Does history respect the significance of what the Allies did near the end of World War 2, with the task set to recover the stolen works of art which was stolen by the Nazis? For those historians who have studied and researched modern history then the answer to the original question will be obvious to them but for mere mortals, there are some interesting facts and some extraordinary outcomes.
Monuments Men – The Movie
In the movie itself the Allied platoon consisted of seven men, made up of various nationalities, from the US, France and Great Britain. They also comprised of art historians, curators, architects and a museum director. The film depicts that most of the men sent on the mission were military reservists. Their mission was only to recover stolen works of art such as Monuments, Fine Arts, Archives, hence receiving their unit name of MFAA.
The True Story
In fact the unit was made up of many more individuals and expanded to a group of around 350 men and women from thirteen countries. Their mission wasn’t only to recover stolen art and safely return it to their rightful owners but also to protect museums and churches whilst working with Allied forces to try and dissuade their bombers from destroying targets which were deemed historic or of cultural value.
Many of the real MFAA unit were reservists who were already trained for military action but a few had no experience whatsoever and underwent basic training. The training for the unit took place in England. The other fact to note is the MFAA never worked in a group but were assigned to other fighting units and in most cases acted as advisors and liaisons to the commanding officers.
The Mona Lisa was moved six times in order to protect it. This work of art was on the top of the Nazi’s shopping list by order of priority and value to them. It took an enormous combined effort by the MFAA and museum officials to prevent this masterpiece from falling into enemy hands.
As in the movie, two MFAA soldiers died in battle. British born Ronald Balfour died from a shell burst whilst trying to move a medieval altarpiece to safety and an American architect called Walter Huchthausen was shot near Aachen in Germany.
How Much Art Was Stolen?
History has documented that most of the stolen works of art were for the Nazi leaders which included Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goring. During Goring’s arrest it was found that he had amassed a collection of stolen artwork that was larger than what is housed in the current European Paintings Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The estimated figures of art stolen have been as high as 20 million but these estimates do vary quite considerably. A conservative estimate is placed at between 5 and 6 million. The MFAA managed to recover and return around 5 million pieces to their rightful owners or the countries of origin. The sad fact is, many belonged to the Jews who died during the holocaust.
One disturbing story was, in the event of his death, Hitler had ordered the destruction of nearly 5 million pieces of stolen art but if Germany had won then his plan was to showcase the stolen art in his unbuilt Fuhrermuseum. Luckily even though Germany had lost the war, the order was not carried out by Hitler’s Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer who had become disillusioned like many others in the Nazi party and managed to deter the generals from carrying out the order.
What’s Still Missing?
To this day, not all of the stolen art has been recovered. Many were housed in art repositories which were used to hide and conceal them. In November 2013, over 1,200 works of art were discovered in a Munich apartment of an art dealer who was trading art during the war. One story that has been rumoured is some of this art may have passed through the Monuments Men’s hands and in some cases it was difficult to prove the art was returned to the rightful owners. One of the most famous missing pieces is Vincent Van Gogh.
Partly due to The MFAA, the great works of art are plentiful and on display in some of the world’s greatest art houses and museums. To many, art gives it’s viewers and visitors a sense of awe, intrigue, relaxation, inspiration and perhaps many more adjectives.
Nowadays, people can view fine art online, educate themselves using archives and other online reference websites. Another form of entertaining activity can be interactive websites which involve quizzes and testing your skills and knowledge on a range of topics and alternative subjects.
With the current Covid-19 climate, we are now encouraged to support arts, museums and historic sites across the UK. No better time to go now when the crowds are at their lowest and in some cases, special deals can be acquired too. It’s a great time to jump in your car and take your family or friends on a day out.
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