Rescuing Art: Interview With Monuments Men Foundation Founder Robert Edsel
It was a story that has been left untold for many years: In the last year of World War II, a group of men and women–made up of museum curators, historians, and educators, who served in the US Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit–tracked and located more than 5 million works of art stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. It is considered one of the greatest treasure hunts in history.
Today, the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, headquartered in Dallas, aims to identify and honor all those who served as “Monuments Men” during World War II, raise awareness about the importance of protecting cultural artifacts from armed conflict, and help facilitate the recovery of artistic treasures and documents that remain missing.
Dallas native and Texas Medal of Arts recipient Robert Edsel, the founder and president of the Monuments Men Foundation, is leading the organization’s important mission. A modern day Indiana Jones, Edsel has also written extensively about the subject, penning the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.
Mr. Edsel recently shared his insights on art preservation and the recent discovery of an audio recording by General Dwight Eisenhower speaking about the importance of protecting art during war.
CBSDFW.com: Why do you think the story of the Monuments Men was left untold for so long?
Robert Edsel: The Monuments Men, like other World War II veterans, were loath to talk about their exploits. Consider that our nation didn’t have a museum honoring the service of World War II veterans until the year 2000, when the National World War II Museum opened. While there were millions of men and women in uniform, there were only 345 or so Monuments Men and Women, and less than 80 in Europe by the end of the war on May 8, 1945. They had no unit; just a group of individuals attached to various allied armies. And when other troops returned home, they work of the Monuments Men was just beginning. By the time they returned home in 1951, the United States was involved in new wars—in Korea, and the Cold War. Their service just got lost in the fog of history.
I also believe it has taken the passage of years for us to see the work of the Monuments Men in proper perspective. Imagine a world with no paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, no sculpture by Michaelangelo, no libraries left intact. The magnitude of their accomplishment is, even today, hard to comprehend.
CBSDWF.com: How many other works of art are missing? How close are we to recovering many of them?
Robert Edsel: Hundreds of thousands of things are still missing, perhaps far more when we define “art” to include paintings, books, drawings, historical documents, musical manuscripts and so on. The magnitude of theft during World War II was without precedent. The items that are still missing that weren’t portable, in other words, couldn’t be carried, are probably destroyed. But if it is missing and was portable, there’s a good chance it survived the war and is owned by someone who may not even know what they have. This underscores the importance of the work of the Monuments Men Foundation and increasing public awareness to enlist the help of others in finding these important objects.
CBSDFW.com: How important was the recent discovery of the Eisenhower audio recording? What does this mean to work of the Foundation?
Robert Edsel: In the long term, perhaps the most important discovery we have made. Certainly some of the documents we’ve located that were in Hitler’s possession and daily use, such as Hitler albums, or the Gemaldegalerie Linz Album, have received more visibility n the media. And these are without question, important documents—evidence, in fact—of Hitler and the Nazis’ premeditated theft. But the audio recording of General Eisenhower’s remarkable speech about the work of the Monuments Men and the importance of art in our daily lives is timely proof of a moment when the US said to the world “we respect and will protect the culture of others.” It was never done before and hasn’t been done since.
General Eisenhower was a smart man. He understood that art, like sports and music, has the power to bind us as people. They create those transcendent moments when we stop being Americans or Iraqis, Christian or Muslim, and we just hang out and enjoy the beauty of the moment. By protecting the culture of others we proved through actions, not words, the goodness of our cause and who we are as a nation. From my view, our world today could benefit greatly from employing the same policy and approach. To be able to hear the greatest wartime general–Dwight D. Eisenhower–so passionately express his conviction on this topic is a privilege for civilization, and an honor for the Monuments Men Foundation.
CBSDFW.com: What kind of government policies do you think are needed when it comes to handling cultural artifacts in current war efforts?
Robert Edsel: We need the President of the United States to do today what President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower did during World War II: state unequivocally that the US will, as it did during World War II, respect the culture of others, especially during armed conflict. That key step will pave the way for leaders at the state and defense departments to develop the procedures to implement that policy statement. But without the “chief executive officer,” so to speak, of our nation publicly making this the policy of our country, we will, I believe, continue to make the same mistakes as we did in the aftermath of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003.
We do have more work to do to create more fulltime specialists in our civil affairs section, “monuments men and women” if you will, but I believe the most important step begins at the White House. Anything less will yield failure. The Monuments Men Foundation is committed to encouraging the president to take this important step.
Learn more about the Monuments Men Foundation by visiting their website.