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George Clooney’s “Monuments Men” speaks for art history

February 21, 2014

Reviews almost kept me from this movie, but I’m glad I went. Especially so because I liked the question that was constantly being put to the squad trying to recover the stolen Nazi art — Was it worth risking lives for art?

This is a variety of the question put by those who think there is nothing worth fighting for. Why risk a life for art? Why fight for a country? Yes, there is a difference, but a nation’s heritage is seen best in its art. Music can be played after a fire, drama can be performed and literature reprinted. But art is fragile, even art made of marble. That is why we honor Dolley Madison, the president’s wife in the War of 1812. Nothing was going well on the battlefield — and even the successful defense of Baltimore, where the National Anthem was composed, was successful only in that the British didn’t take the city, but the British sailed up the Potomac River and advanced on Washington. When warned that the redcoats were coming, Dolley Madison left her meal on the table, where the redcoats found it still warm. But she took the time to cut George Washington’s portrait out of the frame and save it from being burned. Certainly the 345 men and women who were Monuments Men thought it worth-while. They came from thirteen different nations, some from lands that had been looted to provide private art collections for Hitler, Goering, Rosenberg and other Nazi thugs who saw this as a cheap way to buy culture. That and listening to Wagner.

The movie was well-done, though critics have not praised it highly — they suggested that George Clooney couldn’t decide whether it was to be a serious film or a comedy, or if he was just another actor who should have majored in history before starting to write a script.

The movie brought many memories to mind. First of all of past colleagues who had talked to the students in my World War II classes about their experiences in the European theater — John Ketterer, Bob Buchholz, and Woody Ball. Carl Waring, a Wallace Hall janitor I spoke to daily for many years, drove a jeep ahead of Patton’s advance. He had incredible adventures right at the end of the war as the tank column roared into Germany and he was pushing to stay ahead. Once running into a road block put up by Hitler Jugend, he got out, rounded up some old men who then marched in parade step to the kids and told them the war was over. Of course, there were some youthful fanatics who insisted on fighting, so they got killed. When mothers complained, the commander got Carl back to France in a hurry. Mike McNall, his boss at Monmouth College, remembers that story, too.

My dissertation advisor, Archie Lewis, earned the Croix de Guerre for driving ahead of the American advance in France to ask if there were any snipers in the church towers. This was important, I understood, because surveyors used the tips of church steeples to measure property boundaries. He would ask villagers to check, then presumably see if they could get the snipers out. Our tank crews were of the opinion that their lives were more important than steeples, and they were in a hurry.

Fortunately, much of the most endangered art was put into safe-keeping at the onset of the war.Entire churches were stripped of their medieval windows and paintings, art galleries were emptied, and facades were covered with protective panels. The “phony war” of September 1939 to May of 1940 gave curators plenty of time, but also made politicians think that it was a waste of time and money.

The one country that took almost no precautions was Nazi Germany. Hitler called such fears “defeatism” and forbade any action that might lead civilians to doubt that he could prevent the allies from bombing German cities. As a result, once American bombers hit cities by day and British bombers raided by night, the cultural losses were severe. There was no such thing as “precision” bombing. First of all, German weather means lots of clouds and rain, then there was smoke from the first wave of bombers. Secondly, Germans did everything they could to throw off radio direction signals that navigators relied on to find the targets. Thirdly, German fighters disrupted formations, attacking from the front so fast that nose gunners couldn’t see the tiny dots coming until too late; and radar could not tell friend from foe at better than 95% accuracy, which would have had Americans shooting down a lot of their own aircraft. Last, since high-flying 8th Air Force bombers could only get 20% of their bombs within 1000 feet of the target, the best tactic was to have a mass of bombers drop all their bombs at once. Some were sure to hit.

Where I studied, in Hamburg, there had been three raids of more than 700 aircraft. The third night carpet bombing completely missed the target, but plastered the area hit by the first raid. The fire storm ate up the oxygen, suffocating everyone in the underground shelters. 42,000 people died. All the churches were destroyed. The downtown was gone.

Berlin was a wreck, too, made worse by the desperate fighting when the Red Army stormed the city defenses. 80,000 Russians died, 100,000 Germans. Then the city was divided into occupation zones the Russians getting most of the museums. Not surprisingly, it was Soviet Monuments Men who had the task of recovering stolen art and deciding where it would go.

Least cooperative were the Swiss, who had decided that whatever art was not claimed by the owners or their heirs would belong to Swiss bankers.

As for the Jews, who had a reasonable claim to some very important pictures, there has been some recent progress. Five Gustav Klimt paintings in Austria were restored to heirs in 2006, and two more are in Vienna law courts right now. Americans are discovering that some of the mementoes their grandfathers brought home were technically stolen property.

William Urban
Contributing Faculty Writer

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