The subjects of war and art have always been rich fodder for film makers, but now they’ve come together in the movie, The Monuments Men, which tells the amazing and true story of an eclectic unit who were sent to save artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Here’s the story of their incredible art-saving quest. 

A motley crew 

The platoon was made up of people who were curators, art historians and scholars in civilian life, poring over ancient texts and works by the Old Masters. Many of them were well into their mid-years by the time the D-Day landings launched in 1944, and were more suited to books than bullets and bombs by the time their services were called for.   

As a result, their fellow soldiers viewed the rag tag team of academics with more than a soupçon of suspicion and curiosity.  

With the impending threat of an imminent invasion on Europe, a special unit was assembled tasked with protecting historic buildings and recovering artworks and treasures pilfered by the Nazis. 

A change of name - and risking their lives  

The division was originally called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section, but that stuffy and official soubriquet quickly became known as the Monuments Men or the Venus Fixers.  

Their work during the war effort to recover art which slipped into the hands of the enemy, however, should never be forgotten – and The Monuments Men movie is certainly testament to their dedication, heroism and bravery of the archaeologists and scholars who retrieved the artworks from the clutches of evil.  

And even though the real Monuments Men were generally ill-equipped and only working from nebulous orders, they were more often than not at the forefront of battle, risking life and limb to protect the artistic heritage of the continent, rescue and return the stolen art to its original and rightful owners. 

The whole operation lasted three years, and it’s estimated they helped recover over five million precious objects and prevented innumerable historic statues and building succumbing to a fate of destruction and rubble. 

Battle with the Nazis 

Out of their numerous successes, one of their greatest triumphs was the discovery of the Altausee salt mines in Austria, a 35-mile stretch of tunnels in which Hitler had stockpiled more than 6000 valuable works of art.  

Hitler’s right-hand man, Hermann Goring, was charged with the responsibility of gathering and looking after the rapidly-expanding collection as more and more countries fell into the Nazi’s power. 

Hitler himself had artistic ambitions and was something of a frustrated painter, and his intention was to house his amassed collection of treasures in a huge Fuhrer museum in his home town of Linz.  It would be a victorious declaration for his love of the arts and a lasting testimony to Germany’s triumph.  

Word soon spread of the Monuments Men to the enemy and an intended plot to blow up the artworks before they came to rescue was foiled because the local miners refused to detonate the charges.  It took a total of 80 trucks to move all of the art, and there were pieces by Michelangelo, Vermeer and Van Eyck amongst them.

New recruits … but tensions surface

The original team of Monuments Men only consisted of a handful of people, yet by the end of the Second World War the cause had recruited almost 350 experts in various fields of artistic expertise from 13 nations (including several women).

After the D-Day invasion, the team generally worked in pairs of two, roaming around pretty much as they liked, trawling sites for hidden artistic treasures.  Nevertheless, they were poorly equipped, very rarely having sufficient vehicles to transport the artworks they found or even typewriters to document an archive of what they’d discovered.   

As if this wasn’t enough, matters were exacerbated by other soldiers believing they were a hindrance to the war effort and the whole task of protecting artworks a complete waste of time when they still had a war to win.  

The bigger picture 

General Dwight D Eisenhower, however, was a man who saw the bigger picture. Before the D-Day landings he said:  “Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centres which symbolise to the world all that we are fighting to preserve.” 

Leaders Churchill and Roosevelt were also canny at realising the potential of good publicity that could be garnered from the recapture of Nazi-looted art work, equally anxious that troops weren’t just helping themselves to themselves to the loot they discovered. 

The majority of Monuments Men were volunteers when word spread of the search going on throughout Western Europe and later Japan.  

The unofficial leader 

By the time he arrived in Europe in 1944, Commander George Stout (played by George Clooney in the film) had assumed the unofficial role as leader of the unit.  During peacetime he was a conservationist dedicated to finding the best ways of preserving old manuscripts, and worked at Fogg Art Museum at Harvard.  He was a dapper chap with a pencil moustache, and a very quiet but persistent character, totally dedicated to the world of art.   

Also amongst the group was Captain James Rorimer (played by Matt Damon), who worked at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and was soon transferred to the Monuments Men unit when it became clear he wasn’t suited to the role of infantryman. 

In Paris he met historian Rose Valland (Cate Blanchett). She had been forced to work alongside the Nazis but was a member of the Resistance who kept secret records of stolen art and their likely locations.  

One mine uncovered a cornucopia of riches including paintings by Goya, Manet and Rubens, whilst other artefacts were wrapped and moved around in old sheepskin coats. 

An endlessly dangerous crusade 

Working for the Monuments Men was often a life-threatening assignment as they were the first ones to enter booby-trapped buildings – although at least two of them were unfortunately killed.  One of the soldiers wrote in a letter to his wife: “I never straighten a picture on a wall.”  

One of the fatalities was Major Ronald Balfour, a Cambridge academic and medieval historian who was hit by an infantry shell trying to remove a valuable alter-piece from a church in Germany in 1945.  

The Monuments Men unit resulted in many great artistic recoveries and victories, but was eventually disbanded in 1946. It’s often said that, even despite their heroic efforts and recapturing of much art work, they only scratched the surface – and the recent discovery of 1,500 pictures in a Munich apartment goes some way to reminding us of the gargantuan task they were charged with.

To this day, millions of artworks, paintings and books looted by the Nazis are still missing.