Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Monuments Men, Robert M. Edsel

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

Robert M. Edsel, Bret Witter (Contrib)

Category: Nonfiction: History

Synopsis: Edsel discusses the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section of the military whose mission it was to “save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.”

Date finished: 20 November 2014

Rating: ***

Not only did I want to love this book, I fully expected to love this book. I expected to be uplifted, and I pictured myself writing a review full of works like “remarkable” and “superb.” There will be no such review, my friends.

I don’t know, was I cranky when I read the book? Did I read the right book at the wrong time and therefore miss something spectacular? So many people loved this book. It inspired a blockbuster Hollywood movie. What’s the deal?

All I can tell you is that it didn’t do it for me. I have two theories. One is that the writing was just sort of blah. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t terribly vivid either. And for a book about artwork and war, I expect some vivid prose. I have a prejudice against books with “contributors” especially by ones who contributed to books about cats who live in libraries. And while I enjoyed said cat book, it suffered from the same bland writing as this one did. I found myself skimming over the sentences and not feeling like I missed anything in doing so. One credit to the writing, though, was that the author/s would remind you who the characters were from time to time. Since there were so many men to keep track of, this was very helpful. Praise to the editor (I assume) who pushed for that. 

The second theory, which is less likely, is that I didn’t know enough about art to appreciate what was going on. I know a great deal of trivia about a great deal of things, but art and music are two cultural black holes for me. Often in the book a specific piece would be discussed, and having no idea what that piece looked like or its provenance or cultural import, I would just have to shrug and move on. (When I was near a computer I’d Google the piece to have some background, but I generally wasn’t within Googling range.)

While I admit to deficiencies in my knowledge of European art and architecture, I am fully appreciative of art itself and what it does for a culture. The Nazis were dismantling whole countries’ visual histories. That’s a big deal. That’s something I can’t even fathom. While America is a relatively new country, where would we be without our American Gothic or Nighthawks (both of which I’ve enjoyed in person). Art moves us, it transforms us, it transports us, and it makes a people who they are, it helps give a culture its identity. Unfortunately, this is a sentiment I came to much on my own, without the help of Edsel or his book. (I’m told the movie hits this message home, but I’ve yet to see it.)

So frankly, I was disappointed. This is such a remarkable (hey, I did use that word in this review!) and important story—which I was surprised to learn in the book was told by other books and movies. Unfortunately it wasn’t told well enough for my tastes.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
I think I would because it might just be me…

You might also enjoy:
When Books Went to War

Tell me, did you enjoy this book? Can you recommend a good book about the world’s great works of art?


  1. I have been fascinated by this story for some time and it got started for me by a documentary I saw on Netflix called The Rape of Europa. Edsel had a part in the documentary if memory serves. I agree about the book, although I think I enjoyed it more than you did. The movie was awful--typical Hollywood bunk. I expected more from George Clooney.

    1. I saw the movie after I wrote my post, and I agree with you, it was terrible. The story, though, is quite fascinating. I think it deserved better.