The Rescuers: Monuments Men
In early 1943 a group, known as the American Council of Learned Societies, appointed a committee to address protection of Europe’s art by identifying civilian experts who could liaise with the military. They also prepared pamphlets that detailed known German looting. Theirs and several other similar groups’ entreaties to government officials coalesced at about the same time. On June 23, 1943, FDR approved the formation of the “American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas” widely known as “The Roberts Commission,” after its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. Thus was born the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (“MFAA”) section under the auspices of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied Armies.
The “Venus Fixers” as they were sometimes called by fellow troops—“Monuments Men” by most others—were mostly young museum directors and curators, art professors and architects who volunteered for service. After the war, many would become leaders of the most prominent museums in the United States. Virtually every major American museum had one or more employee who served as an MFAA officer during World War II. Still, their numbers were ridiculously few when compared to the overwhelming task they confronted. In as much as the MFAA program was an untested concept, the Monuments Men had minimal resources to accomplish their job and little direction other than to inspect, repair, and report on monuments needing protection, and to prevent improper billeting by Allied troops in historic or culturally important buildings. This last task was a constant challenge. There was no handbook to follow. Those with skill or knowledge were given authority
General Eisenhower facilitated the work of the MFAA by forbidding looting, destruction, and billeting in structures of cultural significance. He also repeatedly ordered that Allied Forces were to assist the MFAA as much as possible.
As American and Allied Forces made their way through Europe, liberating Nazi-occupied territories, the MFAA were constantly at the front lines. Contrary to what some may believe, the Monuments Men were regularly in harm’s way during the war. In fact, two distinguished officers were killed while helping to rescue cultural treasures in Europe: Captain Walter Huchthausen, an American scholar and architect attached to the U.S. 9th Army in France and Germany; and Major Ronald Edmund Balfour, a British scholar attached to the 2nd Canadian Army in France and Germany.
The men and women associated with the MFAA remained in Europe well after the end of hostilities in 1945. They established central collecting points which received and sorted the enormous amount of treasures recovered from war areas and more than a thousand hiding places to enable these objects to be restituted to their rightful owners. These efforts continued until 1951.
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