The Monuments Men : Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, Paperback Book

The Monuments Men : Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History Paperback

4 out of 5 (4 ratings)


From 1943 to 1951, 350 or so men and women from thirteen Allied nations served as the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives section (MFAA) of the Allied armed forces: the eyes, ears and hands of the first and most ambitious effort in history to preserve the world's cultural heritage in times of war.

They were known simply as Monuments Men. But during the thick of the fighting in Europe, from D-Day to V-E Day, when Germany surrendered, there were only sixty-five Monuments Men in the forward operating area.

Sixty-five men to cover thousands of square miles, save hundreds of damaged buildings and find millions of cultural items before the Nazis could destroy them forever.

Monuments Men is the story of eight of these men in the forward operating theatre: America's top art conservator; an up-and-coming young museum curator; a sculptor; a straight-arrow architect; a gay New York cultural impresario; and an infantry private with no prior knowledge of or appreciation for art, but first-hand experience as a victim of the Nazi regime. They built their own treasure maps from scraps and hints: the diary of a Louvre curator who secretly tracked Nazi plunder through the Paris rail yards; records recovered from bombed out cathedrals and museums; overheard conversations; a tip from a dentist while getting a root canal.

They started off moving in different directions, but ended up heading for the same place at the same time: the Alps near the German-Austrian border in the last two weeks of the war, where the great treasure caches of the Nazis were stored: the artwork of Paris, stolen mostly from Jewish collectors and dealers; masterworks from the museums of Naples and Florence; and the greatest prize of all, Hitler's personal hoard of masterpieces, looted from the most important art collections and museums in Europe and hidden deep within a working salt mine - a mine the Nazis had every intention of destroying before it fell into Allied hands.

How does the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History end? As is often the case, history is often more extraordinary than fiction.


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Showing 1 - 4 of 4 reviews.

Review by

Admittedly, I know less about WWII than I probably should, and I am interested in Art History far more than my actual knowledge of the subject would indicate. After reading this book, I feel enlightened. Edsel does a wonderful job of outlining some of the more important events of the war in relation to the history and historical artifacts impacted by those events. Doing so helped the flow avoid a heavy handed rehash of the military history many may already know. On the flip side, by explaining the historical context of many of the works of art and monuments and the impact of the war, the book avoids drifting into a sterile art history research paper. Highly Recommended.

Review by
Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel provides a somewhat different look at World War II and the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Next to all the books written about World War II, this one most certainly stands out as regards its point of focus. Edsel relates the efforts of the MFAA, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program of the Allied Armies that was started in 1943. The so-called 'monuments men' were not necessarily soldiers, they were art experts. Now, what was their role in the war? During the war, the Nazis stole and 'appropriated' pieces of art all over Europe. Among them were Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, the Ghent altarpiece, and a huge amount of paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Vermeer and many others. Towards the end of the war, Hitler issued the so-called Nero Decree, saying that additionally to infrastructure and ressources, all art should be burnt lest it fall into the hands of the 'enemy'. The job of the monuments men then was to rescue the stolen pieces of art and thereby help keep alive an integral part of human culture.
Finding looted Nazi treasures was just the first step of a very long process. The treasures had to be inspected and catalogued, then packed and shipped out of the mines, castles, monasteries, or simple holes in the ground where they had been stored.
Eventually everything had to be returned to the respective owners or museums in case the owners had been murdered.When one thinks of such a mission, one would think of many people being involved. However, at the beginning of the program there were only six monuments men who traveled with the Allied troops. Until the end of the war about 350 men and women served in the MFAA effort, some of them losing their lives in the war. Considering this rather small number of people and the vast area they had to cover in Europe, their achievement is truly an astonishing feat and definitely worth mentioning or writing a book about.The book is in many respects a very interesting one. Not only does it provide a lot of detailed background information about a war that has already been covered by tons of books. What is more, Monuments Men relates the stories of civilians who decided that something had to be done about the looting of treasures in Europe and who did not hesitate to serve at the frontlines of a war they were not trained to fight in.The reading process was not always easy as some of the chapters were very detailed. This is probably a bonus for art aficionados, but for me, being just averagely interested in art, it was a bit too much at times. Other chapters, however, were almost gripping, which says a lot for a work of non-fiction. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in art or gaining deeper insight into World War II from a completely different perspective. On the whole, 3 stars.
Review by

Interesting but necessarily episodic account of how a handful of men, mainly academics and art curators, searched for and found vast quantities of looted works or art, in the final phase of World War II in Europe.

Review by

Monument Men offers a great story about the US efforts to rescue European art from destruction by both the Nazis and the American army, both not known to care much about art. While the author is fully engaged in presenting it as a case of American exceptionalism, in reality, the Americans were late and bungled to constitute their cultural preservation efforts. The author mentions the German <i>Kunstschutz</i> whose official mission of preserving art had been perverted by the Nazis into a looting organization. Still, the Germans did have a dedicated unit for the preservation of art, as Europe learned from the pointless devastation of art caused by the First World War.Success was due to the heroic efforts of a few idealists against a huge bureaucracy that failed to provide even minimal organizational support. Time and again, the experts had to borrow rides and make do with miserable spaces because they lacked men, rank and resources. A true MacGyver-esque approach to protecting art that relied mostly on personal intervention to the local US commander.Fortunately, the main battles in WWII took place in the culturally less densely populated areas of Eastern and Central Europe and Western Europe was spared a <i>Götterdämmerung</i> defense. Another element that protected many works of art was Nazi greed. They looted and hoarded the European masterworks in their special lairs where the Americans could collect them again after the Nazis had been defeated.The story ends much too soon. The US volunteers returned home and the structures put into place were dismantled too quickly. This had the notorious consequence that, for instance, the Austrian art establishment, the same persons who had assisted in looting the art, was now back in charge in restituting the works of art. Up to the 1970s, these people blocked or hampered many fair restitution efforts. The US "mission accomplished" banner was raised much too soon. The start of the Cold War meant that the former Nazis quickly became valuable allies against the Communists and key experts and bureaucrats managed to transition over into the new power structure. But this was a question to be dealt with at a higher pay grade than the individuals honored in this account. They did indeed do splendid work with very limited resources, using words and the pen to preserve art for future generations.