It was the greatest art “heist” in history, but when is a heist not a robbery? The recent movie “Monument Men” provides us with the answer by giving us a glimpse into a not so well-known part of World War II history. It chronicles a mission created by thirteen allied nations to “retrieve” vast amounts of priceless art from the Germans, pillaged by the Nazis during the height of the war. Instead of soldiers undertaking this dangerous assignment, the mission was carried out by civilians: museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects and educators. The movie recounts the acts of bravery by a small group of these “art soldiers” who were successful in recovering and protecting works of art, historical buildings and structures, preserving essential parts of culture for future generations. If you have seen the movie, as I have, you may have left wondering how much of the movie was based on historical facts or Hollywood fiction.
The title of the movie, “Monuments Men,” conveys more fiction than fact about the true origin of the story. The title is taken from the 2009 book written by Robert Edsel. However, the true name for the collection of individuals participating on this quest was the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) program, although they were often called the Monuments Men. The movie plot of this small group of mostly men is actually based on the mission of over 300 men and women detailed in the work of a female art scholar named Lynn Nicholas. Nicholas spent a decade researching and perfecting their story after she was captivated by the obituary of a French woman who played a pivotal role in the mission and the movie. It was Nicholas’ historic account in her 1995 book, “The Rape of Europa,” that uncovered this important story.
Although there were many men who served bravely on this mission, the movie’s title’s emphasis on “men” is also a bit of a fiction misnomer. In fact, one of the most significant contributors to the success of the mission was a French woman named Rose Valland, the same woman who served as Lynn Nicholas’ inspiration for her book. Rose is one of the greatest yet relatively unknown heroines of World War II. She worked during the height of the war, beginning in 1941 as an overseer at a French museum. There, unbeknownst to the Germans and based on her extensive knowledge of the German language, she spied on the Germans who were smuggling art out of France. Every day for four years, she endured constant danger in order to gain information to one day retrieve those lost works. Through Rose’s heroic bravery, 60,000 works of art were “stolen” back from the Nazis for their true owners.
The climax of the film also appears to be something straight out of a Hollywood stylized ending. In the movie, as time is running short, a chance toothache by one of the men leads the group to one of the greatest stores of art treasures hidden by the Germans. Although seemingly farfetched, the movie portrayal is based on historical facts in the actual toothache of Robert Posey and the chatty German dentist who gave up his son-in-law as an art scholar in France. The MFAA soldiers quickly discovered his true identity as an SS officer with intimate knowledge of the German plot to steal the great art works of Europe. In a complete and true twist of fate, it turns out that the SS officer is also one of the key figures in the infamous looting operation at the museum in Paris where Rose Valland worked.
Even though the movie “Monuments Men” is a mixture of fact and fiction, it tells the story of the valuable contributions of everyday men and women who believed that saving these historic works was so important that it was worth the loss of their lives. However, a look at the true historical facts of this mission provides a much more complicated and interesting story than the Hollywood version. The movie offers a brief, but incomplete view of a theme not usually present in war stories, such as saving culture and history instead of winning the war with destruction and death. Sometimes history can be more interesting than a movie.