There are pictures like 12 Years a Slave and Schindler’s List that bring to the screen the stark reality of some of the darkest moments of in our history and the history of the world. Then, there are films like George Clooney’s The Monuments Men that use a much lighter touch to illuminate another important episode in the battle against intolerance and inhumanity. The fact that The Monuments Men is a lot of fun doesn’t detract from its important message that preserving civilization’s artistic legacies is worth fighting for.
The Monuments Men is set in the closing days of World War II, when a small band of civilian arts experts, turned soldiers was charged with preventing the plunder and destruction of priceless cultural treasures that had been confiscated and stolen by the Nazis during their domination of much of Western Europe. The movie is a throwback to films like the Dirty Dozen that brought together a collection of characters to mix humor and daring do in equal measure to fight the good fight.
The Monuments Men is based on a real life brigade of artists, architects and cultural experts who were tasked to recover art and artifacts that has been taken by Hitler’s forces and return them to their rightful homes. While Clooney’s unit consisted of seven or eight experts who comically went through basic training and then set out to track down the Nazi’s loot, the real-life brigade—the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section—was made up of some 350 cultural experts from a number of countries operating under U.S. command.
The stakes were huge—saving what has been described as 5,000 years of cultural heritage. According to Stars and Stripes, “the Nazis pulled off the greatest art heist the world had ever seen, stealing cultural treasures from every country they set foot in.” Much of the loot was destined for Hitler’s Fuhermuseum in Linz, German. As the Third Reich’s defeat became inevitable, Hitler’s forces set about destroying art as retribution. That so much of the art was saved and returned to its rightful place is a tribute to the courage and enterprise of the men and women who made up the fabled Monuments brigade and to the values of America and its allies.
“Never before had an army that was winning a war given a rat’s ass about the cultural remains or cultural highlights of not only a country but a continent…that was being defeated,” American art historian John Provan has said.
Even seventy years later, the job of undoing the Nazi’s assault on civilization is not over. The Reich not only exterminated six million Jews, it also plundered their valuables, including priceless pieces of art. The rights of the Jewish families to recover what is rightfully theirs is still being sorted out. Major museums are embroiled in disputes over the provenance of cultural treasurers. What is clear is that so much of the greatest accomplishments of Western Civilization would have gone up in flames, if America and its allies had not put a premium on saving our cultural heritage.
Too often, in our materialistic world, the public discourse is about the bottom line and “what’s in it for me”. We should keep in mind that creativity and cultural achievement is what we will be remembered for in the long run.
Alan M. Schwartz is a Los Angeles based investor and community leader. He serves on the Board of Visitors for UCLA School of Arts and Architecture the Board of Directors of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP-UCLA).