Nonfiction — audiobook. Read by Jeremy Davidson. Macmillan Audio, 2009. 14 hours, 19 minutes. Library copy.
Subtitled “Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History”, this book traces the effectors of five so-called Monuments Men and one women between D-Day (June 6, 1944) and Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) on May 8, 1945. One of the little known programs of the Nazi regime was to steal, plunder, and amass the great works of art across Europe for a museum in Adolf Hitler’s hometown in Linz, Austria, which he planned to call the Führermuseum. Any art Hitler found to be amoral and degenerate or that was produced by “undesirables” was destroyed. During the war, the American, British, and French “monuments men” located these stolen art works and preserved them until they could be returned to their native countries and owners.
I picked up this book because its topic is largely overlooked yet legal disputes over the right of return or, at least, restitution for stolen works of art during the Holocaust continue to remain unanswered to this day. (I have not seen the movie which shares the same name as this book, but a friend who knows of my interest in art and World War II recommended I watch it as well.) I found this book, however, to be a rather confusing introduction to the topic.
Edsel and Witter structure their narrative so it follows important art discoveries rather than a strict timeline and so information would presented in such a way that the invasion of Poland would occur after the Battle of Leningrad. If they had made it clear which monuments men they were following or had stuck to a much clearer, more historically accurate timeline, I think it would have been easier to determine exactly what was going on when. I also wasn’t entirely sure where in Europe he was, although that could also be because I listened to the audiobook and did not have maps on hand to ground me.
The authors also appear to want to glorify the actions of the monuments men and heap praise upon these men and the one woman amongst their ranks. But the book ends up straddling the line between biography and historical fiction; filled with imaginative dialogue and internals monologues that push the book further and further into war movie territory. The letters between the monuments men and their family were entirely unexpected and unnecessary, especially since I can only recall the name of the female monuments men, Rose Valland.
I wanted a book filled with historical analysis into the looting of Europe’s art and the preservation and return of said art to the masses, but much of the effort behind this book is spent building it into an action tale where the monuments men move from one mine to another discovering hidden art.
There is neither a plot nor a narrative arc to seize upon or, really, a character to follow and, unfortunately, it ends up becoming a slog to finish. The narration by Jeremy Davidson was also marginal, but I still cannot ascertain if that is because of the content of the book or because of Davidson’s narration.