The Monuments Men

Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History


By Robert M. Edsel

With Bret Witter

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At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe.

The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.
In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Momuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.

Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.


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Most of us are aware that World War II was the most destructive war in history. We know of the horrific loss of life; we've seen images of the devastated European cities. Yet how many among us have walked through a majestic museum such as the Louvre, enjoyed the solitude of a towering cathedral such as Chartres, or gazed upon a sublime painting such as Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, and wondered, "How did so many monuments and great works of art survive this war? Who were the people that saved them?"

The major events of World War II—Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge—have become as much a part of our collective conscience as the names of the books and films—Band of Brothers, The Greatest Generation, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List—and the writers, directors, and actors—Ambrose, Brokaw, Spielberg, Hanks—who brought these epic events and the heroism of that time to life for us once again.

But what if I told you there was a major story about World War II that hasn't been told, a significant story at the heart of the entire war effort, involving the most unlikely group of heroes you've never heard of? What if I told you there was a group of men on the front lines who quite literally saved the world as we know it; a group that didn't carry machine guns or drive tanks, who weren't official statesmen; men who not only had the vision to understand the grave threat to the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of civilization, but then joined the front lines to do something about it?

These unknown heroes were known as the "Monuments Men," a group of soldiers who served in the Western Allied military effort from 1943 until 1951. Their initial responsibility was to mitigate combat damage, primarily to structures—churches, museums, and other important monuments. As the war progressed and the German border was breached, their focus shifted to locating movable works of art and other cultural items stolen or otherwise missing. During their occupation of Europe, Hitler and the Nazis pulled off the "greatest theft in history," seizing and transporting more than five million cultural objects to the Third Reich. The Western Allied effort, spearheaded by the Monuments Men, thus became the "greatest treasure hunt in history," with all the unimaginable and bizarre stories that only war can produce. It was also a race against time, for hidden in the most incredible locations, some of which have inspired modern-day popular icons like Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland and The Sound of Music, were tens of thousands of the world's greatest artistic masterpieces, many stolen by the Nazis, including priceless paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Jan Vermeer, and Rembrandt, and sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello. And some of the Nazi fanatics holding them were intent on making sure that if the Third Reich couldn't have them, the rest of the world wouldn't either.

In the end, 350 or so men and women from thirteen nations served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA)—a remarkably small number in a fighting force numbering into the millions. However, there were only sixty or so Monuments Men serving in Europe by the end of combat (May 8, 1945), most of whom were American or British. Monuments-laden Italy had just twenty-two Monuments officers. Within the first several months after D-Day (June 6, 1944), fewer than a dozen Monuments Men were on the ground in Normandy. Another twenty-five were gradually added until the end of hostilities, with the awesome responsibility of covering all of northern Europe. It seemed an impossible assignment.

My original plan for this book was to tell the story of the Monuments Men's activities throughout Europe, concentrating on events from June 1944 to May 1945 through the experiences of just eight Monuments Men who served on the front lines—plus two key figures, including one woman—using their field journals, diaries, wartime reports, and most importantly their letters home to wives, children, and family members during combat. Because of the vastness of the story and my determination to faithfully convey it, the final manuscript became so lengthy that it regrettably became necessary to exclude from this book the Monuments Men's activities in Italy. I have used northern Europe—mainly France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria—as a crucible for understanding the Monuments effort.

Monuments officers Deane Keller and Frederick Hartt, both American, and John Bryan Ward-Perkins, who was British, and others experienced incredible events during their difficult work in Italy. Our research unearthed insightful and moving letters home that detailed the sometimes overwhelming responsibility they faced to protect this irreplaceable cradle of civilization. I will be including these heroes' memorable experiences in Italy, using many of their own words, in a subsequent book.

I have taken the liberty of creating dialogue for continuity, but in no instance does it concern matters of substance and in all cases it is based on extensive documentation. I have at all times tried not only to understand and communicate the facts, but also the personalities and perspectives of the people involved, as well as their perception of events at the very instant they occurred. With the advantage of hindsight, these can be quite different from our opinions; thus one of the great challenges of history. Any errors in judgment are mine alone.

At its heart, The Monuments Men is a personal story: a story about people. Allow me then one personal story. On November 1, 2006, I flew to Williamstown, Massachusetts, to meet and interview Monuments Man S. Lane Faison Jr., who also served in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), precursor to the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). Lane arrived in Germany in the summer of 1945 and promptly went to Altaussee, Austria, to assist with the interrogations of key Nazi officials who had been detained by Western Allied forces. His particular assignment was to find out as much as possible about Hitler's art collection and his plans for the Führermuseum. After the war, Lane was an educator of art at Williams College for almost thirty years, training and sharing his gifted insights with students, both the strivers and the achievers. His professional legacy lives on through his students, in particular the leaders of many of the United States' leading museums: Thomas Krens (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1988–2008), James Wood (J. Paul Getty Trust, 2004–present), Michael Govan (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2006–present), Jack Lane (Dallas Museum of Art, 1999–2007), Earl A. "Rusty" Powell III (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1992–present), and the legendary Kirk Varnedoe (Museum of Modern Art, 1986–2001).

Although ninety-eight years old, Lane was in seemingly good health. Still, I was warned in advance by Gordon, one of his four sons, that "Pop hasn't been staying awake for periods much longer than thirty minutes, so don't be disappointed if you don't learn very much from your conversation." And what a conversation it was, lasting almost three hours as Lane flipped through my first book, Rescuing Da Vinci, a photographic tribute to the work of the Monuments Men, stopping periodically to stare intently at images that seemed to transport him back in time. Over and again, as his memory was jogged, the twinkle in his eye appeared, and his arms moved enthusiastically with the telling of each amazing story until we both needed to stop. Gordon was in disbelief, a sentiment each of his brothers later echoed.

As I rose to say goodbye, I walked to the side of his recliner and extended my hand to thank him. Lane reached out and firmly clasped it with both of his hands, pulled me close, and said, "I've been waiting to meet you all my life." Ten days later, a week shy of his ninety-ninth birthday, he died. It was Veterans Day.


Major Ronald Edmund Balfour, First Canadian Army. Age in 1944: 40. Born: Oxfordshire, England. Balfour, a historian at Cambridge University, was what the British called a "gentleman scholar": a bachelor dedicated to the intellectual life without ambition for accolades or position. A dedicated Protestant, he began his life as a history scholar, then switched to ecclesiastic studies. His prized possession was his immense personal library.

Private Harry Ettlinger, U.S. Seventh Army. Age: 18. Born: Karlsruhe, Germany (immigrated to Newark, New Jersey). A German Jew, Ettlinger fled Nazi persecution in 1938 with his family. Drafted by the army after graduating from high school in Newark in 1944, Private Ettlinger spent much of his tour of duty lost in the army bureaucracy before finally finding his niche in early May 1945.

Captain Walker Hancock, U.S. First Army. Age: 43. Born: St. Louis, Missouri. Hancock was a renowned sculptor who had won the prestigious Prix de Rome before the war and designed the Army Air Medal in 1942. Warmhearted and optimistic, he wrote often to his great love, Saima Natti, whom he had married only two weeks before shipping to Europe for duty. His most common refrain was his joy in his work and his dreams of a house and studio where they could live and work together in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Captain Walter "Hutch" Huchthausen, U.S. Ninth Army. Age: 40. Born: Perry, Oklahoma. Hutch, a boyishly handsome bachelor, was a practicing architect and design professor at the University of Minnesota. Stationed primarily in the German city of Aachen, he was responsible for much of the northwest portion of Germany.

Jacques Jaujard, director of French National Museums. Age: 49. Born: Asnières, France. As the director of the French National Museums, Jaujard was responsible for the safety of the French state art collections during the Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944. He was a boss, mentor, and confidant of the other great hero of the French cultural establishment, Rose Valland.

Private First Class Lincoln Kirstein, U.S. Third Army. Age: 37. Born: Rochester, New York. Kirstein was a cultural impresario and patron of the arts. Brilliant but prone to mood swings and depression, a founder of the legendary New York City Ballet, he is widely considered one of the most important cultural figures of his generation. Nonetheless, he was one of the lowest-ranking members of the MFAA, serving as the very capable assistant to Captain Robert Posey.

Captain Robert Posey, U.S. Third Army. Age: 40. Born: Morris, Alabama. Raised in poverty on an Alabama farm, Posey graduated from Auburn University with a degree in architecture thanks to funding from the army's Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). The loner of the MFAA, he was deeply proud of Third Army and its legendary commander, General George S. Patton Jr. He wrote frequently to his wife, Alice, and often picked up cards and souvenirs for his young son Dennis, whom he called "Woogie."

Second Lieutenant James J. Rorimer, Comm Zone and U.S. Seventh Army. Age: 39. Born: Cleveland, Ohio. Rorimer was a wunderkind of the museum world, rising to curator of the Metropolitan Museum at a young age. A specialist in medieval art, he was instrumental in the founding of the Met's medieval collections branch, the Cloisters, with the help of the great patron John D. Rockefeller Jr. Assigned to Paris, his bulldog determination, willingness to buck the system, and love of all things French endeared him to Rose Valland. Their relationship would be vitally important in the race to discover the Nazi treasure troves. Married to a fellow employee of the Metropolitan, Katherine, his daughter Anne was born while he was on active duty; he was not able to see her for more than two years.

Lieutenant George Stout, U.S. First Army and U.S. Twelfth Army Group. Age: 47. Born: Winterset, Iowa. A towering figure in the then obscure field of art conservation, Stout was one of the first people in America to understand the Nazi threat to the cultural patrimony of Europe and pushed the museum community and the army toward establishing a professional art conservation corps. As a field officer, he was the go-to expert for all the other Monuments Men in northern Europe and their indispensable role model and friend. Dapper and well-mannered, with a fastidiousness and thoroughness that shone in the field, Stout, a veteran of World War I, left behind a wife, Margie, and a young son. His oldest son served in the U.S. Navy.

Rose Valland, Temporary Custodian of the Jeu de Paume. Age: 46. Born: Saint-Etienne-de-Saint-Geoirs, France. Rose Valland, a woman of modest means raised in the countryside of France, was the unlikely hero of the French cultural world. She was a longtime unpaid volunteer at the Jeu de Paume museum, adjacent to the Louvre, when the Nazi occupation of Paris began. An unassuming but determined single woman with a forgettable bland style and manner, she ingratiated herself with the Nazis at the Jeu de Paume and, unbeknownst to them, spied on their activities for the four years of their occupation. After the liberation of Paris, the extent and importance of her secret information, which she fiercely guarded, had a pivotal impact on the discovery of looted works of art from France.


The Mission


This is a long road we have to travel. The men that can do things are going to be sought out just as surely as the sun rises in the morning. Fake reputations, habits of glib and clever speech, and glittering surface performance are going to be discovered and kicked overboard. Solid, sound leadership… and ironclad determination to face discouragement, risk, and increasing work without flinching, will always characterize the man who has a sure-enough, bang-up fighting unit. Added to this he must have a darn strong tinge of imagination—I am continuously astounded by the utter lack of imaginative thinking.… Finally, the man has to be able to forget himself and personal fortunes. I've relieved two seniors here because they got to worrying about "injustice," "unfairness," "prestige," and—oh, what the hell!

—Supreme Commander General Dwight David Eisenhower in a letter to General Vernon Prichard, August 27, 1942

"I think we got some work done, back at the start, because nobody knew us, nobody bothered us—and we had no money."

—John Gettens, Fogg Museum Conservation Department, describing scientific breakthroughs he made with George Stout, 1927–1932


The Monuments Men were a group of men and women from thirteen nations, most of whom volunteered for service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA. Most of the early volunteers had expertise as museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects, and archivists. Their job description was simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.

The creation of the MFAA section was a remarkable experiment. It marked the first time an army fought a war while comprehensively attempting to mitigate cultural damage, and it was performed without adequate transportation, supplies, personnel, or historical precedent. The men tasked with this mission were, on the surface, the most unlikely of heroes. Of the initial sixty or so that served in the battlefields of North Africa and Europe through May 1945, the primary period covered by our story, most were middle-aged, with an average age of forty. The oldest was sixty-six, an "old and indestructible"1 World War I veteran; only five were still in their twenties. Most had established families and accomplished careers. But they had all chosen to join the war effort in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, and to a man they were willing to fight and die for what they believed. I am proud to introduce them to you and to tell, as best I can, their remarkable stories.


Out of Germany

Karlsruhe, Germany


The city of Karlsruhe, in southwestern Germany, was founded in 1715 by the Margrave Karl Wilhelm von Baden-Durlach. Local legend held that Karl Wilhelm walked into the woods one day, fell asleep, and dreamt of a palace surrounded by a city. Actually, he left his previous residence at Durlach after a fight with the local townspeople. Still, always the optimist, Karl Wilhelm had his new settlement laid out like a wheel, with his palace in the center and thirty-two roads leading out from it like spokes. As in the dream, a town soon grew around his palace.

Hoping the new city would grow quickly into a regional power, Karl Wilhelm invited anyone to come and settle where they pleased, regardless of race or creed. This was a rare luxury, especially for Jews, who were relegated to Jewish-only neighborhoods throughout most of Eastern Europe. By 1718, a Jewish congregation was established in Karlsruhe. In 1725, a Jewish merchant named Seligmann immigrated there from Ettlingen, the nearby town where his family had lived since 1600. Seligmann thrived in Karlsruhe, perhaps because it wasn't until 1752, when the town finally felt itself a legitimate regional power, that anti-Jewish laws became the fashion. Around 1800, when inhabitants of Germany became legally obligated to take a surname, Seligmann's descendants chose the last name Ettlinger, after their city of origin.

The main street in Karlsruhe is Kaiserstrasse, and on this road in 1850 the Ettlingers opened a women's clothing store, Gebrüder Ettlinger. Jews were forbidden by then to own farmland. The professions, like medicine, law, or government service, were accessible to them but also openly discriminatory, while the trade guilds, such as those for plumbing and carpentry, barred their admission. As a result, many Jewish families focused on retail. Gebrüder Ettlinger was only two blocks from the palace, and in the late 1890s the regular patronage of Karl Wilhelm's descendant, the Grand Duchess Hilda von Baden, wife of Friedrich II von Baden, made it one of the most fashionable stores in the region. By the early 1900s the store featured four floors of merchandise and forty employees. The duchess lost her position in 1918, after Germany's defeat in World War I, but even the loss of their patron didn't dent the fortunes of the Ettlinger family.

In 1925, Max Ettlinger married Suse Oppenheimer, whose father was a wholesale textile merchant in the nearby town of Bruchsal. His primary business was uniform cloth for government employees, like policemen and customs officials. The Jewish Oppenheimers, who traced their local roots to 1450, were well known for their integrity, kindness, and philanthropy. Suse's mother had served as, among others things, the president of the local Red Cross. So when Max and Suse's first son, Heinz Ludwig Chaim Ettlinger, called Harry, was born in 1926, the family was not only well-off financially, but an established and respected presence in the Karlsruhe area.

Children live in a closed world, and young Harry assumed life as he knew it had gone on that way forever. He didn't have any friends who weren't Jewish, but his parents didn't either, so that didn't seem unusual. He saw non-Jews at school and in the parks, and he liked them, but buried deep within those interactions was the knowledge that, for some reason, he was an outsider. He had no idea that the world was entering an economic depression, or that hard times bring recriminations and blame. Privately, Harry's parents worried not just about the economy, but about the rising tide of nationalism and anti-Semitism. Harry noticed only that perhaps the line between himself and the larger world of Karlsruhe was becoming easier to see and harder to cross.

Then in 1933, seven-year-old Harry was banned from the local sports association. In the summer of 1935, his aunt left Karlsruhe for Switzerland. When Harry started the fifth grade a few months later, he was one of only two Jewish boys in his class of forty-five. His father was a decorated veteran of World War I, wounded by shrapnel outside Metz, France, so Harry was granted a temporary exemption from the 1935 Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of German citizenship and, with it, most of their rights. Forced to sit in the back row, Harry's grades dropped noticeably. This wasn't the result of ostracism or intimidation—that did occur, but Harry was never beaten or physically bullied by his classmates. It was the prejudice of his teachers.

Two years later, in 1937, Harry switched to the Jewish school. Soon after, he and his two younger brothers received a surprise gift: bicycles. Gebrüder Ettlinger had gone bankrupt, felled by a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, and his father was now working with Opa (Grandpa) Oppenheimer in his textile business. Harry was taught to ride a bicycle so he could get around Holland, where the family was hoping to move. His best friend's family was trying to emigrate to Palestine. Almost everyone Harry knew, in fact, was trying to get out of Germany. Then word came that the Ettlingers' application was denied. They weren't going to Holland. Shortly thereafter, Harry crashed his bicycle; his admission to the local hospital was also denied.

There were two synagogues in Karlsruhe, and the Ettlingers, who were not strictly observant Jews, attended the less orthodox. The Kronenstrasse Synagogue was a large, ornate hundred-year-old building. The worship center soared four floors into a series of decorated domes—four floors was the maximum allowable height, for no building in Karlsruhe could be higher than the tower of Karl Wilhelm's palace. The men, who wore pressed black suits and black top hats, sat on long benches in the bottom section. The women sat in the upper balconies. Behind them, the sun streamed in through large windows, bathing the hall in light.

On Friday nights and Saturday mornings, Harry could look out over the whole congregation from his perch in the choir loft. The people he recognized were leaving, forced overseas by poverty, discrimination, the threat of violence, and a government that encouraged emigration as the best "solution" for both Jews and the German state. Still, the synagogue was always full. As the world shrunk—economically, culturally, socially—the synagogue drew more and more of the fringes of the Jewish community into the city's last comfortable embrace. It wasn't unusual for five hundred people to fill the hall, chanting together and praying for peace.

In March 1938, the Nazis annexed Austria. The public adulation that followed cemented Hitler's control of power and reinforced his ideology of "Deutschland über alles"—"Germany above all." He was forming, he said, a new German empire that would last a thousand years. German empire? Germany above all? The Jews of Karlsruhe believed war was inevitable. Not just against them, but against the whole of Europe.

A month later, on April 28, 1938, Max and Suse Ettlinger rode the train fifty miles to the U.S. consulate in Stuttgart. They had been applying for years to Switzerland, Great Britain, France, and the United States for permission to emigrate, but all their applications had been denied. They weren't seeking papers now, only answers to a few questions, but the consulate was crammed with people and in complete disarray. The couple was led from room to room, unsure of where they were going or why. Questions were asked and forms filled out. A few days later, a letter arrived. Their application for emigration to the United States was being processed. April 28, it turned out, was the last day the United States was taking requests for emigration; the mysterious paperwork had been their application. The Ettlingers were getting out.

But first, Harry had to celebrate his bar mitzvah. The ceremony was scheduled for January 1939, with the family to leave thereafter. Harry spent the summer studying Hebrew and English while the family's possessions disappeared. Some were sent to friends and relatives, but most of their personal items were boxed for passage to America. Jews weren't allowed to take money out of the country—which made the 100 percent tax paid to the Nazi Party for shipping all but meaningless—but they were still allowed to keep a few possessions, a luxury that would be stripped from them by the end of the year.

In July, Harry's bar mitzvah ceremony was moved forward to October 1938. Emboldened by his success in Austria, Hitler proclaimed that if the Sudetenland, a small stretch of territory made part of Czechoslovakia after World War I, was not given to Germany, the country would go to war for it. The mood was somber. War seemed not only inevitable, but imminent. At the synagogue, the prayers for peace became more frequent, and more desperate. In August, the Ettlingers moved up the date of their son's bar mitzvah ceremony, and their passage out of Germany, another three weeks.

In September, twelve-year-old Harry and his two brothers took the train seventeen miles to Bruchsal to visit their grandparents for the last time. The textile business had failed, and his grandparents were moving to the nearby town of Baden-Baden. Oma (Grandma) Oppenheimer fixed the boys a simple lunch. Opa Oppenheimer showed them, one last time, a few select pieces from his collection of prints. He was a student of the world and a minor patron of the arts. His art collection contained almost two thousand prints, primarily ex libris bookplates and works by minor German Impressionists working in the late 1890s and early 1900s. One of the best was a print, made by a local artist, of the self-portrait by Rembrandt that hung in the Karlsruhe museum. The painting was a jewel of the museum's collection. Opa Oppenheimer had admired it often on his visits to the museum for lectures and meetings, but he hadn't seen the painting in five years. Harry had never seen it, despite living four blocks away from it his whole life. In 1933, the museum had barred entry to Jews.

Putting the prints away at last, Opa Oppenheimer turned to the globe. "You boys are going to become Americans," he told them sadly, "and your enemy is going to be"—he spun the globe and placed his finger not on Berlin, but on Tokyo—"the Japanese."1


On Sale
Sep 3, 2009
Page Count
469 pages
Center Street

Robert M. Edsel

About the Author

Robert M. Edsel is the Founder and President of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, a not-for-profit entity that received the National Humanities Medal, the highest honor given in the United States for work in the humanities field. He also serves as a Trustee at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. He lives in Dallas.

Bret Witter cowrote the bestseller Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World (Grand Central). He lives in Louisville, KY.

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