I finally finished! And the excitement isn’t because I was dreading reading it or anything, it was just a long read. I really enjoyed it when i got into the last two sections and read them in about 1 week, so the first part, with all of the historical background and context is what took me so long, which since I learned a lot of that while getting my degrees, is what bored me the most and understandable I suppose.
Also, as I saw the movie first, that provided me with some complications. The names in the movie were changed, which I don’t really understand because it really happened, they were real people, why were there names changed in the movie? The only thing I can come up with is that because they left some of the characters out they thought it would be better not to blatantly highlight certain individuals over others; especially since one of the carrying themes throughout the book was the degree of camaraderie and equality between all the monuments men. Anyway, because of the name changes it made it hard for me to match the people from the book to the character in the movie. So if you are interested in reading the book, do it before you see the movie!
My biggest takeaway from the book was the level of emotional connection the men had not only with the art, but the cultures, and the effects of the war. I feel like this is something that every soldier goes through, but they were experiencing it on a much personal level as they were mostly alone traveling through war ravaged countryside and working closely with civilians. Once labor and death camps began to be liberated, and the knowledge of them spread, these men had so much trouble not focusing their rage and confusion onto those civilians; who we know had some level of knowledge as to what was going on. Though it was hard for them, they were able to maintain focus on seeking and collecting of all the cultural treasures, which hundreds of thousands (art, documents, books, etc.) have yet to be found.
I feel like all of my thoughts are still kind of muddled. It’s a book that faces a lot of big moral questions, so to remove my emotional taint, I am going to get analytical on this. If I was reviewing this book for one of my classes it would read a little something like this (in a condensed form):
Edsel’s study encompasses the social, cultural, and human aspects of the men of the MFFA, but largely ignores the political environment outside of Army bureaucracy. The lack of political context does not take anything away from the account though, as it is general knowledge and his focus is on the men and their under appreciated role in WWII as they sought, preserved, and returned European and the global cultural and personal treasures.
Here are some segments from the book that really stuck with me and I think illustrate the message these men were trying to stress:
A letter by Ronald Balfour opened section V of the book: We do not want to destroy unnecessarily what men spent so much time and care and skill in making. . .[for] these examples of craftsmanship tell us so much about our ancestors. . .if these things are lost or broken or destroyed, we lose a valuable part of our knowledge about our forefathers. No age lives entirely alone; every civilization is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. if these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it.
Insights from the author:
(pg. 395*) – The story of Nazi looting, after all, wasn’t merely the robbing of nations of their treasures and the human race of its historical and cultural touchstones. More than anything, the Nazis robbed families: of their livelihoods, their opportunities, their heirlooms, their mementoes, of the things that identified them and defined them as human beings.
This last segment I think really sums up what this book was trying to point out. We all focus on the Holocaust as the illustration of the evil of the Nazis, but it included so many more aspects of destruction. Not only were they trying to destroy a people, but anything that did not fit into their standards of what made a “perfect” race and nation. And on top of destroying these peoples lives, they did their best to erase any mark they made on the world, which I think is the scariest aspect of the Nazis plan. Not only did they want to get rid of these people, but they wanted the world to forget they ever existed. I can’t wrap my head around how people can do that to one another, which is why there is such fascination with WWII and individuals like Hitler. At one point in the book Edsel notes that part of what made Hitler so terrifying, is that he was human. He had passion for things like art (the art he deemed acceptable) and that proved that he did feel, he admired things, and that made him relatable; and if we can relate to Hitler, then we can’t ignore that on some level he was like us, and does that mean we are all capable of such atrocious acts?
* – according to my nook