Monuments Men

monuments men

The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies was established in 1943 to help protect cultural property in war areas during and after World War II. The group of about 400 servicemembers and civilians worked with military forces to safeguard historic and cultural monuments from war damage, and as the conflict came to a close, to find and return works of art and other items of cultural importance that had been stolen by the Nazis or hidden for safekeeping.

Many of the men and women of the MFAA, also known as Monuments Men, went on to have prolific careers. Largely art historians and museum personnel, they had formative roles in the growth of many of the United States’ greatest cultural institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New York City Ballet, as well as in museums and other institutions in Europe.

Even before the U.S. entered World War II, art professionals and organizations such as the American Defense Harvard Group and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) were working to identify and protect European art and monuments in harm’s way or in danger of Nazi plundering. The groups sought a national organization affiliated with the military which would have the same goal. Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, took their concerns to Washington, D.C. Their efforts ultimately led to the establishment by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the ‘American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas’ on June 23, 1943.

What began as a brain trust of the art world’s finest during the war became a group of 345 men and women from 13 countries. They spent 1945 seeking out more than 1,000 troves containing an estimated 5 million pieces of artwork and cultural items stolen from wealthy Jews, museums, universities, and religious institutions. And for six years after the surrender, a smaller group of about 60 Monuments Men continued scouring Europe as art detectives.

Commonly referred to as the Roberts Commission after its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, the group was charged with promoting the preservation of cultural properties in war areas, including the European, Mediterranean, and Far Eastern Theaters of Operations, providing that this mission did not interfere with military operations. Headquartered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Commission drew up lists of and reports on European cultural treasures and provided them to military units, in hopes that these monuments would be protected whenever possible.

The Commission helped establish the MFAA branch within the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies. After the war, the Roberts Commission helped the MFAA and Allied Forces return Nazi-confiscated artworks to rightful owners. It also promoted public awareness of looted cultural works. The group was dissolved in June 1946, when the State Department took over its duties and functions.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower facilitated the work of the MFAA by forbidding looting, destruction, and billeting in structures of cultural significance. He also repeatedly ordered his forces to assist the MFAA as much as possible. This was the first time in history an army attempted to fight a war and at the same time reduce damage to cultural monuments and property. According to Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley of the MFAA: ‘Prior to this war, 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] just before he left Algiers, an order accompanied by a personal letter to all Commanders…the good name of the Army depended in great measure on the respect which it showed to the art heritage of the modern world.’

As Allied Forces made their way through Europe, liberating Nazi-occupied territories, Monuments Men were present in very small numbers at the front lines. Lacking handbooks, resources, or supervision, this initial handful of officers relied on their museum training and overall resourcefulness to perform their tasks. There was no established precedent for what they confronted. They worked in the field under the Operations Branch of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, Europe, commanded by Eisenhower), and were actively involved in battle preparations. In preparing to take Florence, which was used by the Nazis as a supply distribution center due to its central location in Italy, Allied troops relied on aerial photographs provided by the MFAA which were marked with monuments of cultural importance so that pilots could avoid damaging such sites during bombings.

When damage to monuments did occur, MFAA personnel worked to assess damage and buy time for the eventual restoration work that would follow. Monuments officer Deane Keller had a prominent role in saving the Campo Santo in Pisa after a mortar round started a fire that melted the lead roof, which then bled down the iconic 14th century fresco-covered walls. Keller led a team of Italian and American troops and restorers in recovering the remaining fragments of the frescoes and in building a temporary roof to protect the structure from further damage. Restoration of the frescoes continues even today. Countless other monuments, churches, and works of art were saved or protected by the dedicated personnel of the MFAA section. Frequently entering liberated towns and cities ahead of ground troops, Monuments Men worked quickly to assess damage and make temporary repairs before moving on with Allied Armies as they conquered Nazi territory.

American and allied forces in Europe discovered hidden caches of priceless treasures. Many were the product of looting by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Others had been legitimately evacuated from museums for safekeeping. Monuments Men oversaw the safeguarding, cataloging, removal, and packing of all works from all these repositories. In Italy, museum officials had sent their holdings to various countryside locations such as the Tuscan villa of Montegufoni, which housed some of the Florentine collections. As allied forces advanced through Italy, the German army retreated north, stealing paintings and sculptures from these repositories as they fled. As German forces neared the Austrian border, they were forced to store most of their loot in various hiding places such as a castle at Sand in Taufers and a jail cell in San Leonardo.

Beginning in late March 1945, Allied forces began discovering these hidden repositories in what would become the ‘greatest treasure hunt in history.’ In Germany alone, U.S. forces found about 1,500 repositories of art and cultural objects looted from institutions and individuals across Europe, as well as German and Austrian museum collections that had been evacuated for safekeeping. Soviet forces also made discoveries, such as treasures from the extraordinary Dresden Transport Museum.

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