"The Monuments Men" is a movie that is for the most part has gone off movie screens (although it will be back soon enough on DVR). However, in my view it should not be forgotten. For those who might not be familiar with it, it is about a group of fine art and architectural experts who are assigned to closely follow allied forces through France and Northern Europe as they slowly push the Nazi Army back to Germany and then, closing in with the Red Army coming from the East, force the German unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945. Their assignment (and there was no "Mr. Phelps" to accept or reject it) was multi-fold: to try to prevent where possible damage to priceless and irreplaceable art and architecture by allied forces, prevent the theft of fine art by the Nazis, and in the case of art already stolen, recover it.
As Manohla Dargis pointed out in her review in The New York Times, "The story's real life heroes were a group of curators, restorers, archivists and the like who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section, an Allied effort to protect Europe's cultural heritage." The exploits (and there were many) of the real Monuments Men (and women) are recounted in several books , among them one by Robert Edsel with Bret Witter entitled "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History." The actual number of monuments men and women was 345. For the purposes of his movie George Clooney whittled the number down to six.
The movie received only lukewarm reviews (at least the ones I saw were lukewarm). It was generally summed up as "Ocean's Eleven" meets "The Dirty Dozen." An art historian whom I know well, whose specialty is World War II art, who also knows a great deal about the work of the real monuments men, dismissed the movie as a very light treatment of a piece of serious history. But I happen to think that when one gets beyond the matter of the compression of the MM unit and the way the story was presented ("pedestrian" and "predictable" were two adjectives widely used) it is a very important movie, for several reasons.
First of all, as we get further and further away from the Second World War, for understandable reasons fewer and fewer movies are being made about it. To me this one is important first because it shows a side of the Nazis and their regime, which once covered the whole of Europe aside from Sweden, Spain, and Portugal, not often seen. In addition to all of their other crimes, they were common thieves. In fact , once they had fully established State anti-Semitism in Germany in the mid-1930s, a significant source of their financing came from stolen Jewish property. And they did not stop stealing Jewish property when they went into the occupied countries.
The movie makes it clear that much of the art they stole had been in private Jewish collections, and while they kept the art, for the most part they shipped their former owners off to the furnaces. In certain instances, they stole public art too. And so while World War II made war on civilians commonplace, the Nazis added war on culture to it. (There had of course been prior instances of war on civilians. W.T. Sherman's March through Georgia, Philip Sheridan's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, and the centuries-long wars on the Native Americans, culminating in the [ironically] Sherman/Sheridan-led Indian Wars of the 1870s, are examples. But both sides engaged against widespread war on civilians in World War II.) I think that it is important to illustrate how the Nazis went after art. Hitler, who when he was young had had aspirations to be an artist, planned a huge museum to display the stolen work, in his home city of Linz, Austria.
But then the movie brings other examples of the war on culture in the modern era to mind, which is also why I think that it is important. In World War II, while the Nazis stole art for their hoped-for post-war private collections as Goering, who knew what he was looking at, wanted to do , a famous Allied raid destroyed the priceless medieval city of Dresden, which had no military value. The destruction of the even more priceless Japanese city of Kyoto by Curtis Lemay's bombers was prevented only by the direct intercession of the Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson. (There had long been a story that the Japanese scholar Edwin O. Reischauer [ which I believed until I went to Google once again ] had achieved this, but Reischauer gave the credit to Stimson.)
More recently, there has been the famous destruction of a 1500 year-old Buddha by the Talban in Afghanistan. Then think of what happened to the museums in Baghdad, which contained priceless relics of the ancient Middle Eastern cultures. As US forces entered Baghdad in the early days of the War on Iraq, museum officials pleaded with US commanders to send soldiers to set up guard posts. While the story as to what really happened has been somewhat murky , when Donald Rumsfeld was asked at the time why whatever had happened happened, he replied "s__t happens."
Finally, in terms of what might have been destroyed but wasn't in the Second World War, it was fortunate that with Nazi cooperation Rome was declared an Open City, that the rumours (shown but not corrected in "The Monuments Men") that the Nazis had destroyed Florence were false, and that through a combination of the hesitancy of the German Commandant in Paris and the revolt engineered by the Communist-led Resistance, Paris did not burn. Even the Nazis, at least some of them, had a certain respect for art, even if they wanted to steal it for various private and to-be public collections. But one wonders (at least I do) when the Second Civil War comes to the United States, would the religio-fascist forces do just the opposite? If given the opportunity to do so, would they possibly go out of their way, say, to destroy the great art collections in New York City, which certain of their number regard as "sinful." The Christian Air Force, anyone?
And so, "The Monuments Men" if nothing else makes one think. At least it made me think.