Sunday 19 January 2014

Not Just the Americans: Remembering the Other "Monuments Men (and Women)"

Relatives of Ronald Balfour are angry that the US film "The Monuments Men" overlooks the British historian, one of only two members of the unit killed in the Second World War, it seems the true story of an unjustly overlooked champion of cultural history has been edited out in order to make good adventure cinema.
Though American-led, the MFAA was an international effort, with about 345 men and women from up to 17 nations. Britain provided the second-largest group of specialists. Volunteers for MFAA work in the war zone were given basic military training, a uniform and an officer rank – and a sector of Europe to look after. The final months of the war in Europe brought its greatest loss of life – a mud-and-fire maelstrom in which armed gangs roamed at will. Amid this chaos around a dozen frontline MFAA officers struggled to preserve Europe's cultural wealth. Balfour, who was given the rank of major and attached to the Canadian army, was entrusted with the sector that included northern France, Belgium and north-west Germany – hundreds of key sites, and thousands of works of art and historic architecture. Often, Balfour had to hitchhike from one war-ravaged historic site to another, inspecting losses and damage.
This was dangerous and difficult work, and the medieval historian and fellow of King's College, Cambridge ended up losing his life on the front line:
Early in 1945, Balfour was at Cleves, the bitterly contested ancient city in north-western Germany. He had just saved an archive dating back to the 14th century, and persuaded Canadian troops not to dynamite the medieval Steintor city gate at nearby Goch. On 10 March, Balfour ventured beyond allied lines with two German civilians to try to protect historic church artefacts and was killed by a shell burst while moving parts of a medieval altarpiece to safety. He was 41, one of two MFAA officers killed during the war.*
Last month, Clooney's film was also criticised in Austria for crediting to MFAA officers the salvation of a vast horde of art stolen from across Europe which had been stored in Alpine salt mines at Altaussee in Austria. It was in fact the miners who risked their lives to save these objects from destruction, with the Monuments Men arriving there nearly two weeks later.

It is also worth noting that Edsell's "Monuments men" book, on which the film is loosely-based, gives an honest account of the British involvement (two of my heroes, Wheeler and Ward Perkins) in monuments protection in North Africa, before D-Day. I've not yet read his "Saving Italy" (on my list) but hope it gives due credit too to the Italian conservators whose achievements are well-documented elsewhere. Although not in the US war-zone, the efforts of Polish conservators - also at the risk of their lives - during and in the chaos after the Occupation certainly should not be forgotten just because the literature about it is not primarily in English. There also were German conservators working throughout the War to safeguard cultural property, more controversially when it was in the occupied territories, less so when it was evacuating it to remove it from the advancing Eastern Front. Sadly a lot was lost due to the attitude of the Red Army to their newly-conquered territories, and indeed, a lot of the evacuated material has never been recovered. The fruitless search for some of this was the occasion of my own collaboration with several groups of dedicated artefact hunters over here in Poland in the early 1990s.

*Walter Huchthausen, an American architect, was shot near Aachen in April 1945.

Robin Stummer, 'George Clooney's Nazi art theft film attacked for ignoring real-life British war hero', The Observer, 19 January 2014.

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