The second of my trio of books this year related to WWII (All The Light We Cannot See and Exodus), this is also the only non-fiction one. Monuments tells the story of the group of soldiers in WWII who were part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section. This group was underfunded, unrecognized and very small (at its largest, after the war, it numbered 350 people), yet responsible for saving most of western Europe’s art. The action opens by introducing us to the roughly dozen or so MFAA men who were active during the war, then following their slow and often frustrating progress along (or just behind) the Allied front lines. Their goal was to save the art/monuments from destruction not only during the war’s advance (for its own sake, as well as to prevent the destruction from being used as German propaganda about how evil the Allies were), but also once the Allies occupied it (ordinary low-tier soldiers looking for a place to sleep and some wood for a fire could be inadvertently destructive). These beginning sections, like the work that the MFAA men were doing, are slow, plodding and feel like they’re lacking in a cohesive story.
Once the Allies push into Germany, things pick up both in plotting and in stakes- the Germans have been plundering art from all over- France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands- and pulling it back into the Fatherland for the alleged purposes of ‘protecting’ it, as well as eventually displaying it in Hitler’s planned museum in his Austrian hometown, Linz. As the Allied attack presses in from both ends, the art held in various places in Germany (Goering’s estate at Caringhall in northern Germany, Hitler’s personal collection in Berlin) begins to gathered together into several large caches in southern Germany (Neuschwanstein) and Austria (Altaussee). Hitler also issues his ‘Nero decree’, ordering Nazi troops to burn everything to the ground rather than allowing it to fall into enemy hands. For several zealous Nazi commanders, ‘burn it all’ is interpreted to include the priceless art masterpieces. The MFAA men now have a third danger to protect the art from, and ticking clock to get to find it.
My reading progress on this one was slow- this wasn’t just the slowness of the initial section, but also my own need to google people, places and art work. What was the Ghent Altarpiece? Where is the Jeu de Palme located in Paris? What did General Patton and Hermann Goering look like? These googles often took me down rabbitholes, as google searches are want to do (who built Neuschwanstein? What was Aachen famous for?). Altogether an informative journey, but not great for book-reading progress. I’m not really sad about slow progress where I’m learning more- I feel like I learned a TON from this book, and I still want to know more (we’ve started watching WWII in colour). Slow progress also means that although I read this in 2021, its my first book review for 2022!