The men who protected art from war

May 11, 1994|By Robert Taylor | Robert Taylor,Boston Globe

The Monuments officers of World War II -- such men as George Stout, chief of conservation at the Fogg Art Museum; sculptor Walker Hancock; James Plaut, director of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art; Williams art historian S. Lane Faison; and Harvard classics professor Mason Hammond -- had to face a prejudice that protecting art was a civilian concern and should not interfere with the affairs of armies. To these officers we owe a debt of gratitude for preserving the heritage of Western culture against incredible odds.

"The Rape of Europa," Lynn H. Nicholas' engrossing, carefully researched account of their perils and successes, begins with the Nazi art purges of the late '30s. Seeking foreign currency, Hitler, the artist manque, banished contemporary work, selling even to Jewish buyers such as the actor Edward G. Robinson. But art was cherished by the Nazis as an instrument of propaganda and policy, and theoretician Alfred Rosenberg received the pooh-bah title "Custodian of the Entire Intellectual and Spiritual Training and Education of the Party and of All Coordinated Associations."

Wherever the Nazis struck, they systematically pillaged art treasures, confiscated Jewish collections and mingled ideology and greed. Much of the art filtered into Goering's country house, named Carinhall for his first wife. Originally an imposing log cabin, the house ballooned into a vulgar Versailles. Entire countries were stripped. The bombed-out Tate Gallery in London, three acres of skylights lying shattered on its floors, symbolized the fate of European art.

The first half of the book delves into the epic looting and venality accompanying the Nazi art machine in Poland, the Netherlands, occupied France and the invasion of the Soviet Union. This section is never less than interesting and fresh in numerous details, although the broad outline of the subject has been covered in such sources as the diaries of Ernst Junger and the memoirs of Albert Speer. Ms. Nicholas' original contribution begins with the entry of the United States into the war and the launching of the international protection effort.

When Mason Hammond, who was working in Air Force Intelligence, received orders for monuments protection, his superior officers were aghast that he would be released for such trivial duty. Eventually he caught up with Patton's troops in Sicily.

According to one apocryphal account, Patton, having taken the invasion-directives' warnings about preservation to heart, was reputed "to have angrily demanded of a local resident if the roofless temple before him had been damaged by American artillery. 'No,' answered the farmer through an interpreter. 'That was done during the last war.' Patton, who considered himself a history buff, was puzzled. 'Last war?' he asked. 'When was that?' 'Oh that,' replied the Italian, 'that was the second Punic War.' "

Hammond, heading to the mainland, drove to battlefields in a small, decrepit car, "Hammond's Peril," "the first in a long line of similar vehicles without which considerable segments of Europe's patrimony would not have been saved." George Stout landed on the Fourth of July on Utah Beach and immediately cordoned off Caen's churches. Walker Hancock retrieved one collection of paintings "in a weapons carrier following a tank column laboring through the dark December forest. The gilded rococo frames glistened indecently in that moving mass of brown, green and olive drab. We looked at each other, laughed and said together, 'God! What a war!' "

The homeless art left in the wake of the conflict sparked countless controversial episodes, particularly the debate over the 202 German-owned paintings that circulated here and gave American museums their first international "blockbuster" shows. Since the end of the war, such missing treasures as the stolen Quedlinburg hoard have resurfaced, but still missing are countless objects that even the valiant efforts of the "Monuments men" could not preserve.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War"

Author: Lynn H. Nicholas

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 544 pages, $30

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