Derek Gentile: A life more important than any art


PITTSFIELD -- I saw "The Monuments Men" the other day. That's the film about a detachment of Allied soldiers who recovered several million artifacts stolen by the Nazis from museums and private collectors throughout Europe in the 1940s.

The theme of the movie (repeated four times by actor/director George Clooney) was whether or not saving artifacts, no matter how precious, was more important than saving a life.

George thought it was. I didn't.

My theory (and that of several other writers and bloggers) goes, what if you save the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck? Maybe the resources you expend to do so take away from saving someone who could, in theory, be the next Jan Van Eyck. Or just an average Joe who might not change the world, but who will contribute in a positive way to the human experience.

In other words, the art is replaceable, the human is not.

Unless you do it the way the Allies did it.

This is one of the reasons I believe Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the great commanders of all time.

"Ike" realized that. prior to Operation Overlord (the invasion of Nazi-run Europe in 1944), the United States had vowed to use all its resources to defeat the Nazis.

The argument goes, then, that even a sliver of Allied resources used for other purposes will take away, however marginally, from the war effort.

But Ike ran the whole Monuments Men deal on a shoestring. Less than a shoestring, in fact.

There were, according to records, about 200 Monuments Men in total working for the Allies from 1944-48. There were another 200 or so civilians also attached to the unit.

I don't want to give away too much of the movie, but of those 200, less than 50 were young enough to serve as soldiers. Most were museum officials, appraisers, professors and auctioneers.

So, in theory, you actually added more soldiers to the army. Not a lot more, but more. Although I'm not sure they were much good as combatants.

The budget for the Monuments Men, as far as I can see, was, essentially zero. They got around by using old vehicles or hitching rides with troop transports heading in their direction. And if a commanding officer needed a transport to get his guys from point "A" to point "B," he always had priority.

Likewise, if the Monuments Men thought there was, say a situation where there was a chance a town in front of them might have something they would like to salvage, it was up to the C.O. to decide if the structure housing that item would be spared. If he said no, it was no.

They certainly didn't get extra equipment. Even the ledgers and pencils they used were standard issue.

In essence, the Monuments Men operated pretty much outside the war effort, but they were a part of it.

And on April 4, 1945, it all became moot. That's when the Monuments Men, along with elements of Third Army, discovered, in the salt mines of Merker, Germany, more than 400 paintings and about a half-billon dollars in gold, as well as more than 400 paintings. The gold represented the German reserves.

The war was basically over, but if anyone (Hello, Albert Speer), had any thoughts of reviving the Third Reich after the death of Adolph Hitler, that discovery ended those thoughts. So, essentially, the Monuments Men more than paid for themselves.

And of course, the most interesting aspect of this is that it was all returned. The United States didn't find it and keep it. The families, for the most part, got their collections back, as did the countries in question.

Oh, and as for the movie? Three (out of five) stars.

To reach Derek Gentile:, or (413) 496-6251. On Twitter: @DerekGentile.


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