The Magazine

Monuments Men

The battle to rescue Europe’s art from the Nazis.

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By BRUCE COLE
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Monuments Men worked closely with the Army Air Force, helping bomber crews avoid important cultural treasures. (One of my professors, an 18-year-old bombardier at the time, told me how his bombs narrowly missed the Leaning Tower of Pisa.)  

Bombing in World War II was notoriously inexact, and despite the Army Air Force’s best efforts, major monuments were damaged throughout the Italian peninsula. But there were also remarkable successes, such as the U.S. attack on the rail yards of Florence, which spared historic churches and buildings located nearby. (Tragically, nothing could save the city’s ancient bridges, which were destroyed on Hitler’s direct orders—except for the Ponte Vecchio, for which he had a soft spot.) 

Saving Italy focuses more on salvation than destruction, as it skillfully brings the Monuments Men to life by vividly narrating the often-perilous work of several soldiers, particularly Deane Keller and Frederick Hartt, who struggled to keep many of the treasures of Italian museums, including those of the Vatican and Uffizi, out of German hands.

Before the war, Keller was teaching art at Yale; Hartt was a promising young art historian just beginning his professional career. Both had visited Italy in the 1930s, but nothing prepared them, or the other Monuments Men, for the rigors, privation, and death they encountered in the protracted and brutal Italian campaign. One wonders if present-day denizens of the faculty lounge would be as willing to risk their lives.

As the Allies slowly chewed up the German defenses, Keller and Hartt, aided by several Italian art officials, played an elaborate cat-and-mouse game to keep the looted treasures of museums and private collections from being shipped north of the Alps. 

Their nemesis was the suave SS colonel Alexander Langsdorff, head of the Kunstschutz, the “art protection” unit of German forces in Italy. An archaeologist and early adherent of Nazism, he had served as “personal artistic and cultural consultant” to Himmler. Langsdorff was also a member of Himmler’s infamous Ahnenerbe, the pseudo-scientific unit tasked with finding lost Aryan civilizations worldwide. Fortunately, and thanks to the Monuments Men, Langsdorff and his henchmen were arrested before making off with some of Italy’s most significant art. 

As the war was ending in Italy, the Allies landed in Normandy and went on to defeat the Third Reich. But the task of the Monuments Men was far from complete: Allied troops pushing through conquered territory and into Germany and Austria uncovered hoards of stolen goods hidden in salt mines, castles, and other secret repositories. With each discovery, the Monuments Men were faced with the enormous job of identifying the looted objects and determining their original owners. 

The Russians kept much of what they found, and the recent discovery of a trove of stolen art in a Munich apartment demonstrates that the Monuments Men did not get everything. Unlike past wars, in which the victors kept the spoils, at the end of the Second World War, the United States and Great Britain, in an unparalleled act of democratic beneficence, returned a multitude of objects to their rightful owners. 

Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.