The Monuments Men

“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 with Botticelli
German soldiers move a Botticelli piece looted from the Uffizi Gallery in Italy.
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.
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].”


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