The 2014 movie “Monuments Men” exposed a little known aspect of the horrors of Hitler’s Aryan supremacist totalitarian regime – the looting of priceless historical treasures and cultural purge of peoples he viewed as inferior.
In the years leading up to American involvement in WWII, art historians around the world were in an uproar, concerned about systematic theft and destruction of the world’s cultural treasures by the Third Reich. They lobbied the Allies to create an organization affiliated with the military to identify and protect European monuments and art in danger of becoming casualties of war, and in 1943 President Roosevelt set a tone from the top, establishing the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section. Commanding General Eisenhower stated that “the good name of the Army depended in great measure on the respect which it showed to the art heritage of the modern world”.
An elite team of 350+/- soldiers and civilians were assembled from Allied Countries, led by the United States. The ranks included grey haired museum curators, art scholars, architects, archivists, artists and historians. But the geriatric brigade set about to intercede in the cultural purge on statues and art that Hitler and his Third Reich would wage on all but the “pure race” as defined by Hitler.
The Monuments Men engaged in a protection action in Europe to safeguard historic and cultural monuments from war damage, and then, as the conflict came to a close, engaged in a treasure hunt to find and return works of art and other items of cultural importance that had been stolen. Two Americans would die in the effort under the Monuments Men Czar portrayed by George Clooney in the film which dramatized the story.
In a portrayal of an actual post-war event, in the final scene of the film, President Truman’s character asked Clooney “was it worth it?” i.e. was saving the cultural history of Europe worth the cost of the lives of two of Clooney’s men? Clooney’s character responded with an emphatic “yes”.
This was something that had never been done before in war; an organized effort to protect symbols of European culture that were in jeopardy of being erased by an organized effort by a regime backed up by its armed forces. The Allies (not including Russia) realized that the preservation of art and culture was part of what they were fighting the war for…not just stopping the advance of totaliatarism, but the elimination of cultures targeted for obliteration. To make a better future, they wanted to save, protect, and preserve the culture as portrayed in its art.
The 350 +/- Monuments Men were successful, recovering tens of thousands of irreplaceable paintings, sculptures, and historical documents stolen by Hitler and his thugs, not only from the Jews but all through the path of Hitler’s European invasions.
Hitler had plans to build a museum to end all museums, the Führermuseum, and was stockpiling his plunder in secret repositories. The art that didn’t extol Hitler’s views….honoring or portraying “degenerate” cultures, was either destroyed , or derided with graffiti and put on exhibit for the ‘survivors’ of the subjugated population of the Hitler regime to be intimidated and ‘re-educated’ on what culture is acceptable.
The “Monument Men” understood the significance of art. Clooney’s character in the movie said “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and that’s exactly what we are fighting for”. Sadly, the irony is not lost on many Holocaust survivors, that the US seemed more concerned about saving the art than the lives of those it was stolen from, but I digress.
After 70 years in near obscurity, on U.S. Memorial Day 2014, the men and women of the “Monuments Men” were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. During the last year of the war, and during the post-war years, they recovered more than 5 million artistic and cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis.
Ironically, at the same time the Monuments Men are being recognized by US Congress, another totalitarian regime, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was engaged in a mission to erase the memory of the culture and peoples before them. ISIS uses a unit called the Kata’ib Taswiyya (settlement battalions), tasked with selecting targets for demolition. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”) World Heritage Site Director-General Irina Bokova branded the ISIS’ activities as “a form of cultural cleansing” and UNESCO launched a Unite4Heritage campaign to protect heritage sites threatened by the extremists.
The ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, a (“UNESCO”) World Heritage Site, has been ground zero for wholesale elimination of cultural symbols of people not to ISIS’ liking. In fact UNSECO states Heritage Destruction has become an act of War [against past civilizations].
Khaled Mohamad al-Asaad an 81 year old Syrian archaeologist and expert on the cultural artifacts targeted by ISIS, was publicly beahded by ISIS on 18 August 2015 for refusing to reveal locations of hidden cultural sites to the ISIS ‘eracists”.
In a recent interview Monuments Men star Clooney disclosed that a special unit in the State Department is leading similar efforts to those of the WWII Monument Men in the Middle East:
It’s a funny thing, one of the scenes that when we were writing, we wrote about, we said if you take their culture away, you can kill them. You can murder their families, but if you take away their culture, that’s when society breaks down. I spent a lot of time going through these villages in Sudan and in Darfur where it wasn’t enough that you killed them and killed their children. You had to destroy the things that they had created generations before. You had to destroy what made the village theirs. That was as important as the raping and the murdering of these families. You start to understand. We started to understand how, when we didn’t protect the art during the beginning of the war in Iraq – we didn’t protect those museums and those artifacts and a lot of those things are lost forever – how that can actually affect the community in a very deep way. We learned that lesson again, and we keep relearning how important those things are, how important these pieces are. What are you fighting for if it’s not for your culture and your life? It’s a hard thing when you’re doing a movie, if we’re going to write a script about saving art, it doesn’t really sound all that fun. You have to remind people that what we’re talking about isn’t just these paintings on a wall that some people can look at and get and some can’t, but it’s also about culture. It is about these monuments and these sculptures. It’s also just about the fabric of our culture, and that’s what was in our history. It is mankind’s way of recording history. So that’s a very important part, and that’s why the people at the State Department are working very hard at this.
Meanwhile, on its own homeland, the United States, is tolerating Nazi- and ISIS- like acts against the culture and history of a segment if its own people. Various left-wing groups have convinced local and state entities to purge statues, art, and flags of the South from the civil landscape. Monuments from Florida to Texas to the Southern Veterans and heroes have been targeted by extremists for removal. Even the Southern historical icon Stone Mountain has been threatened in the Georgia legislature.
Clamors to put flags and monuments in museums and “they’ve got to go” are the slogans of the cultural cleansers. Clooney’s words in the interview relating to the current cleansing by ISIS could be quickly reworded for application against the current efforts to purge American culture, especially culture of people who resided in the historical South
So who is leading the protection against American Culture at home? Is it the State Department, is it the Art Historians? Is it the armed forces?
No, similar to the Monument Men, the outcry is coming from thousands of volunteers who are witnessing the efforts to cleanse Southern heritage and culture from the civil landscape. They are speaking at public meetings, writing letters to the editor, and filing lawsuits to protect the culture of one of America’s cultures.
Justifiably so, many are concerned that even museums will not be safe havens for cultural treasurers. Caving to the pressure of one anonymous complaint, St. Augustine’s Potter’s Wax Museum’s historical exhibit of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was on the chopping block. And public museums would be off limits as well if bills like the one filed by Florida legislator Geraldine “Taliban” Thompson were enacted, which would remove all observances to Southern Veterans from public property.
Despite the work of the Monuments Men, hundreds of thousands of plundered documents and artworks—including pieces by Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Rodin and Botticelli—remain at large. The Monuments Men Foundation is continuing the search for the lost treasures in addition to its work in keeping alive the legacy of an unlikely band of war heroes.
Prior to this war [WWII], no army had thought of protecting the monuments of the country in which and with which it was at war, and there were no precedents to follow…. All this was changed by a general order issued by Supreme Commander-in-Chief [General Eisenhower]. —Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Officer
The lesson here is that extremists of all ilk are ready to destroy the culture of those they disagree with, and the civilized world, has acknowledged that is not acceptable. Today historical sculptures to the heroism and suffering of Southern Americans are being spray painted with words “Racist” and “#blacklivesmatter” repeating the re-education and intimidation tactics utilized by Hitler. Will today’s extremists be looked upon with the same disdain as ISIS and Hitler? Or has civilization accepted the cleansing of history as acceptable.
Who will be Monuments Men in the war on Southern Culture? Assad’s willingness to suffer and even die for the sake of the cultural legacy and the Monuments Men precedent sets a high standard to what must be done to protect history heritage and culture. We must decide for ourselves “ is it worth it?”