05.25.13

How WWII Soldiers Saved Italy’s Art From the Nazis

How did Renaissance masterpieces survive the carnage of World War II? Noah Charney on a team of U.S. soldiers who rescued the world’s greatest objects from being stolen or destroyed by the Nazis.

The Second World War altered the map of Europe, and redistributed art on an unprecedented scale. But few people know the astonishing extent of art looting during the war. Adolf Hitler and his deputy Hermann Göring raced one another to steal artworks. Goring “collected” a private gallery of thousands of stolen masterpieces, displayed in a hunting lodge outside of Berlin as an enormous shrine to his deceased wife, while Hitler ordered art stolen both for his personal enjoyment and to fill his planned “super museum,” a conversion of an entire city in Austria to contain every important artwork in the world. Hitler’s boyhood town of Linz would be leveled and rebuilt, with masterpieces like The Ghent Altarpiece and the Mona Lisa as centerpieces in this definitive collection. It would even feature a gallery of horrors, a wing dedicated to “degenerate” art that did not meet the Nazi standards of racial purity of artist and subject matter. This wing would show the world from which the Nazis had saved humanity. Taking a note from Napoleon, whose army featured the first dedicated art theft unit, the Nazi army established the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), assigned the task of collecting documents, archives, and art for the Nazi cause.

The Allies only became aware of the true, systematic extent of Nazi art theft in 1943, years into the war. They knew of the infamous “degenerate” art exhibition that had toured Nazi-controlled Germany before the war, curated in such a way as to demonstrate the “inferiority” of these abstract contemporary works. They knew of the fire-sale of art seized from German citizens before the war, and sold at an auction at the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne—many of these works were bought by American and English collectors, whose desire to add to their collections helped finance Nazi armaments. But it was only in 1943 that a fortuitous toothache brought American soldiers Lincoln Kirstein (who would found New York City Ballet with George Balanchine after the war) and Robert Posey to a dentist near Trier, Germany. The dentist’s son-in-law, who was hiding in a cottage in the forest, was SS officer Hermann Bunjes, former art adviser to Göring. Kirstein and Posey tracked down Bunjes, and, assuming that they already knew of the Linz super museum, revealed to them the ERR’s systematic looting of Europe’s art collections.

The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies was established in 1943, and the 400 service members in the MFAA were mostly art historians and museum personnel who were known as Monuments Men. In anticipation of the Allied invasion, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower issued a statement to the Allied Army during the summer of 1944, regarding the protection of art treasures:

Shortly we will be fighting our way across the continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.

The Monuments Men accompanied the Allied armies to locate at-risk art and monuments that may be damaged or stolen in the chaos of war, and then preserve them as best they could in the field. Their story is one of intrigue, espionage and heroism, with the survival or destruction of the greatest treasures of human civilization hanging in the balance. The entire contents of the Uffizi Museum, the museums of Paris, and the treasures of dozens of churches were stripped by the Nazis. The Germans hid the contents of occupied Europe’s museums—tens of thousands of masterpieces—for use after the war. Many were stored in secret underground storage facilities, like the salt mine that was converted into a hi-tech art warehouse in the Austrian Alps at Alt Aussee, which contained 12,000 of the most important works that were destined for Hitler’s Linz museum. The Monuments Men led detective-work searches for hidden and stolen art, and followed just behind the front lines, trying to secure monuments that were damaged, like the Ponte Santa Trinita (Holy Trinity Bridge in Italian) in Florence, blown up by retreating Nazis to slow the advance of the Allies, the fire-bombed monastery of Monte Cassino, and the bomb-shattered Camposanto in Pisa. Robert M. Edsel’s absorbing, thoroughly researched gallop of a history book, Saving Italy, focuses on the efforts of the Monuments Men to protect and recover the art of Italy.

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‘Saving Italy: the Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis’ by Robert M. Edsel. 480 pp. Norton. $29. ()
The Monuments Men led detective-work searches for hidden and stolen art, and followed just behind the front lines.

The book is a companion volume to the successful and wonderfully detailed The Monuments Men, written by Edsel and Bret Witter, which came out in 2009 and was optioned by George Clooney for development into a movie, scheduled to come out next winter. While most of the stories in both of these volumes have been told before, they are largely unknown to the wider readership, even to avid World War II aficionados. Edsel, founder of the admirable Monuments Men Foundation, which keeps archival records of the efforts of these Allied heroes, has presented the material in a thorough, scholarly, but readable way. Peter Harclerode and Brendan Pittaway’s The Lost Masters tell the same stories in more detail. Other books focus on the Monuments Men’s individual adventures: Frederick Hartt’s out-of-print Florentine Art Under Fire recounts the battle for Florence, Sydney Kirkpatrick’s Hitler’s Holy Relics focuses on the Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, and my own Stealing the Mystic Lamb chronicles the recovery of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. But for the interested, intelligent lay reader, Edsel’s two volumes are the best place to go.

The Monuments Men touched upon all of the action in Europe save for Italy—a conspicuous absence that foretold a future volume. Saving Italy is better written (this time without a co-writer), and some of the tics in the first book that bothered critics have been expunged: for instance, the inclusion of the thoughts of historical figures without making clear whether this was an authorial device to make the narrative richer, or whether the words actually came from archival material. It is interesting to compare Saving Italy to The Venus Fixers by Ilaria Dagnini Brey, which tells the same story, and which was published just when Edsel’s first volume came out, in 2010. The Venus Fixers is a slimmer volume, more literary and elegantly written, but Edsel’s is the more authoritative, and its truly deep research and scholarship (and helpful citations) make it the weightier of the two, the better combination of fun and depth.

Saving Italy covers some of the greatest adventures during this dark time: the destruction of the Camposanto in Pisa, the looting of the Uffizi, the destruction of the Ponte Santa Trinita and large swaths of Florence (despite Hitler’s statement that “Florence is too beautiful a city to destroy. Do what you can to protect it”), the horror show of Monte Cassino, and more.

Monte Cassino is a particularly chilling tale. Allies spent weeks trying to extract entrenched Germans whom they believed to have been hiding in the ancient cliff-top monastery. Dozens of ground offensives failed to make headway, as German snipers cut down Allied assaults. The weighty decision was finally made to send in an airstrike that would drive them out, but also pulverize the 1,400-year-old monastery. Allied bombers dropped 1,400 tons of bombs, decimating the monastery that had been founded in 529 by Saint Benedict, shattering the frescoed walls and destroying the masterpieces stored there—only to learn afterward that the Germans were not in the monastery itself. Further, German paratroopers took up defensive positions in “the saw-toothed ruins” that resulted from the Allied air attack, and the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 raged on from January until May. Edsel writes, “When the cost of ‘victory’ was calculated, the numbers did resemble the ghastly battles of World War I: fifty-five thousand Allied casualties, and some twenty thousand dead and wounded Germans.” Of its once rich art and architecture, little remained. Monuments officer Norman Newton said that the side of the abbey facing the town of Cassino was “mostly leveled to ground floor … Statue of St. Benedeict is headless but otherwise intact … Reconstruction of the entire abbey is possible, although much is now only a heap of pulverized rubble and dust.” The treasures and the monastery, along with some 70,000 lives, had been destroyed.

The Second World War is rich in tales of heroism. Everyone who suffered during the war has his or her adventure to tell. But it is important to recall that even inanimate objects contain stories. Many artifacts, paintings, sculptures, and buildings were stolen or destroyed. Many other works of art were guarded and rescued by officers who braved death—precisely because these great treasures of civilization tell the stories of our cultural heritage.