Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Monday 22nd January 2018 | Manchester, UK

The Monuments Men in history and film

During the Second World War, Adolf Hitler and Nazi leaders began to systematically remove historical pieces of art from occupied areas. The orders were to transfer the most precious pieces of European art to the Führermuseum, an unrealized museum in the Austrian city of Linz.

Yet the war was beginning to strain the resources of all its participants, which begs the question: why would Hitler continue this struggle for art? For Hitler, the destruction or removal of art was a means of damaging the culture and identity of his new kingdom, while also creating a blank canvas for his own ideological doctrine. It was with the prevention of this in mind that saw the formation of ‘The Monuments Men’, a platoon tasked with rescuing the masterpieces of Europe from the Nazis.

This is where the film adaptation of this hugely important moment in history begins, with seven men risking their lives for the art of Europe. Yet the problems of the film are seen from the very outset with the tagline, ‘It was the greatest art heist in history’. The word ‘heist’ automatically transforms it into a caper, an Ocean’s Eleven style period drama, completely at odds with the serious subject matter at hand.

There is some recognition of the trauma of war, with the occasional moment alluding to it, but these are always accompanied by a comedic setting. Whenever George Clooney’s character, Frank Stokes (a pseudonym for George Stout, one of the real life Monuments Men), looks to raise his men to their challenge, there is always an air of mirth from everyone else. This discord is problematic when considering the context of the film.

There were devastating effects to art, architecture and culture as the war progressed to cities all over Europe, and as countries were being subjected to occupation by both sides. Occupation alone is sometimes enough to destroy a cultural heritage. This has been illustrated recently by the occupation of the Babylon Palace by US troops, followed by Polish troops in 2003 and 2004 during the Iraq war. To make it a site of military operations, they dug up ground to make temporary buildings, causing lasting damage with graffiti on walls and scattering equipment across the site. In the modern day, armies have little idea of why it is so important to maintain these sites, resulting in irreversible damage to architectural sites.

As we, in this generation, have never truly faced the issues that those in World War II faced, the idea of saving this art is foreign to us. We are ignorant of the cause, and for the film to pull an audience into its world it needs to cement the reason that these men found it so important that they risked their lives for it. It is a weakness of the film that this importance is never properly conveyed, or given any deeper exploration.

In the First World War, the German army targeted Notre-Dame de Reims because of its national importance. The aim was to destroy something that had no military significance due to its importance to French morale. Cultural sites like this are the cornerstones of a nation’s heritage, and wars have often destroyed these both accidentally and systematically.

The destruction of war on this level, and on a human level, can alter the way people look at the world. This was seen no more clearly than in the First World War. The problems after the war were continued to be felt far beyond its conclusion, leading to a change visually to darker fragmented societies. The artists that had championed honor and glory had now been part of the horrors of such a destructive war and there was a move away from such glamorization of heroic warfare.

The question of the importance of art is no doubt one that needs answering, but The Monuments Men was let down by its uneven take on the subject matter that allowed little or no connection from the audience. Its best bits came in the light-hearted interaction between the cast members in brief moments away from the plot. In Before Sunset, Ethan Hawkes’ character tells a story of how Notre-Dame was supposed to be destroyed but the man responsible could not bring himself to destroy something so beautiful. In this smallest of stories the idea of art, architecture and cultural heritage are brought to life with more sentiment than in the whole of The Monuments Men.

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