Ethereal Reader Book Club: Monuments Men

You will recall that Nana’s Whimsies hosts an online book club called Ethereal Reader. Following is a review of the book the group read. Anyone is welcome to participate in our discussion via comments. The original book review, posted below, was written by Jennifer Sanchez.

searchI enjoyed The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel very much. Typically when we review and discuss a book, we talk about how we felt about the author’s writing style. But while I read this book – and upon completion – I found I really didn’t have much of a thought about the author’s method of storytelling. Maybe because the genre was nonfiction.

I had never read about this aspect of WWII previously. Beckie and I saw the movie when I was approximately 130 pages into the book. I loved the movie and I think it helped me read the book more quickly than I would have without seeing it.

I was hooked on the story from the beginning . I enjoyed learning about the men that entered the war for this reason. And then of course as the story unraveled it became more and more compelling. I have read many, many novels that take place during WII. It is one of my favorite periods for a book to take place. This book made me feel emotions and have thoughts about this point in history that other stories have not brought forth.

One strong emotion was a feeling of patriotism. The evil, greed and mania that U.S. involvement helped put an end to makes me as proud of my country as I’ve ever felt. I particularly enjoyed learning about the details and territory covered by the Third and Seventh Armies and the pride they felt in the job they were doing. It brought to mind tidbits my mom had told me about one of her brothers who served in Africa. While I am certainly familiar with Generals Patton and Eisenhower, I loved hearing about their leadership, particularly within the story of this novel. Even the tasks that the Core of Engineers assisted in, following the end of the war, and their assistance to the Monument Men’s goals were amazing.

Other thoughts brought forth during this novel:

I have great respect for the men and women (example Rose) that are as passionate about their job and art as they were.

George Stout was remarkable, as the men that worked with him never failed to comment.

This novel brought forth information I had never contemplated. A paragraph on page 234 stands out regarding the amount of things that were stolen by the Nazis.

“Religious relics, altars, Torah scrolls, church bells, stained-glass windows, jewelry, archives, tapestries, …. Even trolley cars from the city of Amsterdam. “

We all are aware of the loss of lives during this war, but the amount of theft was astounding. Harry Ettlinger said, “ My knowledge of the Holocaust started really with the realization that it was not only the taking of lives but the taking of all of their belongings.”

And as the war was ending the Nazi plan to destroy bridges, factories — all things that the surviving German people would have had left from which to rebuild. Walker Hancock was quoted as saying, “The Germans were wonderfully disciplined and correct while they had the upper hand – and went berserk when it was obvious their visit was at an end.”

Walker Hancock wrote of the spring of 1945 when the war was coming to an end. The allies were going into the concentration camps and seeing things first hand. In Germany they would encounter German soldiers missing arms or legs, the civilians looking for direction or assistance. I love his words, “All such an exaggerated picture of the man-made way of life in a God-made world. If it all doesn’t prove the necessity of Heaven, I don’t know what it means.” And when the Jewish chaplain went into Buchenwald to conduct a service for the survivors and he stated they were anguished over the lack of a Torah. Hancock had one to give him and he stated, “The people were weeping, reaching for it, kissing it, overcome with joy at the sight of the symbol of their faith.” I found these such strong testaments to faith.

My last quote from the book: Lincoln Kirstein wrote to his wife at the end of the war when he was so very weary of it all, “I am not interested in lousy old Germany’s lousy old future.”

What are your thoughts? Were you aware of this effort to recover the stolen artwork during the war? Did you learn information you had not known previously?


4 thoughts on “Ethereal Reader Book Club: Monuments Men

  1. My reaction to Monuments Men was a bit different than Jen’s. She chose not to talk about the author’s writing style, but I was unable to get past it. I found his writing to be terribly dull – a surprising phenomenon since the topic about which he was writing was so interesting. While Jen enjoyed his introduction of characters, I simply couldn’t read it. I felt like I was reading the dullest history book ever written.
    I’m not the greatest fan of nonfiction, but I enjoy it when it’s about a topic in which I’m interested and if the writer presents the topic in an interesting style. I definitely was interested in the topic, but man oh man did I find the writing dull. I skimmed much of the book.
    Bill and I also saw the movie, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, it helped me to appreciate the book more, though the characters were somewhat different and the handling of the facts was more “movie-like.”
    I enjoyed the book more when the action was taking place in an area of which I was familiar. For example, when the Monuments Men were working in the Normandy area, I was fascinated because I was familiar with that area from our travels.
    My reaction to the story was one of amazement and horror. The book goes a lot more into the horrific actions of the Nazis than did the movie. It was so amazing to learn that the sight of the concentration camps and the Jewish inhabitants so impacted such generals as Eisenhower and Patton that they actually were physically sick. I don’t know why that surprised me, but it did, and it a good way.
    As Jen said, I have read lots of books about WWII and the Holocaust and the stories never fail to horrify me. Because this book was about a different aspect of the war than I had ever before come across, it hit me in a different way. Without taking anything at all away from the astoundingly dreadful stories about the Jews, the fact that the Nazis were so cold that they would simply destroy artwork just so no one else could have it was impossibly grizzly.
    At the end of the day, I found the topic fascinating but the writing in need of a good editor.

  2. I am with Jen on this one; I really enjoyed this book. Not one part of it was boring or slow for me. I admit to reading rather quickly over the descriptions of the men at the beginning, but I knew that I would come to know them as the book progressed, and I also knew I could go back to the beginning as needed to clarify.
    Unlike Kris, I didn’t think this needed better editing, which I often do when reading non-fiction or even historical fiction. I sometimes think an author does a lot of research and is then determined to include every little detail, just to show off. I never had that feeling with this book. Nor did I feel he skipped over details that I needed for clarity. So, I would say that I didn’t think much about the author’s style, which, in this case, means it didn’t get in my way.
    Like both Kris and Jen, I’ve read a lot about WWII and the Holocaust, and I was happy to read from this very different perspective. At first I did wonder what the military leaders would think of having to deal with the agenda of the Monuments Men. And, they reacted much as I would have expected. A good leader thinks about his troops as well as about their mission, and these men, from the highest generals to the battalion commanders, were often concerned about endangering the men they led. On the other hand, the mission of the Monuments Men was also important, in a way I hadn’t really thought about before.
    I loved this perspective about their purpose. Of course it was important to stop Hitler and the Germans from killing more people—Jews and Allied soldiers alike. But it was also important to save the culture. Even with an Allied victory, if the Germans had been successful in destroying all the art and monuments, as they planned to do if they lost, the culture the Allies were defending would have been destroyed. In the end, culture is about more than just human life: the ruins, art, buildings, etc. of the past define who we are in the present. I love that someone in a position of importance understood that.
    I also just think it’s cool that “the Monuments men and their wartime advisors were integral to the creation of two of the most powerful cultural organizations in the nation: the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the arts.” Both of these organizations are close to my heart. And I loved that James Rorimer was instrumental in the development of my favorite museum in the US and one of my favorites anywhere: The Cloisters in NYC.
    Finally, and sort of randomly, I really enjoyed how some of the characters figured out how to “handle” the Germans, who thought they were so smart and totally in control. One of the author’s comments was, “…if the Nazis discovered they could push you, they would push you to your death. You had to be too much trouble to make it easy, but not so much they grew tired of you.” And, Jaujard told Rorimer that saying “no” to Goebbels would have been very risky, so he always told him yes, but that there were details to clarify. And clarifying always took a long, long time. 
    I’m so glad I read this book. And, by the way, I also liked the movie!

  3. While I don’t find this a quick read, I too enjoy this book. It is so often overlooked that war destroys so much more than land, families and psyches for years to come. It also has the potential to erase, like an ice age, an entire existence by wiping out a culture of people. Picking up on what Beckie pointed out, is the determination of Hitler to hoard and own the most precious gifts to the people in which he conquered, their past. One of the stories that hit home for me was the taking of the Madonna. It was such a shock that the bystanders were frozen…not sure how to react or if to react at all.

    I was also struck by some of the letters written home to loved ones. WWII was the last time an entire country of able bodied men were sent to war, before the draft and the War Powers Act. Knowing the hundreds of thousands of men left their homes, their families and their work to fight for our freedom on someone else’s land. And now to understand how they also fought to save cultures from desecration so their stories could live on, is quite powerful. I knew that there were troops whose mission was to recollect the art. However, I always thought that occurred after the fall of Germany and Hitler’s surrender.

    One last note I found interesting is learning one of the reasons Hitler wanted to have these historical relics. In some cases, it was for revenge. He believed that he was defending and recovering stolen items from centuries past that were initially created by German artists. Hitler was an incredibly intelligent and well read man. To me, it is always fascinating to learn the motivations behind the madman.

  4. I haven’t read the comments because I never finished the book. Since I do want to finish it first, I will read the comments later. The funny thing is, I did receive a comment in my email by someone named….”Anonymous”. It is strange that I don’t see it here. I hope no one thought it was written by me…..the real Anonymous! (I bet I will be able to post as Andrea from now on.) I will definitely finish the next book in time.

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