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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

The Monuments Men

By Adela H. Kim, Crimson Staff Writer

“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” by Gustav Klimt. “The Ghent Altarpiece” by Jan van Eyck. “Madonna of Bruges” by Michelangelo.

These are just a few of the artworks retrieved from over 1,050 repositories in Germany and Austria at the end of World War II. World War II is widely recognized as the deadliest conflict in human history. What is less well-known is that, while soldiers fought to end the war, an entirely different mission was simultaneously in motion: the fight to preserve precious works of art.

German soldiers move a Botticelli piece looted from the Uffizi Gallery in Italy.
German soldiers move a Botticelli piece looted from the Uffizi Gallery in Italy. By Courtesy of National Gallery of Art

As the Nazis conquered Europe, they seized and transported more than 5 million cultural objects. Had the Nazis been victorious, these objects would have filled the Führermuseum, the unrealized museum Hitler planned to erect in Linz. This would have amounted to the greatest displacement of works of art in history. Fighting against this tremendous theft were the Monuments Men: the members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, an Allied group tasked with taking back works of art seized by the Nazis. This wasn’t your typical band of soldiers. The MFAA was an elite group comprised of art world professionals: university professors, curators, art historians, and museum directors who donned military apparel and risked their lives for the masterpieces.

The Nazis tended to store the works they looted in salt mines and underground tunnels. In Bernterode Mine, the Monuments Men worked underneath 400,000 tons of explosives in order to recover the coffin of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. At the Kaiserode Mine in Merkers, where the Monuments Men uncovered 400 looted paintings, the group worked in small, dark tunnels that could have collapsed on them at any moment. Attempting to retrieve works from locales such as these was a perilous process. By the conclusion of the war, two of the Monuments Men had been killed in action.

In 2009, Robert M. Edsel immortalized the story of the MFAA in his book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” A film inspired by the book, aptly titled “The Monuments Men” and starring George Clooney and Matt Damon ’88-’92, promises to bring even more recognition to the achievements of the storied group when it is released on Feb. 7.

The Harvard community can of course claim a connection to any film starring Matt Damon. But the ties that link Harvard to “The Monuments Men” run considerably deeper. In addition to being influential figures in the art world, several key members of the Monuments Men were Harvard affiliates. Paul J. Sachs, Class of 1900, and George L. Stout ’29 were crucial figures in the MFAA, shaping and leading its unusual battle for the arts. James S. Ackerman, Arthur Kingsley Porter professor of fine arts at Harvard from 1960 to 1990, also served in the MFAA. Each of these Harvard affiliates made a significant contribution to the mission of the Monuments Men and helped to ensure that culture was safeguarded in the face of terrible man-made destruction.

Paul J. Sachs: The Organizer

On Dec. 20, 1941, Francis Henry Taylor, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, invited 44 men from the most influential museums in the United States to a conference in New York to discuss their field. Among them was Paul J. Sachs, the associate director of the Fogg Museum. The son of Samuel Sachs, a founding partner of Goldman Sachs, he was a hugely influential figure within the museum community. His connections included major art collectors, bankers, and America’s social elite.

In spite of his privileged background, Sachs did not lead a sheltered life. Experiences prior to World War II made him aware of the potentially disastrous effects war could have on important monuments. In an interview for “The Crimson, Tufts professor of art and art history Andrew L. McClelland makes this clear. “He served in the Red Cross during World War I and was friendly with people who documented monuments during the war,” McClelland says. “Before the United States got involved in World War II, he was already working to protect European monuments against what he considered as great likelihood of great damage.”

A private enters a bombed-out cathedral in Acerno, Italy, during WWII.
A private enters a bombed-out cathedral in Acerno, Italy, during WWII. By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sachs used Taylor’s conference as an opportunity to publicize the calamitous effects World War II was having on cultural monuments. He showed photos of England’s National Gallery in London deserted; of the Tate Gallery in London filled with shattered glass; of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where paintings by great Dutch masters were leaned against empty walls. Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” was stripped from its frame. Michelangelo’s “David” was entombed in brick. Sachs declared before his colleagues, “We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future.”

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, commissioned the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program in 1943, Sachs was asked to recommend the group that would come to be known as the Monuments Men. The choice of Sachs led to the creation of a team that included many members of the Harvard community. He filled the program with students from his famous “Museum Work and Museum Problems” class, a lab-based course first offered at Harvard in 1922 that included both hands-on training in the Fogg and lectures about the art of presenting art. “They were obvious [choices], people who had both the management and the connoisseurship skill to be delegated to do this work in Europe,” McClelland says. “They also had extensive exposure to European museums, as travel was something that Sachs always made his students do. His students were familiar with the collections in Europe before the war started and knew how to deal with works that were found in salt mines.”

On the Field: James S. Ackerman

James S. Ackerman had just received his A.B. in art history from Yale when he was drafted by the United States Army. After the military unit he was assigned to prepared to move to Africa, Ackerman applied to become a a part of the MFAA. “I wanted to be doing something interesting,” Ackerman explains in an interview. “A lot of people in my company were just lounging around playing cards, and I thought [serving in the MFAA] was a very intriguing activity.”

Ackerman was given the task of leading members of the Monuments Men around Italy. “At the time, I was just a sergeant, so I was assigned to accompany army cars in Italy when [the Monuments Men] were visiting sites,” Ackerman says. “There were adventures to monuments and [museums].”

One of Ackerman’s most memorable missions was a trip to inspect the condition of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan. “People had put a shield over the fresco. When we first uncovered it, it was in an un-restored condition,” Ackerman says. “Very little of the original fresco had been preserved. Even after a lot of restoration happened, it was a long way from looking like the original.”

Ackerman’s assignment also gave him an opportunity to study Italian Renaissance architecture in depth. As a result of his time as a Monuments Man, Ackerman went on to become a major scholar of Italian Renaissance architects, including Michelangelo. “Prior to my service in the war, I didn’t know what I wanted to focus my studies on. But my whole experience in Italy led me to study Italian architecture,” Ackerman says.

George L. Stout: The Conservationist Extraordinaire

If Sachs organized the overall structure of the MFAA, fellow Harvard affiliate George L. Stout quietly managed the technical aspects of the program. Prior to the war, art conservation was a relatively obscure field. During a 1978 interview, Stout said “In the world of the art market, it was vulgar to talk about material and condition. That was as naughty as to inquire about the digestive system of an opera singer.”

The low profile of art conservation did not deter Stout, who began his research on art conservation in 1927. Together with chemist Rutherford J. Gettens ’29, Stout created a standardized way of conserving art based on scientific methods. In addition to being a pioneer on the conservation front, Stout was one of the first people to emphasize the importance of an art preservation program. In an interview for “The Crimson,” Robert Edsel had high praise for Stout. “George Stout is the one who had the earliest vision of what ended up happening with the Monuments Men when nobody else was listening other than Paul Sachs,” Edsel says.

George L. Stout '29 and other soldiers move the Ghent Altarpiece through narrow underground passages in Austria.
George L. Stout '29 and other soldiers move the Ghent Altarpiece through narrow underground passages in Austria. By Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

As a member of the MFAA, Stout handled various challenges that arose during missions. In Normandy, the Monuments Men were tasked with restoring a cathedral in Carentan. Things were going smoothly until the group ran out of printed “Off Limits” signs, and civilians ignored handwritten ones. Stout cleverly prevented further trespassing by using white engineering tape marked: “DANGER: Mines!”Stout was also a key player in the aforementioned mission at Bernterode Mine that led to the discovery of the coffin of Frederick the Great. Engineers calculated that the 1,300-pound coffin couldn’t be lifted by the mine’s elevator shaft, but Stout insisted that if the Nazis had been able to get the coffin into the mine via the shaft, the Allies could get it out that way. Stout was right. As the team successfully brought the coffin back up, the Star Spangled Banner played. It was May 7, 1945; Stout’s moment of triumph had occurred the same day that Germany officially surrendered.

The Mission Continues

Between its establishment in 1943 and its dissolution in 1946, the MFAA succeeded in recovering over 10,000 paintings, sculptures, and other countless cultural objects that decorate our museum walls today. But the ultimate mission of the Monuments Men is far from concluded. Today, the rediscovery, reappropriation, and preservation of works lost during World War II continues to pose challenges. In 2012, more than 1,400 works of art looted during World War II were found in a Munich apartment. Among the trove were works by Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Otto Dix, and Max Liebermann long thought to have been destroyed or lost. The value of these works has been estimated to come in at a whopping $1.4 billion. The owner of the hoard, Cornelius Gurlitt, claims that he legally owns the works. His father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was a dealer who sold so-called “degenerate” art (expressionist and modern art that Hitler banned during his regime) but kept many of the works for himself. Several high-profile restitutions have also occurred in recent years. In 1999 and 2011 respectively, “Odalisque” by Matisse and ““Litzlberg am Attersee” by Klimt were removed from the museums they ended up in after the Allied victory, and restored to the descendents of those who owned them prior to the war.

American soldiers with a recovered Manet painting in a salt mine.
American soldiers with a recovered Manet painting in a salt mine. By Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

When it comes to addressing the rediscovery or restitution of works looted during the war, there is a considerable amount of gray area. According to Jutta von Falkenhausen, a Berlin-based lawyer who works on art recovery, each case must be examined individually. “There are several categories which we have to look at carefully,” von Falkenhausen says in an interview for “The Crimson.” “We may have cases [that] they call ‘degenerate art.’ The Nazis confiscated the works, but some of them were bought as well. There are also cases in which people tried to do the decent thing at the time. You had art collectors who would buy [Jewish owners’] art so they would have the money to get to some safe harbor.”

Executive Director of Europe for the Commission of Art Recovery, Agnes Peresztegi, added that the artwork’s current location further complicates the issue. “Whether the artwork is currently in a private or a public collection or whether it is possessed by an individual [determines what] legal and or political issues are presented and what solutions may be found in attempting to have the work returned,” Peresztegi says.

Numerous nations, including France, the United States, Russia, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, have attempted to collaborate to solve these issues. “The Washington Conference Principles, the Vilnius Forum Declaration, and the Terezin Declaration state that all efforts should be deployed to return the Holocaust-era looted artworks and find just and fair solutions to such claims,” Peresztegi says.

But such agreements lack legal teeth. “This is morally binding, not a law. This is an obligation that some countries took very seriously, such as Austria. Austria enacted a restitution law, which requires public institutions and national museums to find and identify art that may have been looted. The nice thing about Austria is that they have a real law, and this is what they’ve been doing quite effectively,” von Falkenhausen says. “Some museums have been doing this with great energy, others not so much. Many try to stall.”

Von Falkenhausen believes that museums haven’t reacted fully engaged with the problem, partly because it is hard to part with artwork that they have taken care of for an extended period of time. “You [the museum] are the good guy because you take care of the art. And here comes the rich person, represented by a big New York law firm[,] that says that this beautiful work is ours. Then they sell it at Sotheby’s for a million dollars. If you are a curator, your instinct is to say[,] ‘I want the public to have access to this,’” she says.

Edsel says he hopes that his book and the upcoming film will shore up the legacy of the MFAA while also bringing attention to the ongoing nature of the issue of art preservation. “I want the film and the book to shake the snow globe and get people more engaged and debating,” Edsel says. He also stresses the ongoing need to protect cultural monuments. In recent years, a lack of U.S. military preparation caused the looting and burning of the Iraq National Library and the looting of the Iraq National Museum, as well as bombings of cultural monuments such as the Al-Askari Mosque and Shrine Complex in Samarra. Similar cultural tragedies are currently unfolding in war-plagued Syria.

The story of the Monuments Men sheds light on the fact that there are different kinds of war casualties and inspires future generations to fight against the kind of destructiveness that brings about both cultural and human losses. Edsel articulates this best when articulating the impact he hopes his book and the film will have. “We have to put the legacy to use to protect future monuments.”

—Staff writer Adela H. Kim can be reached at adela.kim@thecrimson.com.

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