenhower goes on to UK and begins planning for Overlord, and you see how he and his commanders learned from the mistakes in Italy. They go to school on those mistakes because the order was issued six months after the invasion of Sicily. There’s another two weeks before the Invasion of Normandy. It's expanded a bit on the first one, but it’s largely the same order, to make sure everybody is on notice about it.

Eisenhower had a good sense of the importance of this mission. I attribute this partly to the fact that, between the wars, General Pershing assigned him to be head of the American Battlefield Commission. Eisenhower lived in Paris for a while and traveled through Europe, looking at the cemeteries. And that’s when I think he got some sense of what the culture looked like there and how much it mattered to everybody.

While the Monuments men had orders that gave them power to do this, they didn’t have rank. They didn’t have command authority. They couldn’t tell anybody to do something, but these are middle-age guys that are incredibly articulate. They're persuasive. They're talking to, as I said in many cases, commanders who are half their age, so it's like talking to their students. I think they won people over just through reasoning and in trying to inspire them to help.

So as far as to the official Army channels: no, they didn’t get equipment. They didn’t have transportation. That was a chronic problem through the war. Cameras. When they got cameras, they didn’t have any film. And it went on and on and on, but they improvised. They adapted. They overcome like middle-age people who have had big jobs before but are now working without adequate resources learn how to do.

But they got the cooperation of the people in the field in the Army by winning them over kind of one-on-one with the support. In the closing months of the war, when these big discoveries start to occur in salt mines, now there's a cool factor associated with it. The Third Army makes this discovery in Merkers and now the other armies want to make their own discoveries in their areas. And so there becomes this inter-army rivalry.

Monuments Officers are then at the forefront of this. And they all were – several of them write home, I remember, letters writing to their wives saying, “You know, it's working. We have guys coming up to us saying, ‘How are we doing? Have you found anything?’”Return of Lady with an Ermine

How much of what they learned do you think stuck in the military culture, from Korea through Southeast Asia to our wars in the Middle East?

None, zero.

Why do you think that?

Partly because, in the mid-50’s, UNESCO creates the conventions that now govern the protection of worldwide cultural treasures. And the United States was an early signatory. It wasn’t ratified until recently. But so was Syria. So, you know, we see how toothless that effort was, despite the good intentions of a lot of people in UNESCO.

These Monuments Officers didn’t come home until 1950, '51. By the time they did, Korea was around the corner. We were already in a Cold War. They didn’t talk about what they did in World War II an more than other GI's did, other veterans. And Lane Faison and others told me it was a mistake. In hindsight, we see that now.

I'm on the board of the National World War II Museum. That museum wasn’t built until Stephen Ambrose decided to do it in the 90s, because World War II veterans didn’t want to have a museum built. They felt like it wasn’t a good use of public funds. They did what they were supposed to do. That’s the way they think. But they also realize now it is important because so many great lessons that we need to know today are contained in World War II and the public needs to know about those lessons.

So that’s been a huge part of what we're doing with the Monuments Men Foundation. It's not only to preserve the legacy of the past and have people know who they are and what they did. That’s the look back portion. But let’s put the legacy to use going forward and say to the military, not to make light of the difficulties in Iraq or other places, if we can do this in a World War with no technology and a handful of guys hitchhiking their way around, surely with the tools and technology we have today, we can do a better job than we're doing and let's reestablish the high bar. And so that’s the hope and that’s what I think one of the things that the film is going to be – the legacy of the film.

I hope we can find a way to educate people by showing them story that they can connect with: Leonardo Da Vinci, The David by Michelangelo, and other well-known artworks that reside in places they're more familiar with, languages that they may have a little bit easier time understanding. Then, in my opinion, that’s a universal story now. It also applies to Iraq. It applies to Syria. It applies to all these places.

And that’s the power of that story to teach, because everybody does know a little bit about World War II. Even if they feel like they’re not good on history, everyone knows something about World War II. The movie offers them a chance to learn more about something they think they know about. They won't know about the Monuments Men. They'll be surprised. It'll engage them. And then I think when we talk about whether it’s okay that things are being destroyed in Syria, it’ll make more sense. Is it okay that looters go into the Cairo Museum and loot it? People are going to say, no, that’s offensive. I mean where are the Monument's Officers? And that’s a good thing.

Check out Military.com's slideshow featuring images of the original Monuments Men.

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