The Monuments Men

This film – and, in fact, the reality that it is based upon comes from some of the particular ideas and weaknesses of a man who meant to rule the world. Following World War I, Hitler spent time in prison for leading a failed coup in Munich. While incarcerated, he wrote his famous book, ‘Mein Kampf,’ in which he presented his ideas to reform Germany into a political union of great, centralized power.

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A first (?) self portrait of Adolf Hitler – sold for ~$15,000

Therein, as is well known now, that Hitler’s first love was art – primarily drawing. And more specifically, he had a great interest in architecture, although this interest was apparently not consciously recognized yet by the man, himself. Therefore, when he applied at the Academy in Vienna, his interest was to enter the school of painting. Yet it was recognized by the rector that his talents lay elsewhere and he steered the young man in the direction of architecture.

This time, Hitler describes as dreadful. He found himself surrounded by the art and grandeur of Vienna, but he was blocked from entering into it himself. At the same time, he was discovering other problems with the city…

” [M]y eyes were opened to two menaces of which I had previously scarcely known the names, and whose terrible importance for the existence of the German people I certainly did not understand: Marxism and Jewry.”

Later, after serving his prison term and emerging as a political leader, the ideas of capitalism and communism were linked to Jewish conspiracies that left ordinary Germans suffering. And, because of excessive restrictions placed on Germany following WWI, the country was suffering from a lasting depression that left the people eager to unite against any common foe.

Once Hitler attained power and was made Chancellor of Germany, thus giving birth to the Third Reich, his anti-Semitic policies afforded him with a rare opportunity to begin seizing art and other treasure from his domestic enemies. When open war broke out, this funnel of treasure became larger as more and more cities collapsed under the power of Germany’s armies.

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Work of the degenerate, Otto Dix

This finally leads us to Monuments Men. A film about the men who recognized that art and culture are things that a free world needs to protect and they organized themselves to be this protection. We join the story as the Nazis are retreating before Allied Forces and an end to the war is in view. Although the war is ending (something that no one doubts at this point), it is unclear yet exactly how it will end. Will Hitler retreat into Germany and be isolated there perhaps securing a conditional surrender? Or will the Allies crush Germany entirely?

While the war was raging, Hitler had been ‘liberating’ art from his conquests and was arranging to bring them home to fill a new museum of art, the Führermuseum. Recall, there was no certainty of how the war would end – and these collections had always been a priority, even when Germany was being victorious.

There is a problem though. Remember what happens to Hitler at the end of WWII? Well, there was a decree which became known as the Nero Decree, that Hitler signed ordering a scorched Earth policy of destroying anything of value that might fall into the hands of the Allies.  Basically, Hitler took Shel Silverstein’s Selfish Child’s prayer to heart,


Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my toys to break
So none of the other kids can use ’em

Lucky for the rest of us, George Clooney is there to lead a band of high power movie stars to stop that from happening. And if that’s not enough. Our allies, the Russians, are coming to steal all that stolen art for themselves!

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pre-2001

With time running out, the Monuments Men show they can deliver a well-made film even from the most obvious of stories. Don’t get me wrong: these men were heroes. Culture is preserved in our art. When we look back in time, some of the greatest loses to mankind include just these sorts of cultural insults such as the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria – or the destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan. As a film, this was well done. The quality of the actors very much elevated the film far above what it could have been. However, as a historical piece, there was little surprise how things were going to turn out – despite Clooney’s insistence on taking a VERY LONG time to appreciate a statue before rushing to remove it just as the Russians were coming in.

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