Art, War and Monumental Men

The guides on the tour of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria will tell you all about how and why it was built and about Mad King Ludwig, who thought it up. They neglect to mention, however, that it was a prime destination for the art the Nazis looted from France.  The Nazis hid art they coveted all over Germany and the territories they invaded, including in mines and country houses; Neuschwanstein was just the most picturesque.

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel tells of the story of both the looting of Europe and those who try to stop and rectify it.  Mostly, it is the story of American and British military personnel, officers and enlisted men alike, who sprang into action when it became clear that Europe's cultural patrimony might remain in the hands of unscrupulous fascists or vaporize entirely.  However, not just army men are the heroes of this tale. Rose Valland, a French woman of unmatched courage, is one of their guides. Also, a great deal of credit goes to the curators and other museum workers in occupied countries who lie, sabotage and just plain affect incompetence to the Nazis and their lackeys.

The Monuments Men reads much like a novel, with people like Valland on one side and Reichsmarshall Goring on the other.  Goring, by the way, becomes something of a darkly comic figure in this story: choosing first the least sophisticated of the genuine art and then getting duped by not-terribly-good forgeries by Han van Meergen. Other Nazis give Snidely Whiplash a run for his money, especially when they realize the Third Reich is doomed. Of course, most artworks are eventually recovered, but it's a wild ride to get there.

Edsel has written two other books on similar subjects: Saving Italy and Rescuing Da Vinci.

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