I recently finished reading Monuments Men by Robert Edsel. Despite a slow start the book is a real page turner. It tells the story of the Allied nations’ efforts to save, preserve and recover European culture as the continent was wrested away from Nazi invaders. The Monuments Men’s work entailed protecting important monuments during combat and recovering stolen works from Nazi looters.
Several things suprised me in the book, aside from the existence of Monuments Men (high school history fails me again). One of the most interesting things was how prevalent art theft was among the Nazi elite. Most of them were not genuine art enthusiasts, but Hitler’s personal interests became a defining characteristic for aspiring Nazis. It seemed that a Nazi Party member’s prestige could be measured by the size of their (stolen) art collection. These priceless works of art also brought wealth to the Third Reich. As the war ended the Allies discovered immense art catalogs hidden in Alpine mines alongside the German state treasury.
One thing the book brought to mind was the current state of art and monuments in our world. What would I want saved if our collective culture was under imminent threat today? The value of art for many of us has shifted. Within moments I can access high-fidelity images of the most famous works of art in the world. It seems that it would be more difficult today than anytime in history to completely eradicate cultural valuables, but it is still possible. There are things in my community that I would love to save if need be, mostly structures. The Seattle Public Library, the chapel that I worship in and the church on Winslow that plays the organ for community events all come to mind. These monuments bring value to cities, communities and families. This is why they need protection.