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THE MONUMENTS MEN

About The Real Monuments Men and the Art
For centuries, conquering armies have treated the art of their vanquished as spoils of war." But the world was not prepared for the pillage of the Nazis, who stole millions of art treasures as they marched through Europe."

Adolf Hitler was a great art lover. A frustrated artist who had been rejected by the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Hitler dreamed of transforming his adopted hometown of Linz, Austria, into a cultural capital. At the center of this new metropolis would be the Gemaldegalerie LInz, or Fuhrermuseum as it became known, which would house and display some of the world's greatest works of art: paintings, sculpture, tapestries... anything that Hitler deemed worthy of his collection. Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, the number two man in the Nazi Party who saw himself as a "Renaissance man," also had ambitions of amassing a great art collection. "I intend to plunder, and to do it thoroughly," he once said.

The sheer volume of thievery is staggering: the Nazis looted more than five million of Europe's greatest cultural treasures. The stolen items included tens of thousands of works by a veritable Who's Who of artists: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Jan Van Eyck, Vermeer, Vincent van Gogh, and many more. Just one repository for the artwork - the salt mine at Altaussee, Austria - contained 6,577 paintings, 230 drawings or watercolors, 137 sculptures, 122 tapestries, and 1200-1700 cases of rare books.

Long before news about the Nazi art thievery and the destruction of churches, museums and monuments reached elected leaders in the United States, prominent members of the American art community developed plans to save the cultural and artistic heritage of western civilization. They took their case to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, understanding its importance, authorized the creation of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe. From that commission sprang the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section, a hand-picked group of museum curators, architects, scholars, educators, and artists who volunteered for military service to protect historical monuments, recover looted art, and eventually return those treasures to the countries from which they had been stolen.

At the time of Germany's surrender, there were only about a dozen Monuments Men near the front lines in northern Europe, including:

"Lieutenant George Stout, a pioneer in the field of art restoration who first conceived the idea of cultural preservation officers, who later became known as "Monuments Men." A constant source of encouragement and a steady hand, Stout was the acknowledged leader of the group.

Second Lieutenant James J. Rorimer, curator of the world famous Cloisters Museum and, after the war, the sixth director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

Captain Walker Hancock, one of America's most renowned sculptors.

Captain Robert Posey, an architect who came from a family with a distinguished history of military service dating back to the colonial wars, loved serving under General Patton in U.S. Third Army.

Private Lincoln Kirstein, a cultural impresario who would, after the war, cofound what today we know as the New York City Ballet.

Private Harry Ettlinger, a German-born Jew who, with his family, fled Nazi Germany and immigrated to America. Five years later, at the age 18, he was drafted into the United States Army, and eventually saw service as a Monuments Man providing translation services.

The Monuments Men also found a valuable ally in Paris, in the person of Rose Valland, an art historian, member of the French Resistance and, at the time of the Nazi occupation, custodian of the Jeu de Paume Museum. The Germans used the Museum as their central storage and sorting depot for more than 20,000 looted works of art.

Valland surreptitiously kept records of each piece that passed through the museum. For four years, she hid the fact that she understood German while tracking the destinations of the stolen artworks. At great personal risk, Valland passed information to the French Resistance. Valland is one of the most decorated women in French history.

In March 1945, with Allied troops fast approaching, Hitler issued his infamous "Demolitions on Reich Territory Decree" (nicknamed the "Nero Decree"), which ordered the destruction of German infrastructure to prevent their use by Allied forces - and was interpreted by some Nazi fanatics to extend to the massive collection of stolen art.

While the Monuments Men were responsible for the rescue and preservation of millions of European art treasures, two pieces in particular took on special significance: the Bruges Madonna and the Ghent Altarpiece.

The Bruges Madonna

Michelangelo's fourth treatment of the Madonna and Child theme represents a major departure from his earlier work. The Madonna does not cradle the Christ Child in her arms or on her lap. Instead, the Child has slid down between her knees, as if to take his first independent step. The worried gaze of his mother seems to indicate an awareness of his fate.

Around 1506, the Mouscron brothers, wealthy Flemish cloth merchants, brought the fifty-inch, free-standing marble statue to Belgium, where it was placed on the altar of their family chapel in the church of Notre-Dame in Bruges. Since then, the Bruges Madonna has been Belgium's most famous resident. The sculpture was removed from Bruges by retreating Nazis in September 1944, and was found and returned by the Monuments Men.

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