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A Renewed Commitment to the Preservation of Culture: The 21st century Monuments Men and Women

After almost two decades of advocacy and 71 years since the last Monuments Officer left Europe in the aftermath of WWII, the world once again has Monuments Men and Women!

Last Friday, August 12, 2022, the first class of Monuments Officers completed the US Army Monuments Officers Training (AMOT). The morning began with the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at National Arlington Cemetery, alongside Jim Huchthausen, whose uncle, Captain Walter Huchthausen, was one of two Monuments Men killed during combat. In the afternoon, we moved to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where the Graduation Ceremony took place.

Addressing the new graduates was our founder and chairman Robert M. Edsel. As Dr. Richard Kurin, Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large, said when introducing him, "Robert... gave the world a gift ... in the remembrance of the story of WWII and the Monuments Men and Women who helped give attention to culture... Robert in his book turned into a movie truly exposed tens of millions, maybe even hundreds of millions of people in so many places around the world about this mission.”

Listen to Robert's Commencement Address, or read the full text below. At the bottom of a page, you will find a short gallery of images from this memorable day.

Thank you, Dr. Kurin, for those kind remarks. I am truly honored to be here with you today.

I also want to thank General Carter and the teams at the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), in particular Corine Wegener and Col. Scott DeJesse, for their work in creating the Army Monuments Officer Training program and making this important event possible. Trustees and Advisory Board members of the Monuments Men and Women Foundation have traveled here today. Thank you. Special guests are among us: family members of the WW2 Monuments Men and Women. Please stand when I call the name of your hero and ours: Lt. Cmdr. George Stout, Maj. Robert Posey, Capt. James Rorimer, Capt. Walker Hancock, T/5 Charles Bernholz, and Capt. Walter Huchthausen, one of two Monuments Men killed in action during the final weeks of the war. Your presence adds meaning to this ceremony that words alone cannot express.

To the proud families and friends of the graduates, your loved ones have run the race well. Your constant support and encouragement of them makes this day yours as much as it is theirs. Congratulations.

And to the graduates – the Monuments Men and Women of the 21st century – this is not a normal graduation ceremony. Each of you has already built an accomplished career. You’ve answered many of life’s challenging questions, but you wanted more, something that involved even greater personal sacrifice for an even higher cause. Now, you embark on this new and noble journey as Monuments Officers. You follow in the footsteps of a group of scholars, architects, archivists, librarians, and artists who, eighty years ago, were tossed into the chaos of a world war with pitifully few resources and a mission that they largely designed and implemented on the fly. Along the way, they learned more than a few things about overcoming obstacles. In the course of the past twenty years researching the Monuments Men and Women, so did I. So in our time together, I’d like to share with you a few stories about their journey and mine, because today, those two roads converge with yours.

My interest in these heroes began in 1996. Standing on the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, I wondered how millions of priceless works of art and cultural objects had survived the most destructive and deadly war in history, and who the people were who saved them. In the ensuing years, my curiosity about the subject led me to co-produce the Emmy-nominated documentary, The Rape of Europa, based on an outstanding book by scholar Lynn Nicholas. As that project wound down, I realized that it and so many other works concentrated on the bad guys. The story that I wanted to know all about involved the good guys. Who were these middled-aged men and women who walked away from established careers and families to volunteer for military service and go into harm’s way to save museum treasures, libraries, and churches?

While my small team tried to find every living Monuments Man and Woman, I began traveling around the country to meet and interview those we had identified. My eighth trip took me to Williams College in Massachusetts to meet S. Lane Faison, III. Lane’s wartime assignment involved interrogating the bad guys to unravel and document Hitler’s plans to build a museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. Lane appeared to be in good health for a ninety-eight-year-old man, but one of sons had warned me that he seldom stayed awake for periods much longer than thirty minutes. “Don’t be disappointed,” he told me, “if you don’t learn much from your conversation.” And what a conversation it was, lasting more than three hours as Lane flipped through pictures I had of the Monuments Men and Women, stopping periodically to stare at images that transported him back in time. As his memory was jogged, the twinkle in his eye appeared and his arms moved enthusiastically with the telling of each story until we were both emotionally exhausted and needed to stop.

As I rose to say goodbye, I approached his recliner and extended my hand in thanks. Lane reached out, firmly gripped it with both of his hands, pulled me close, and said, “I’ve been waiting to meet you all my life.” That statement left me bewildered. For days I asked myself, “What did he mean?” But deep down inside, I knew what he meant. I knew what he wanted me to do. It was the thought of how I was going to do it that left me feeling inadequate and overwhelmed. Then, ten days later, one of my colleagues informed me that Lane had died, a week shy of his ninety-ninth birthday. It was Veterans Day.

I flew back to Williams College three weeks later to attend Lane’s memorial service, where his four sons warmly greeted me.

“What happened,” I asked his boys. “Your dad seemed in perfect health when I left.”

“He was, but the day after your visit, Pop called each of us and told us to say our goodbyes. He was ready to go. He then slipped into a coma and died peacefully the following week.”

Meeting Lane Faison changed the course of my life. A project that had begun out of curiosity was from that point on a mission. My role was that of messenger. My Jewish friends refer to that moment as “bashert”: destiny.

At the outset of my mission, ignorance was an asset. I couldn’t foresee any reason why the Monuments Men and Women story couldn’t be used to engage the public and change the world. The array of opportunities seemed endless – from honoring the Monuments Men and Women for their military service, to reconstituting the Monuments Officer program, to a narrative telling of their story, to a major feature film to share their achievements with a global audience – even building a permanent museum exhibit to preserve their legacy for all time. Though I had no formal education in art and architecture, no training on how to write much less sell a book, no experience in how to produce a film or start and run a not-for-profit foundation, I had a little bit of money, a lot of curiosity, and boundless passion for these heroes’ story. But as time passed, I learned the hard way that ignorance is also a pain – and sometimes painful.

In 2005, brimming with confidence, I met with publishers about my idea for a photographic telling of the Monuments Men story. They told me, “No one is interested in more stories about WW2. Besides, everyone knows about the Monuments Men.” “Save me from myself,” I pleaded with them. “Tell me the name,” but they couldn’t because there was no such book. With no alternative but to quit, I decided to self-publish my first book, Rescuing da Vinci, which meant that instead of just writing a book, I also had to learn how the publishing and distribution business worked. That book ended up being a great success, but its lasting importance was in laying the foundation for the work that followed.

More obstacles awaited me. In 2006, I met with Congressional aides about recognizing the Monuments Men and Women with the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest civilian award. How hard could that be, right? They discouraged me from even trying. “It’s a long and difficult a process,” they told me. “You do realize that have to pass a bill in both houses of Congress and then get the President to sign it into law?” Well, they were correct in part: it was a long and difficult process. We had to overcome many challenges. But in 2015, after nine years of meetings with members of Congress and their aides, we watched with joy as Majority and Minority leaders John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Mitch McConnell welcomed three Monuments Men and one Monuments Woman on stage and presented to them, on behalf of the 348 individuals from fourteen nations who served as Monuments Men and Women, the Congressional Gold Medal.

In 2012, concerned about my mental wellbeing, some of my friends begged me to abandon my dream of sharing these heroes’ story with a global audience. “You’ve been out to Hollywood to pitch the film idea a dozen times,” they said. “It’s never going to happen. Declare victory and go home. You’ve done enough.” I heard the word “never” a lot in those days, but I also heard the voice of Lane Faison whispering in my ear, ‘hang in there a while longer.’ The phone call informing me that George Clooney wanted to make the film changed all that. Today, the term “Monuments Men” is ubiquitous, as familiar to volunteers in Timbuktu trying to preserve precious manuscripts as it is to our graduates.

But there was a moment when it could have turned out differently, when my idealism had to overcome my ego. After several weeks of negotiations, a lawyer conveyed a “take it or leave it” offer telling me I had one hour to decide or there would be no deal – and no film. I stormed out to my car and drove around the block for about twenty minutes thinking about all the work I’d put into researching and writing the book. And it was in that selfish mindset that my Better Angel appeared to remind me that my role was that of messenger. Being an author was just a mode of transmission. The story didn’t belong to me, it belonged to the world. Getting the film made was all that mattered. That’s what Lane Faison would have wanted. In the years since, I’ve been reminded often that dedication to a cause presents never-ending challenges that continually plumb the depth of your commitment. Sometimes in life, the biggest obstacle to completing your mission is yourself.

The Monuments Men and Women of WW2 would be proud of what you’ve accomplished and your dedication to this important cause. If they were here, I know they would want you to consider two difficult questions that defined their military service – and may define yours. The first would be the timeless question of priorities: In a world struggling with disease, starvation, and war, why even bother with something so esoteric as the protection of cultural heritage?

As early as 1942, art restorer George Stout, who would become the leader of the Monuments Men in Western Europe and establish their operation in post-war Japan, addressed this question when he made the moral argument for cultural preservation officers. “To safeguard these things will not affect the course of battles,” Stout wrote, “but it will affect the relations of invading armies with those people and their governments…To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to a particular people but also to the heritage of mankind.”

In December 1943, the Monuments Men who were in Europe – all twelve of them at the time – were concerned that the operation had stalled. They were hitchhiking their way from town to town, with no command authority and few resources to do their job. Some questioned whether the Army was truly committed to the stated objective of preserving cultural treasures, or was the operation merely an attempt to counter Nazi propaganda that Western Allied troops had landed in Europe determined to loot its works of art and other treasures. Today, we know the answer. On December 29, 1943, Eisenhower ordered his commanders to work with the Monuments Officers and respect cultural treasures so much as war allowed. This was the endorsement of mission that the Monuments Men desperately needed. Eisenhower issued a similar order two weeks prior to the Normandy landings. At war’s end, he set bureaucracy aside to accelerate the return of major cultural objects to the countries from which they had been stolen.

After the war, General Eisenhower weighed in stating that “In a democracy at least, there always stands beyond the materialism and destructiveness of war those ideals for which it is fought.” One of those ideals was the preservation of works of art and other cultural belongings. Ideals don’t have an expiry date. They mattered then, as now. They constituted the moral arc of why we fought that war. “Learn from our experience,” the Monuments Men and Women would tell you. Confiscation and destruction of cultural property provide advance notice of the mass killings that are sure to follow. It is the Nazi playbook used by the Taliban, Al Qaida, ISIS, and now Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin. As we bear witness to the loss of life in Ukraine and the destruction of its cultural heritage, can there be any question that preservation of our shared cultural heritage matters more today than ever?

Then there are the practical arguments. The United States represents about 4% of the world’s population. Most Americans don’t have a centuries-old tradition of veneration for art and cultural objects. Our new nation’s treasures tend to be more intangible, for example ideas that are embodied in our most historic documents including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s often difficult for us to appreciate the deep emotional connection other nations have for their cultural heritage. But building and strengthening alliances with the remaining 96% of the world depends, in part, on demonstrating a basic understanding and respect for their culture, and that presents a challenge not just for you and your work, but for all Americans.

One thing that Americans do value is protecting the lives of our troops, and that makes protecting the cultural treasures of the countries where they are deployed a moral imperative. The simple truth is this: the responsibility of a military force to protect the cultural treasures in the territories in which it operates is absolute. Owning that narrative depends on good deeds and action. Failing to do so breeds contempt and anger that will cost lives.

Once the Monuments Men had boots on the ground, they had to confront the dangers of their mission which led to the second question: Is art worth a life? The deaths of Monuments Men British Capt. Ronald Balfour and American Capt. Walter Huchthausen would seem to answer that question with a resounding “yes.” There were also many close calls. Stewart Leonard was the director of a small museum in Key West, Florida before becoming a bomb-disposal expert. Ever the philosopher, Leonard later told Bernie Taper, a fellow Monuments Man, that there was one good thing about being in the bomb disposal unit. Taper took the bait and asked what could ever compensate for the dangers of that job. Leonard smiled and said, “Well, you never have a superior officer looking over your shoulder.” And in fact, none were looking over his shoulder as he dismantled bombs that German sappers had placed around one of the wonders of the world, Chartres Cathedral, in France.

But Monuments Man Capt. Deane Keller, a forty-three-year-old professor of art at Yale University and an artist himself, left his wife and three-year-old son to risk his life to save countless monuments and works of art in Italy. He had a decidedly different view: “The life of one American boy is worth infinitely more to me than any monument I know.” Like the other Monuments Men, Keller risked his life NOT to save beautiful objects, but to defend a cause, the same cause that Monuments Man George Stout wrote about in 1942: preservation of our shared cultural heritage.

What can you learn – what can we all learn - from the experiences of the WW2 Monuments Men and Women that will help YOU complete your mission and help OUR NATION reestablish the high bar for the protection of the world’s shared cultural heritage?

First, leadership is vital. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program of WW2 worked because, despite the many flaws, leadership – from President Roosevelt, to Army Chief of Staff Marshall, to General Eisenhower – was aligned in its endorsement and support of the mission. Backing them up were the best and brightest minds in the arts – at museums, archives, and libraries in the United States and United Kingdom. But the critical component, the “X” factor, were the men and women who volunteered to go into harm’s way and apply their professional expertise and training to save much of the world’s cultural heritage. Men like Fred Hartt, an art historian whose dogged defense of damaged but repairable buildings in Florence spared countless medieval towers and historic structures from the devouring bulldozers of army engineers. And women, such as unsung hero Ardelia Hall, who spent more years than any other Monuments Officer continuing to locate and return stolen works of art to their rightful owners at a time when so many people just wanted the topic to fade away.

Second, no two conflicts are the same. Learn from the past, but be flexible in your planning for the future. Your predecessors spent years of their lives working throughout Europe and then parts of Asia. Your challenges may stretch from the plains of Eastern Europe to the parched deserts of the Middle East and the littorals of the Pacific. The most time-consuming part of their mission centered on locating and returning more than four million stolen cultural objects. Your challenges may be focused less on theft and more on preventing deliberate destruction. The one certitude, then as now, is this: the world is never going to have a shortage of bad guys determined to erase the culture of others. Be vigilant.

Third, you are not just cultural preservation officers, you are front line ambassadors. There will be many things you cannot control, but you must be resolute in communicating to commanders the importance of protecting cultural objects wherever our fighting forces go. Trust your training, but also trust your instincts. Do your job right, and in all likelihood few people will notice. Even fewer will say “job well done” – and that’s ok. Do it poorly, and you’ll be reading about it as the lead story in online and print media around the world.

In some respects, your task is more difficult than the Monuments Men and Women of WW2. The threats to our shared cultural heritage then were centered on theft by the Nazis and the destruction of war. Today, armed conflict is but one threat. Add to that government budget shortages for the arts; mismanagement and incompetency, where shortcuts and deferred maintenance lead to self-inflicted loss; climate change and the consequent natural disasters; and this one, which I think moves up the list of challenges each day: poor or ineffective communication by our leaders in a social media world driven by short explanations, unrealistic expectations, and immediate gratification that undercut the sacrifice and effort of all those who have dedicated themselves to creating this new force.

The protection of cultural property was not a Republican vs Democrat issue during WW2 nor should it become one today. It was then, and remains, a leadership issue. President Roosevelt was unfailingly clear that the United States would take the lead in respecting the cultural property of others. Our leaders today must not lower that standard. Threats to target cultural sites in a hostile nation are soundbites that may cause damage as great or greater than the destruction of the objects themselves. It feeds a bad-guy narrative that Americans don’t care about the cultures of others. It undermines your mission and stains the legacy of the Monuments Men and Women of WW2. Remember the wisdom of Monuments Woman Edith Standen, who in 1947, more than half a century before social media, profoundly stated: “It’s not enough that we be virtuous, we must also appear so.”

The relentless criticism of the United States in the aftermath of the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad in 2003 convinced me that popularizing the story of what your predecessors did during WW2 and sharing it with the world was an essential step to reconstituting the Monuments Officer program. My work led to invitations to go on base, to Ft. McCoy and Ft. Meade, to speak with Civil Affairs officers preparing to deploy, and then members of Congress, and eventually, to the White House and President Obama for a screening of The Monuments Men film for officials from various lead government agencies. But there were many other powerful advocates who should be recognized for their steadfast commitment to the AMOT program including Col. Dick Jackson, Dr. Laurie Rush, John Russell, Constance Lowenthal, Col. Matthew Bogdanos, CSM Earl Rocca, Col. Scott DeJesse, and of course, Corine Wegener. While I am the one standing here addressing you, know that they, and many others whose names I have not mentioned, also deserve credit.

In closing, General Eisenhower once said about the work of the Monuments Men and Women and the role of the United States Army in protecting cultural treasures, that “It is our privilege to pass on to the coming centuries treasures of ages past.” As a military officer, one might have expected Eisenhower to use the word “duty.” But “privilege” conveyed the measure of pride he felt knowing that history would judge both his decisions and the performance of the armies under his command. Next year, that remarkable legacy will be shared with the world when an idea we’ve nurtured since 2009 becomes a reality: the National WW2 Museum Monuments Men and Women Gallery, the first permanent exhibit to tell these heroes’ story – the origins of your story.

And now my friends, we arrive at the most important moment in a relay race. Sixteen years ago, Lane Faison placed the legacy of the Monuments Men and Women of WW2 firmly into my hands. Today, I pass responsibility for that portion of their legacy on to you. Good luck!


Jun 27

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