The Washington Times

Thomas B. Allen

On May 26, 1944, 11 days before the one called D-Day, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an unusual order: His officers must “protect and respect” the cultural monuments that lay in the path of war. The job of carrying out that order fell mostly to the uncommon soldiers who left their work in the world of art to volunteer for a little-known U.S. Army unit, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section. They called themselves the Monuments Men.

Joining Allied troops as they fought their way across Europe, the Monuments Men convinced reluctant senior officers to save treasured buildings from destruction. At the same time, they tracked down priceless art stolen by Nazis, including works by Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt.

“The Monuments Men,” by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, is a remarkable history of the war in Europe. The book uses key battles — Salerno, Naples, D-Day, Saint-Lo, Aachen, the Bulge — as the backdrop to the story of men who risked their lives saving what Eisenhower saw as the symbols of “all that we are fighting to preserve.” Two Monuments Men, killed in action, died as much for art as for country.

Eisenhower’s decision to add art preservation to his war aims stemmed from the controversial destruction of the mountain-top abbey of Monte Cassino during the bloody campaign in southern Italy. The venerated monastery, built around A.D. 529, had been massively bombed because the Allies believed that German soldiers were in it, firing down on American troops. But there were not any German soldiers in it; they held positions below the monastery.

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