World War II literature and film are full of heroic tales chronicling the rescue of stranded soldiers, POWs and Holocaust refugees. But in the new film “The Monuments Men,” it’s not imperiled people who need saving but the priceless art of Europe. The film tells the story of a small group of art experts, museum curators, architects, professors and historians who risked their lives to save historical monuments, artifacts and precious artwork during and after the war.

Hitler destroyed countless works by Jews, Slavs, and others deemed “degenerate,” including modern artists like Dali, Klee and Picasso. His forces also stole DaVincis, Michelangelos and other masterworks from museums in Nazi-occupied countries, and confiscated the private collections of wealthy Jews. It was the greatest art theft in history, and the recovery mission is the basis of the film starring, directed and co-written by George Clooney and co-starring Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray. The movie opens on Feb. 7. It’s also the subject of the National Geographic Channel documentary “Hunting Hitler’s Stolen Treasures: The Monuments Men,” premiering on Feb. 5.

Featuring interviews with cast members from the film, history and art experts, a surviving Monuments Men member, and archival footage and photos, the special highlights show just how pervasive this Nazi crime was. One secret cave was found to hold an estimated $37 billion in art and currency. Although 5 million plundered pieces have been recovered, around 200,000 are still missing. 

Elizabeth Karlsgodt, history professor at U of DenverElizabeth Karlsgodt (pictured right), a history professor at the University of Denver and an expert on the subject who teaches courses on Nazi art looting and European cultural history during the wars, appears in the documentary. She first became aware of the story in grad school, and wrote a dissertation about it that became a book, “Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage under Vichy.” She shared her insights with MNN.

MNN: It’s pretty shocking how widespread this art theft was. Why aren’t people generally aware of this important story?
Elizabeth Karlsgodt: There have been some important books on the topic that reached a limited audience. Robert Edsel has been able to reach a mass audience with “The Monuments Men.” Edsel wrote it with vivid language that reads like a suspense novel. He adds some creativity, such as with invented conversations among historical figures, an approach that adds to its wide appeal. George Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov were able to convince Sony Pictures that the story line would sell, and the film is greatly increasing public awareness of the Monuments Men. International events have helped push the issue of Nazi-era art into news headlines. For example, revelations last fall about the hoard of around 1,400 artworks found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment coincided with marketing for the film. Over the last few decades, the Holocaust and the loss of human life has been examined through films like "Schindler’s List," "The Pianist" and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." Museums like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum have helped to teach this painful history to the general public. This greater awareness of the Final Solution now allows a discussion of looted art that does not seem frivolous. Rather, restitution can be viewed as a way to achieve belated justice for the heirs of Holocaust victims.

What revelations about the story surprised you most?

I was stunned by the conditions in which MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) officers worked. They faced a continual shortage of equipment, personnel and supplies. One of the most dramatic accounts is the rescue of art from the Merkers salt mine in Germany. George Stout, who inspired George Clooney’s character in the film, oversaw operations to remove 400 paintings from Berlin’s National Gallery. He was an internationally renowned art preservation expert and he had no packing materials. So he used 1000 sheepskin coats that had been found in a neighboring mine. They had been intended to protect Wehrmacht soldiers on the Eastern Front, but instead protected works of art for German museums.

Plus, the men were using a rickety elevator, descending 2,100 feet underground, in the midst of shelling nearby that caused power outages. It was dangerous work and must have been terrifying. And they were risking their lives to save art for the enemy’s museums. Granted, they had a sense that they were preserving the art for all of humanity, but on a basic level, they were saving the cultural heritage of the enemy still firing at them.

What's the most significant impact made by the efforts of the Monuments Men? 

The vast art recovery effort required the military power of the western Allies, particularly U.S. forces. The U.S. took the lead in creating the MFAA in 1943, which eventually recruited more than 350 art experts from 13 countries. They located and processed several million objects — paintings, sculpture, museum-quality furniture, rare books and manuscripts. Once the objects were in collecting points in Germany, with the central collecting point located in Munich, the MFAA faced the daunting task of restitution. This side of their mission still remains unfinished as thousands of works of art never reached their rightful owners.

What is the status of the effort now?
My next book will focus on the fate of unclaimed works of art that had been looted by the Nazis or sold by Jews under duress. The MFAA focused on returning works of art to countries of origin, and each nation then carried out its own restitution policies, processing claims. My study focuses on France, Belgium and the Netherlands, examining what these governments did with objects that had not been claimed by the late 1940s. Even though all three states held extensive archives on the seized art, they did not carry out provenance research on the pieces; they followed the international legal norm at the time, waiting for valid claims, even though persecuted families lacked the required documentation. Instead, these governments auctioned off less desirable pieces and placed the more valuable ones under state guardianships. The Netherlands has been the most proactive in launching belated provenance research on 3,800 pieces held by the state with a “war history.” Progress has been slower in France, and the current minister of culture, Aurélie Filippetti, has only in the last year vowed to increase the pace and intensity of provenance research on the roughly 2,000 unclaimed works still held by the government. In Belgium, museums appropriated around 640 works, and an Indemnification Commission reviewed restitution claims between 2002 and 2007, allowing around 50 restitutions.

the real life Monuments Men

The real-life Monuments Men. (Photo courtesy National Geographic Channel)

Do you think the National Geographic documentary will interest people in seeing the film?

It will interest history buffs who seek a deeper understanding of these people and events. The most intellectually curious among them will be able to recognize the ways in which the feature film fictionalizes the history, and enjoy it as entertainment. The film, for example, portrays a platoon of men going through training in England together, most of them landing on the Normandy beaches together. But such a platoon never existed. Most often, they were working alone, scattered among the Allied armies, or with a partner. Lt. James Rorimer, for example, who inspired Matt Damon’s character in the film, worked alone most of the time he was in Normandy, in August 1944. Rorimer landed on Utah Beach with French soldiers and immediately began inspecting damage to nearby churches and other historic sites. He carried out this work without a vehicle or an assistant. He hitched rides on military vehicles whenever possible, or with French civilians. Often, he walked, becoming in his own words (from his memoir, "Survival") “a reluctant foot soldier.”

What other examples of artistic license does the film take with history?

The portrayal of German destruction of art needs some nuance. They destroyed works they considered “degenerate” — modernist works that they believed would be toxic to the German, meaning Aryan, spirit. Cubist, surrealist and expressionist works, to the Nazis, were the products of weak, inferior minds.

We know they destroyed around 4,800 paintings in Berlin, in March 1939, and several hundred works by Miró, Klee, Ernst, Léger in Paris in July 1943. But the Nazis did not systematically destroy art they valued. In the film, we see the methodical destruction of art by the Germans at the Heilbronn mine, following Hitler’s instructions in the Nero Decree of March 1945, to leave nothing of value for the invading Allied forces. According to the decree, factories, bridges, railways were to be destroyed, but Albert Speer largely thwarted its implementation. Plus, it did not apply to art; no paintings were burned at Heilbronn. Hitler did, however, put masterpieces at risk by issuing the Nero Decree. In Austria, the fanatical Nazi Gauleiter August Eigruber interpreted the Nero Decree to include the Alt Aussee salt mine, and the art stored inside, including the Ghent altarpiece, Bruges Madonna and works from Vienna museums.

In early May 1945, Austrian mine officials had received authorization to seal the mine and protect the art inside. Two MFAA members in the Third U.S. Army, Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein and Capt. Robert Posey, arrived at the mine on May 16, 1945, a week after V-E Day, to dig through the rubble, locating the cultural treasures.

The film also could have made further connections between the looted art and the Holocaust. We see hints of the seizure of property as part of the Nazi elimination of Jews in the Final Solution, but those references are outnumbered by more universal messages about saving a collective heritage and a “generation’s” history. The film accurately shows the importance of the U.S.-led operation, but also could have portrayed further the important work carried out by our western allies. The American Monuments Men greatly relied on European intelligence and the cooperation of art experts who had been documenting Nazi theft and domination of the wartime art market well before American involvement.

Anything else diverge from fact?

Claire Simone, played skillfully by Cate Blanchett, is a highly fictionalized version of an important French curator, Rose Valland. The real Rose was a rather gruff woman, simple in appearance, who was able to spy on Nazi looting operations in the Jeu de Paume museum, where she had been working when the war began. She also spoke German, unbeknownst to the looters, and created lists of art that was sorted at the museum and sent to repositories in the Third Reich. She worked under the German radar in a way that would have been more difficult for a Claire Simone. Plus, the romantic tension between Blanchett and Damon’s characters is pure Hollywood invention. Valland and Rorimer had a profound professional relationship that led to the recovery of the greatest masterpieces looted from France. Once Rorimer earned Valland’s trust, they developed a deep respect for each other and remained in touch after the war, until Rorimer’s death in 1966. Valland’s important role in the recovery process has become better known in France over the last several years. Even though Claire is a fictional character, I expect many viewers in France will be dismayed by this interpretation of one of their great wartime heroes.

What’s the main takeaway from this story?

The men and women in the MFAA often risked their lives to save European art and heritage, and much of their work remains unfinished. It’s staggering how much we still don’t know about the lost art. We do not know how many objects remain in Russia, where leaders continue to view the art seized by the Red Army as just reparations for Nazi brutality on the Eastern Front. There could be other caches of art in Switzerland and neutral countries that the Nazis used as safe-havens for looted assets.

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