'Of all that we are fighting to preserve'

‘Of all that we are fighting to preserve’

Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Second World War, was not your typical soldier, as evidenced by the order he issued this week (May 26) in 1944, right before the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy, France.

Ike’s order directed his officers to “protect and respect,” to the extent possible, any cultural monuments — paintings, artwork, sculptures, historically significant buildings, etc. — that they encountered as they marched across Western Europe toward Nazi Germany.

Ike’s order stemmed from his horror at Allied destruction of the historic Abbey of Monte Cassino during the invasion of German-occupied Italy. Allied bombers had pulverized the centuries-old monastery — built around 529 A.D. — to root out German troops, only to discover no German troops were hiding there. Eisenhower was determined not to repeat that mistake.

He was helped immeasurably by an all-volunteer outfit of former art dealers, collectors, appraisers and general art aficionados who joined a  little-known U.S. Army unit called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section. They called themselves the Monuments Men for short.

Their job was to attach themselves to Allied army units fighting across Europe, and whenever historically significant buildings or art works were identified as being in harm’s way, they were tasked with convincing battle-hardened army commanders — whose sole objective was to defeat the Germans regardless of the cost — to spare these cultural icons, even if it meant altering their military plans and objectives.

Given the intensity of combat against a German army fighting for survival, the Monuments Men were not always successful, at which point their job was to record the destruction of these cultural treasures for later repair and reconstruction.

The Monuments Men also spent significant time tracking down famous artworks stolen by high-ranking German officers and Nazi Party members. Among the most famous of these art thieves was Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second-in-command, whose personal collection of stolen art was hidden throughout Germany.

Artists whose work was recovered by this special unit included Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Vermeer and Michelangelo.

It was dangerous and often thankless work, and many Monuments Men were killed attempting to preserve the best of Europe’s cultural identity, meaning they died as much to save great art as to save democracy.

For decades their work was unknown and unsung. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2007 that the Monuments Men were honored for their mission, and  those honors came not from the U.S. Army, but from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which recognized them for having “deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities.”

Ike, were he alive, would have approved. As he said of these cultural treasures, they are especially symbolic “of all that we are fighting to preserve.”

Kauffmann’s e-mail address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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