by Michael Swanger
Sixty-eight years after the end of the Second World War, the story continues to unfold in dramatic fashion of how an Iowa soldier named George Stout and members of an Allies elite group helped to rescue more than five million cultural objects pillaged from countries conquered by Nazi Germany.
Stout’s group was the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA) of the Allies, and the members were known as the Monuments Men.
In 2009, in a book entitled Monuments Men, author Robert M. Edsel, revealed his extensive research of Stout and the group. It is a riveting account of Allied heroes, murderous Nazi thieves and the greatest treasure hunt in history. And one of the key figures of the book is Stout.
Born in Winterset, Iowa on October 5, 1897, Stout spent his youth and school days in the town that would eventually become famous for being the birthplace of John Wayne. Stout served in the navy in World War I, then returned to his home state to earn a degree at the University of Iowa. He moved on to Harvard University for his master’s degree.
By the time World War II came around, Stout was a recognized expert in the field of art conservation techniques. It was that skill, coupled with his stoic and determined approach to problems, that has captured the attention of not only Edsel but one of Hollywood’s best-known figures.
A major motion picture by the same name, based on Edsel’s work, will be released nationwide in December. It stars popular actor, writer and producer George Clooney, who portrays Stout, as well as Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Bill Murray. It was filmed in Germany earlier this year.
Though many of the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany have been well documented through the tireless pursuits of researchers, historians, writers and filmmakers, the story of the Monuments Men is relatively unknown compared to those told in popular books and films such as “Band of Brothers,” “The Greatest Generation,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List.”
That is, until now. Edsel’s 2009 book and Clooney’s movie are the latest in a series of revelations about one of World War II’s most overlooked and significant stories that prominently feature its Iowa hero. The Rape of Europa, a book written by Lynn Nicholas and a companion documentary by the same title, as well as Edsel’s latest tome, Saving Italy, also reference the work of Stout and his peers.
The Monuments Men were a group of about 350 soldiers (men and women) from 13 nations, many of whom volunteered for service in the newly created MFAA from 1943 to 1951. Most had expertise as museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects and archivists.
They were assigned the difficult task (by President Roosevelt) to mitigate combat damage, primarily to structures such as churches, museums and other important monuments throughout the front lines in northern Europe – France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria – as well as Italy. They had no vehicles, typewriters or authority. Their job description was simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.
As the war in Europe marched toward its conclusion on May 7, 1945, their focus shifted to locating movable works of art and other cultural items that were stolen or missing by the Nazis. Years earlier, Hitler had ordered Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring to build a Führermuseum in Hitler’s hometown of Linz, Austria, where some day he hoped to display stolen masterpieces by Michelangelo, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Donatello, van Eycks and Vermeer and other items that he had amassed since the 1920s.
“It used to be called plundering. But today things have become more humane. In spite of that, I intend to plunder, and to do it thoroughly,” Göring was quoted as saying at a conference of Reich Commissioners for the Occupied Territories and the Military Commanders in Berlin on August 6, 1942.
An art enthusiast, Hitler spent many hours during the war sketching plans and designing models for his museum and the rebuilding of Linz. He not only ordered Nazi troops to loot millions of artworks, but to systematically destroy those that were deemed to be “degenerative.” Toward the end of the war, his most fanatical followers that were left to guard stolen items vowed to destroy them if the Third Reich could not have them, pressing the Monuments Men in a race against time.
In the end, Hitler’s dream for a Führermuseum as part of 1,000 years of rule by the Third Reich was crushed by victorious Allied forces. Still, Hitler remained obsessed with the idea of creating such a twisted utopia until the bitter end. In March of 1945, just weeks before he committed suicide in his Berlin underground bunker, Hitler periodically would escape the depressing reality of Germany’s impending military defeat by entering the dream world embodied in his scale model of Linz, which included the Führermuseum.