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The Story of the Real Monuments Men Continues
02 / 07 / 14 | By: Brian Martin
At the end of January my wife and I enjoyed the privilege of attending an advance screening of The Monuments Men at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The movie tells an important and poignant story in an engaging manner while communicating significant elements with historical authenticity and nuance. Enhancing the cinematic experience was a Q&A session led by Robert Edsel, founder and chair of the Monuments Men Foundation, who has devoted more than a decade to telling this story and pursuing the unfinished mission of repatriating looted art. Edsel’s book of the same title inspired and informed the film.
Centered on the big question of whether the preservation of cultural treasures is worth the sacrifice of human lives, for some at the Archives the film’s message resonated with more recent events in Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, and Syria. It asks and answers this question from the perspective of the monuments men and women but also explores some of its inherent complexity. Afterwards, Edsel cited General Dwight Eisenhower’s December 29, 1943, order pertaining to historic monuments that acknowledges the ambiguities of respecting cultural artifacts “so far as war allows.”
Piles of boxes, records, and clothing are guarded by an American GI inside a church in Ellingen, Germany. The church had been used by Nazis as a secret depot for clothing requisitioned from France and Holland. Photo courtesy National Archives.
For me, good historical fiction always begs the question, “Where does the historical end and the fiction begin?” So I wasn’t surprised when it was the first query posed from the audience. Edsel explained the manipulation of some basic facts regarding chronology, geography, and face-to-face interaction to propel the story, but he noted that scenes which appear unbelievably coincidental actually happened. If your curiosity requires more detailed clarification, thanks to Edsel and others there are numerous books, documentaries, oral histories, and shelves of original documents available on this subject.
Indeed, like most history, The Monuments Men actually represents a rediscovery and retelling of a significant story. Over the years my colleagues at History Associates have played a small role in telling aspects of this story in support of the Monuments Men Foundation and The National WWII Museum. Beyond that we have participated in ongoing efforts to repatriate not only cultural artifacts but also personal assets to individuals, families, and organizations victimized by war.
For more information on the Monuments Men
- Monuments Men Foundation: www.monumentsmenfoundation.org
- Resources from the National Archives: www.archives.gov/press/press-releases/2014/nr14-29.html
- The Monuments Men exhibit at the National Gallery of Art: www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/press/2013/monumentsmen.html
- Watch a video interview with Maygene Daniels, Chief of Gallery Archives at the National Gallery of Art:www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3j1rrPVThw
Categories: Historical Research