Title: The Monuments Men
Author: Robert M. Edsel
Source: from publisher for review
Summary: Great narrative non-fiction. Well written, well researched, filled with fun facts, and pretty good at bringing the main players to life.
I’m constantly intrigued by the many amazing true stories from the WWII period and this is another good one. The Monuments Men were a group of mostly older men from artistic careers who volunteered to go to Europe to protect monuments during the Allied offensive. They also became involved in retrieving and returning the many valuable art works stolen by German forces. As the war turned against them, German commanders were ordered to destroy art rather than let it be recaptured. Meanwhile, Russian troops claimed any art work they found as the spoils of war. Limited support left the Monuments Men trying to accomplish miracles, rescuing art as quickly as possible.
I enjoyed this book from the very beginning. The author starts with notes about sources and an explanation of how dialog in the book was crafted from primary sources. I love knowing exactly where the information I’m reading comes from, so I really appreciate books with a section like this. The author also includes small biographies with pictures of each of the major players in the story. This was incredibly helpful throughout the book. Something I’m sure it’s hard to do is to help the reader connect with the large number of people involved in a project like this. The biographies gave me something to refer back to each time a character was mentioned. That helped me keep track of everyone enough to have a connection with each of the characters. I think that was critical to my enjoyment of this book.
The book also included some personal stories about each of the men (and the one woman) involved. These were perfectly balanced with sections describing the art and sections describing the action. The author also did a great job integrating the story of the Monuments Men into the overall story of the war. There were descriptions of some of the major battles which I’d heard about before, but there were also more new-to-me descriptions of the time leading up to the war, the experience at the homefront, and the ending of the war in Germany. Although the descriptions of battles made me think deeply about whether the Monuments Men’s choice to risk their life for art made sense, the author does clearly articulate the reasons they thought this choice was worthwhile. The author did a great job telling their story in an engaging way and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in WWII or art history.