The Real ‘Monuments Men’ (and Women)

There’s real history behind the new film with George Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett.

Matt Damon and George Clooney star in Columbia Pictures' "The Monuments Men."

Hollywood's Monuments Men, Matt Damon and George Clooney.

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George Clooney’s latest film, “The Monuments Men,” offers audiences a feel-good adventure about American heroes who outsmart Hitler. Drawn from Robert Edsel’s book of the same title, the film is based on the true story of American and European art experts who became officers in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of Allied forces and recovered several million cultural objects from Nazi art repositories. The actual history of the Monuments Men is riveting in its own right, but without the happy Hollywood ending.

Charged with protecting European cultural heritage from the ravages of war, the Monuments Men initially focused on preserving churches, palaces and other historic buildings but ended up recovering the art found in Nazi caches as the Allies moved into Reich territory. The repositories held objects evacuated from museums in the Third Reich and stolen from German-occupied territories across Europe, such as Belgium’s Ghent Altarpiece and the Bruges “Madonna” by Michelangelo. Most tragically, the Nazis had plundered much of the loot from Jewish art collectors, while agents working for party leaders had bought thousands of pieces relinquished by Jews under duress.

In the Hollywood version of events, the Monuments Men race against time to find art repositories before the crumbling Third Reich destroys the hidden treasures. In fact, Hitler never ordered the destruction of the art his henchman had stolen for him. On the contrary, Hitler, who was building the world’s greatest museum in his childhood hometown in Austria, aimed to preserve the art the Nazis had accumulated to glorify himself and the Third Reich. His planned display of the continent’s masterpieces would symbolize his military power, much as Napoleon had done with the Louvre collection before him. His drive to preserve fine art, however, was directly connected to the Nazi destruction of people who had owned it.

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In the film, we see the Monuments Men organized into a platoon, surviving boot camp together, landing on the Normandy beaches and developing a sense of camaraderie in their hunt for looted art. But such a platoon never existed. The military command scattered cultural officers across Allied armies and they mostly worked alone or with one partner, meeting only occasionally to share information and avoid duplicating efforts.

The challenge of working in isolation is illustrated by the work of Lt. James Rorimer, the inspiration for Matt Damon’s character, James Granger. Rorimer landed with French troops at Utah Beach in August 1944, two months after D-Day, and began surveying the destruction inflicted on historic buildings by German and Allied bombing. Rorimer mostly worked alone in Normandy, without a vehicle or assistant, hitching rides on Allied military vehicles and with French civilians. When that wasn’t possible, he walked. Alone. One Air Corps MP captain suspected he was a German spy, incredulous that a U.S. officer would travel in Normandy without his own transportation. Rorimer and his colleagues used cunning and imagination to make up for the dearth in personnel, equipment and supplies. Fogg Museum preservationist George Stout, the inspiration for Clooney’s character, managed to secure a beat up German Army Volkswagen, and New York architect Bancel LaFarge, after weeks of hitchhiking and walking, procured a small British car to navigate country roads.

The name “Monuments Men” itself elides a rich part of this history: the role played by remarkable women like Rose Valland, a French museum official who inspired Cate Blanchett’s character Claire Simone. In the film, Simone shows Granger the extent of Nazi looting by taking him to a Paris warehouse filled with objects plundered from Jewish homes, much as Valland did with Rorimer in December 1944. Romantic tension between the film characters is pure Hollywood invention, but in real life the two were a powerful team, as Rorimer used Valland’s records of Nazi art looting to track down the treasures of France stashed in Neuschwanstein Castle and other repositories. A recipient of the Resistance Medal, the French Legion of Honor and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, she remains one of the most decorated women in French history.

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The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, the nonprofit which Edsel – the author of the book – founded, includes Valland and several other women on its list of more than 300 “Monuments Men” from 13 countries. Among them was Capt. Edith Standen, a Canadian-born art expert who joined the U.S. Women’s Army Corps and later became director of the Wiesbaden central collecting point and Ardelia Hall, a cultural officer at the U.S. State Department who worked tirelessly to promote restitution of looted art to rightful – mostly Jewish – owners.

“The Monuments Men” is an entertaining entry to a far more complicated history embedded in the Holocaust. In the chaotic postwar years, restitution was defined in national terms, to countries of origin that would determine rightful owners, despite the fundamentally international nature of the art market.  Over the past 70 years, works seized from Jewish collections or sold under duress during the Nazi era have been resold across territories with varying statutes of limitation for illicit trade, even within the United States. For this reason, the central mission of many Monuments Men and women, restitution to rightful owners, is not yet accomplished.