The real monuments men and women of World War II
By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 27, 2014
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — At the end of World War II, the U.S. military found itself in custody of the largest art collection on the planet.
This relatively obscure fact is making headlines now thanks to Hollywood and George Clooney’s film “The Monuments Men.”
John Provan, an American historian who lives in Germany, told Stars and Stripes the real-life story depicted in the movie is something about which Americans should be proud.
“Never before had an Army that was winning a war given a rat’s ass about the cultural remains or cultural highlights of not only a country but a continent basically that was being defeated,” Provan said.
But that’s exactly what the “Monuments Men” – and women – of the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section did.
While stomping around Europe, the Nazis pulled off the greatest art heist the world had ever seen, stealing cultural treasures from every country they set foot in.
To counter the possible destruction of what Provan describes as 5,000 years’ worth of cultural heritage, the U.S. led the creation of the MFAA, a unit of some 345 men and women who were experts in the artistic and cultural history of the Continent.
In the last year of the war, the MFAA tracked and hunted down items stolen by the Nazis. When the war was over, it returned more than 5 million articles – everything from paintings and sculptures to furniture and jewelry.
One of the major collecting points for processing this recovered war booty was Wiesbaden, where the Army commandeered the building that is now the Wiesbaden Museum, less than five miles from the current headquarters of U.S. Army Europe.
“It’s something that I’m sure that no soldier nowadays gives any consideration of,” Provan said, “but I think it’s something that you should look back upon and realize, ‘Wow, that’s something where the military did an awful lot of good.’ Just imagine going to a museum today and not seeing the ‘Mona Lisa’ or the ‘Nefertiti.’ ”
The movie makes its Army and Air Force Exchange Service theater debut in Europe on March 7.
A bust of Nefertiti, discovered in Egypt by a German archaeologist before World War II, was housed in a museum in Berlin until World War II, when it was stolen by Nazis. The artifact was recovered by the "Monuments Men" and put on display in Wiesbaden, Germany, in December 1945. It was later returned to the museum in Berlin.
Courtesy John Provan