Unlikely Heroes: The Monuments Men of World War II

By Robin Jacobson. 

By the time you read this, “The Monuments Men,” with its all-star cast (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray, and Hugh Bonneville) will have opened in local theaters. If the film does justice to the brave band of scholar-soldiers who rescued Europe’s artistic and architectural masterpieces during World War II, it will be riveting.

“The Monuments Men” is based on Robert Edsel’s book of the same title (available in our library) and refers to a small Allied armies’ unit called the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section formed in 1943. The Monuments Men were unlikely soldiers; they were an international group of primarily middle-aged men from the arts world – museum curators, artists, architects, archaeologists and art historians – charged with saving European art and architecture from the ravages of war.

As Edsel recounts, the Monuments Men’s initial mission was to protect historic monuments and churches from combat damage. But before long they found themselves on a perilous treasure hunt for paintings and other art (including works by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Vermeer) seized by Hitler’s army and hidden in underground mines and remote castles throughout Europe. One of Hitler’s war aims was to steal the masterpieces of Western civilization and install them in the magnificent Fuhrer Museum planned for his boyhood home of Linz, Austria. In the last days of the Third Reich, the Monuments Men raced to reach an Alpine salt mine stuffed with looted art before Nazi fanatics, maddened by defeat, could detonate previously planted bombs that would destroy everything.

People Behind the Movie Characters

The characters in “The Monuments Men” film are based on real-life heroes, including:

George Stout (Frank Stokes – played by George Clooney) Before World War II, George Stout, the man who would lead and mentor the Monuments Men, was head of the conservation department at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. There, he spearheaded innovations in scientific conservation techniques.  A World War I veteran, Stout quickly grasped the threat that modern warfare posed to the cultural treasures of Europe. He pushed museum and military authorities to establish an art conservation corps to accompany Allied troops as they advanced across Europe. Following the war, Stout returned to the art museum world. In 1955, he became director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

James Rorimer (James Granger – played by Matt Damon) Before the war, James Rorimer was a medieval art expert and the curator of the Cloisters, the medieval collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a Monuments Man in France, Rorimer investigated the Nazi looting of private collections (mostly Jewish) and, with information from French spy Rose Valland (see below), discovered key Nazi stolen art repositories, including the fairytale castle Neuschwanstein. After the war, Rorimer resumed his career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, becoming its director in 1955.

Rose Valland (Claire Simone – played by Cate Blanchett) When the Nazis occupied Paris, they re-purposed the Jeu de Paume museum into a collection and sorting depot for the spoils of France, including 22,000 works of art confiscated from mostly Jewish collectors. The Nazis allowed Rose Valland, a Frenchwoman employed at the Jeu de Paume, to remain to supervise the maintenance staff. Valland secretly spied on the Nazis (who did not realize she understood German) and passed information to the French resistance. At great risk, she meticulously recorded the art shipments that left the Jeu de Paume for locations within the Reich. James Rorimer (see above) persuaded Valland to entrust him with her records, leading to dramatic recoveries of stolen art.