The True Story of The Monuments Men

ghent“The Monuments Men,” George Clooney’s dramatization of the work of a few ingenious and determined art scholars, conservators and architects, played to big box office over the weekend.

While it’s easy to view them as a unit, they mostly operated alone with almost no support. My Smithsonian.com story about recovering some of the great art treasures of Europe from a salt mine at Altaussee, Austria, documents their ingenuity and resolve.

George Stout, who campaigned for a unit like the Monuments Men before the United States entered the war and was rebuffed, was primarily responsible for removing art, including the Ghent Altarpiece, from deep in the mines. (When his idea for the unit was rejected, Stout, a World War I veteran, simply enlisted and helped create camouflage paint until the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit was finally created).

Stout spent a year crossing France, Germany and Belgium recovering works, often traveling in a Volkswagen captured from the Germans. He was one of a handful of Monuments Men regularly in forward areas, though his letters home to his wife, Margie, mentioned only “field trips.” (A copy of his journal page listing the Altaussee inventory is at right).

stout0001In one journal entry, Stout said he calculated the boxes, crates, and packing materials needed for a shipment, returning stolen art to one of the collection points established by the Allies. “No chance of getting them,” he wrote in April 1945. 

 So he transformed German sheepskin coats and gas masks into packing materials. He and his small band of colleagues rounded up guards and prisoners to pack and load. “Never anywhere in peace or war could you expect to see more selfless devotion, more dogged persistence in going on, much of the time alone and empty-handed, to get it done,” Stout wrote to a stateside friend in March 1945.

Clooney’s character in the movie is based upon Stout’s work in Europe.

The movie is based upon a 2009 book of the same name though that book clearly owes a debt to the groundbreaking scholarship done by Lynn H. Nicholas in her 1996 book, “The Rape of Europa,” which gave rise to a companion documentary released in 2006.

That documentary covers the industrialized looting and destruction of cultural objects — paintings, sculpture, furniture, and even buildings — by the Nazis and later the Russians. Hitler’s stash at Altaussee included Old Master paintings as well as a sculpture by Michelangelo intended for his Fuhrermuseum to be built in Linz, his hometown.

Nearly all the Monuments Men (and women) are dead, but you can see them and hear their stories in the documentary, “The Rape of Europa,” which is a good companion to the movie that provides a broader overview of the story and the losses in Italy, Germany, France, Russia, and Austria.

Particularly compelling is one GI’s description of traveling down the narrow tunnels of Altaussee for the first time. “My trip into that mine reminded me of Alice following the rabbit down the rabbit hole into Wonderland,” says Dr. Leonard Malamut in the film. “”We headed down this dark passage illuminated only at great intervals by a single bulb. When we finally reached the end of our journey, I found myself gazing into the vastness of a cavern with works of art two or three balconies high. We were a quarter of a mile underground in the company of Europe’s greatest artworks.”

Decades later, S. Lane Faison, one of the Monuments Men, emotionally recalled seeing a GI on his knee “looking at — hold your breath — the Ghent Altarpiece from Belgium, the great grandfather of Flemish painting. It was a mountain full of art.”

Kenneth Lindsay, one of the Monuments Men, summed up his work like this: “The feeling I had about doing something to salvage western culture, it was exhilarating,” he said. “Finally, we could do something positive.”

The documentary is available on Netflix and Amazon, where you can also find Nicholas’s book.

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