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‘Monuments Men’ couldn’t save them all

Chris Oaks spoke with author and historian Robert M. Edsel.
Q: You wrote the book, “The Monuments Men,” on which the new movie is based — a true story that was nearly lost to history. How did you learn about it?
A: It started when a simple question crossed my mind. I began to wonder that with all the destruction across Europe during World War II, how is it that so much of the world’s greatest art survived? As it turns out, there was a small group of men and women, known as “The Monuments Men,” who were given the job of finding and protecting it. These weren’t young, combat-trained soldiers, they were middle-aged museum curators and art historians.
Q: Many of the masterpieces they were searching for had been stolen by the Nazis on Hitler’s orders?
A: Right. Hitler, who was a frustrated artist himself, had a grand plan to open the world’s greatest museum. Of course, it would be stocked with works pilfered from other museums and private collections in the countries Germany occupied. The museum was never built, but the works that were stolen were hidden all over Europe.
Q: How did they find them?
A: One of the members of the group I interviewed told me that finding a needle in a haystack would have been easier. Not only were there few clues, they were supplied with almost no resources to carry out their mission, even though the order came from President Roosevelt himself. Oftentimes, they would have to hitchhike across the countryside to get from place to place. Piecing together what few clues they could find, they would discover caches of stolen art hidden in places like booby-trapped salt mines, caves and castles. That’s why I call it the greatest treasure hunt in history.
Q: It sounds like dangerous work. Did they recover it all?
A: It was dangerous. Hitler was determined that if he couldn’t have these treasures, then the Allies weren’t going to get them, either. So as the Nazis retreated, they had orders to destroy everything. To stay one step ahead, the Monuments Men had to be right there on the front lines. Two of the officers were killed in combat. And there were literally millions of artifacts involved, so even though they recovered a great deal of it, thousands of pieces of art and historical documents remain unaccounted for. Even today, stolen treasures are still being discovered.
Q: I understand there’s even a connection to the Monuments Men from our area?
A: Yes, their work didn’t end when the war did. Otto Whitman, who was the director of the Toledo Museum of Art, worked as part of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) after the war in helping decipher a lot of the Nazi records to track down the looting. There are only a handful of the 60 or so Monuments Men left, and it’s a real race against time to learn their stories while they’re still with us.
“Good Mornings!” with Chris Oaks airs from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays on WFIN, 1330 kHz. He can be reached by email at chrisoaks@wfin.com, or at 419-422-4545.

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