Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History is a terrific book regarding a part of World War II history that few are aware of. One of Hitler’s goals was to amass great art for his personal collection, and to build a museum and a cathedral in Linz, Austria. What Edsel calls a “backwater of factories and smoke” would become, in Hitler’s vision, a cultural center to rival anything Europe had ever seen, and in no small part, to vindicate Hitler’s rejection from the Academy of Fine Art Vienna.
In addition, Herman Göring, Nazi Reichsmarschall, also wanted to create a personal collection of fine art, silver, and household items.
And thus, they plundered Europe.
While destroying “degenerate” art (such as Picasso’s and that of Jewish artists), the Nazis took hold of whatever they wished…and they wished for a lot. Göring literally stole train loads of art and furnishings. Michaelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges, the only sculpture of his to reside outside of Italy at the time, was unceremoniously dumped onto mattresses to be secreted away. The Bayeux Tapestry, a 224-foot long medieval work, dating from the 1070s, not only an art piece but a historical document, was hunted by Göring. After being moved to the Louvre for safe-keeping by the French, it was (as were thousands of other art pieces) crated up and hidden by the Nazis.
In the latter part of the war, it became a literal treasure-hunt: men from fields of art conservation, architecture, art history and engineering joined the U. S. Army in order to find the stolen heart of Europe. Sculptures, paintings, tapestries and more needed to be found, identified and returned to either personal collections or museums. And it was a race against time; the Nazis – knowing the end was near – were ordering that the art be destroyed before it fell into enemy hands.
Perhaps this treasure hunt seems superfluous. After all, the atrocities of the Nazis against human life makes everything else pale in comparison. Saving lives must always come before saving art. But the art – and the various cultures it all represents – matters.
In 1999, then-Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to artists. He acknowledged, of course, that God was the true Creator, the only being who can create something from nothing. However, Bl. John Paul spoke of the artist’s contribution to the “common good:”
Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is “the art of education”. Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good.
The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up”.
Further, he noted:
Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!”.
Just as the Nazis, in their quest to create the perfect race, wholly misunderstood Who creates, they misunderstood the place of beauty, culture and art. They wanted to hoard art, create culture (rather than having culture spring forth from the human imagination informed by the knowledge of God), and destroy whatever they deemed “offensive.” The perversity with which they viewed humanity is the same perversity they applied to art: it was meant only to serve their schemes. Art was not to be treasured for its beauty, its transcendent call, its heritage and its glorification of the Creator. The Nazis saw art only as a means to an end.
The Monuments Men (and one very brave woman – read the book) may not have saved lives, but they saved beauty. And for that, we owe them a great debt.