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The Metropolitan Museum of Art is envied across the world for its incomparable permanent collection. Containing more than two million works of art from cultures in every nook and cranny of the globe, the Met has undoubtedly established itself as one of the top museum destinations of our time. In particular, one of the largest departments at The Meet is European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, housing roughly 50,000 individual works from the 1400’s through the early twentieth century. As for the more modern chunk of the collection, you may ask: How did these artifacts survive the devastation of World War II? How did these pieces of European heritage land in New York City? This begs yet another question, who brought them here?
Robert M. Edsel is here to satisfy our curiosity. In his new book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, Edsel follows the stories of the men and women whose primary task was to help find, recover and preserve the artistic cultural legacy of Europe during and following WWII. These men and women had little to no authority and were few in numbers, yet they managed to secure and protect invaluable works of art, including those of Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. As Edsel notes, however, these soldiers were not simply trying to rescue stolen art, they were also fighting to preserve the local European culture that was rapidly being destroyed in war-torn Europe.
Despite being centered around WWII and the Nazi’s brutal practices and ideologies, The Monuments Men is unlike any other historical account of this period in world history. The obvious reason being that these people and their mission have been overshadowed by the larger atrocities that occurred at this time. But what makes this book especially unique is the style in which it is written. Half Hollywood blockbuster, half tear-jerking tale of horror, this book is its own species.
The Monuments Men is a great untold adventure, its main value being that it tells, “a significant story at the heart of the war effort, involving the most unlikely group of heroes you’ve never heard of.” This set-up alone makes for a good read, however, there are a few historical inaccuracies that give the book more of a treasure hunt fictional feel.
In his introduction, Edsel acknowledges the potential for historical inconsistencies in his account, by “creating a dialogue for continuity.” It is very rare for an historian to come out and directly say, I realize I might not have had all the facts, this was the best I could do to tell this story, if you have further information or corrections, I am interested. Thus, his enthusiasm for this story, his passion for preserving cultural heritage and his clarity as an historian make The Monuments Men worthy of its title.