Even before the first shots of World War II were fired in September 1939, Adolf Hitler was dreaming of transforming his hometown of Linz into a kind of Nazi cultural capital, and his political aides were helping him earmark works of art from around Europe that could be added to his collection. Unlike today's avid collectors, however, Hitler opted to obtain his works via looting, confiscation or as a kind of trade for the owner's survival, safety or escape from the Nazi regime. The fight to retrieve this art and return it to its former owner goes on to this day; the Amber Room is still missing from the Tsarist palaces of St. Petersburg, while works by Klimt have only recently been returned to the families of their original owners.
That's the backdrop against which Robert Edsel (and his writer, Brett Witter) craft their story of the adventures of six very different "Monuments Men", a motley crew of artists, curators and other types who landed on the beaches of Normandy in the wake of D-Day and, hitchiking from one town to another, battled to protect, rescue and, later, retrieve lost masterpieces. The material in the book is compelling, but the way in which it's delivered and presented falls short, which astonished me given the sheer drama of the quixotic adventures of the monuments men. Part of the problem are the ultra-short chapters (sometimes only three or four pages), which just gave me a chance to immerse myself in what one of the monuments men was up to before it jumped, sometimes both geographically and thematically, to another chapter dealing with something else. I ended up feeling dizzy and distracted.
I also struggled with two elements in the writing of the book. Firstly, Edsel has chosen to pay tribute to the individuals involved by providing a lot of detail of their personal lives. Alas, this doesn't do much for the narrative, even in the case of Harry Ettlinger, whose dramatic last-minute emigration to the United States in 1938 opens the book. (He later becomes one of the monuments men.) Most of their lives are relatively ordinary, and while I'm sure they loved their wives and children and worried about their ability to pay the bills, in the context of the rather choppy structure, this just becomes a distraction that doesn't propel the book forward. (That's not to say the same information couldn't have been conveyed in vignettes scattered throughout the book; it simply felt like I was struggling through a rather dull preamble.) Secondly, for a book about the preservation of monuments, there's little attention to the art history itself. Reading about the preparation of the lengthy list of buildings that the Allies had labeled as to be protected, I wondered about how it was composed. What criteria were used? Did people argue over the inclusion or exclusion of some locations? I did ferret out some tidbits, but this is a book more about the people and the derring-do than about the art, and anyone not well-informed about the importance of Van Eyck, Michaelangelo, etc. could find this frustrating.
There's already an excellent book that deals with similar material in print -- The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War -- and the stark contrast between the two doesn't favor Edsel's offering. True, he goes into greater depth than Nicholas on the adventures associated with the recovery of the art work. But returning to glance into Nicholas's book, I realized that I, at least, valued the broader context it offered me into the whole tragic episode, from the first thefts and the persecution of artists like Chagall, to the pesky issues that still surround the debate over who owns some of these works of art. If you've read Nicholas's book, and want to delve more deeply into this particular part of the story, this is a laudable effort. It's just not a great book in its own right.