“Even at the moment he knelt before his mother’s grave on his second day as ruler of Austria, Nazi SS troops under the command of Heinrich Himmler were using those laws to arrest the Jewish patriarchy of Vienna and seize their property for the Reich. The SS knew where the artwork was hidden; they had a list of everything. Years earlier, German art scholars had begun visiting the countries of Europe, secretly preparing inventories so that when Hitler conquered each country – oh yes, he had been preparing for conquest even then – his agents would know the name and location of every important object of artistic and cultural value.”
This is the book that inspired the movie directed by George Clooney. The movie was terrible, absolutely terrible, but the story inspired me to read the book by Robert Edsel. The subtitle of The Monuments Men alludes to the fact that the was “the greatest treasure hunt in history” and that is basically what it was. There were barely a few hundred men and women who worked with the armies as they fought against the Germans, often putting them at the front often mere moments after the fighting stopped. Their task was to save and often retrieve famous works of art from the destruction and/or theft by the retreating German hoard. This story is told from the perspective of a few of the actual men and the text is sprinkled with actual letters from the men as the following excerpt is taken from;
“From my point of view, this [being a Monuments Man] is not a bad job. During the last three weeks I’ve been in harness with an Englishman who’s gone horribly sour and says we’re wasting our time. I don’t know what he expected. Some strange romantic adventure, person glory, or great authority, perhaps. He doesn’t convince me. We can’t count the result but I’m satisfied, not with what I’ve done but with what the job stands for. One little thing that is neither here nor there and won’t stand on any record pleases me. That is the attitude of the me I run across. They don’t really care what’s been damaged but they seem to figure it’s part of the game and they want to know more about it.”
Skip the movie and read the book.