It’s autumn 1940 in northern France, and World War Two is underway.
A convoy of German army trucks rumbles down the tree-lined driveway of a country estate. In the passenger seat in the front of the lead vehicle, a German officer stares out the window at the beautiful countryside. This officer reports to the E.R.R., the Nazi organization dedicated to looting the property of Jews in occupied Europe.
Soon the truck jolts to a halt. Looking up at the looming chateau; a towering monument to the wealth of its owner, the officer orders his men to file out of the truck. Then he approaches the entrance to the chateau… and hammers on the front door.
There’s silence. But just when he thinks he’ll have to break the door down… he hears the twisting of metal and the slide of locks…
When the door opens, the officer and his men push inside past the startled housekeeper.
The officer roars in broken French: “The paintings? Where are the paintings?”
But the housekeeper says nothing. Frustrated, the officer barks out orders to his men - “Search the house!”
The Germans tear apart every room in the chateau. The bedrooms and ballrooms. The attic. The library. The kitchens and stables.
And soon, a young soldier searches the servants’ quarters where he finds a locked door…
He kicks it down.
And as light floods the room, a small, gilt-framed painting is illuminated leaning against the wall. The soldier picks it up, staring, transfixed. Painting almost seems to glow. It shows a robed scientist bathed in a golden light, sitting at a desk, lost in thought. It’s exquisite. The young soldier rushes from the room shouting: “Sir! I’ve found something!”
The painting is The Astronomerby the 17th Century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. It belongs to the Rothschilds, the owners of the chateau, a prominent Jewish family who’ve fled the Nazi invasion of France.
The painting is just part of what’s been called the greatest art theft in history. The Nazis are looting thousands of priceless objects from the lands they’ve conquered. Some will be sold to help finance their war machine. Others will adorn the homes of the Nazi elite. And a select few, such as The Astronomer, will be personally chosen by Adolf Hitler to be part of his “Führermuseum”, the great art gallery he plans to build after the war.
But Hitler’s ambitions will not go unopposed, nor will his theft. Soon, the Allies will begin to push back German forces on the battlefield, and a new effort to track down what was stolen will be launched on June 23rd, 1943.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is June 23rd, 1943: The Monuments Men.
Act One: Commission
It’s June 23rd, 1943, in the White House in Washington DC.
In his office, the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt grabs a document from a large stack of papers; an important letter from his Secretary of State.
The United States has been at war with Nazi Germany for almost 18 months. Now, alongside America’s allies, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, preparations are underway for the invasion and liberation of occupied Europe. The tide is beginning to turn against Nazi Germany but there’s a long way to go before victory can be secured – and a lot of paperwork. But this letter from the Secretary of State isn’t about battle plans or diplomacy; it’s about works of art.
The Allies know all about the Nazis’ systemized looting of the territories they’ve occupied in Europe. Countless paintings and sculptures by the greatest artists in history have been ripped off the walls of homes and galleries, and shipped across the continent and into the hands of the Nazis.
In this note, Roosevelt’s Secretary of State has presented a bold idea: to create a government commission dedicated to protecting and conserving artworks in war-torn Europe and to salvage and return objects stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners.
It’s a long letter, detailing the suggested responsibilities and organization of the commission. The plan is for art experts to accompany the advancing Allied troops into battle; and to document and protect all the cultural assets they find, from precious artworks to buildings and monuments.
After he finishes reading the letter, Roosevelt reaches for a pen and scribbles a simple note in the margin. He writes, “OK” and then signs it “FDR”. That’s all it takes. With these five letters, the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments is born.
It’s March 5th, 1944, in the countryside of Central England. An American soldier peers up at the tower of a village church. Lieutenant George Stout is a dapper man in his mid-forties. His uniform is immaculate, his hair slick and neatly parted, his mustache pencil thin.
Stout is joined in the churchyard by a small and balding man in a British uniform: Ronald Balfour. Balfour adjusts his thick, wire-rimmed glasses and nods toward the church tower. Then he asks “What do you think, George? Shall we go up? It’s… nothing to write home about I know, but there’ll be a lovely view.”
Stout smiles and follows the Englishman as they head toward the church.
Before the war, both of these men were scholars. Balfour was at the University of Cambridge, a specialist in medieval history, while Stout was Head of the Department of Conservation at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum.
But now they’re both ‘Monuments Men’; the nickname given to the small number of experts enlisted into the British and American forces who are now working together to save the art treasures of Europe.
From America, Stout watched in horror as Europe and its treasures were engulfed by war. And when the United States joined the fighting, he lobbied those in power to create a new class of conservators, “special workmen” who would go into battle alongside the troops. It was the first time anything like it had been suggested. Many thought Stout’s idea was a ludicrous distraction from the important business of winning the war.
And by early 1943, Stout had all but given up on the idea, convinced it was going nowhere. But just a few months later, he heard that his idea had finally worked its way through the government bureaucracy to the desk of the President of the United States, who gave the commission the green light.
Now, the Monuments Men are here in England, together, training for the dangerous and important work to come.
Stout and Balfour clamber up the steps of the church tower before finally emerging through a hatch onto a narrow lead roof.
Balfour claps his hands and says with a glint in his eye, “There, I told you, George. You could almost see Oxford from here. Not that you’d want to… it's a dreadful place.” Stout laughs heartily at the joke; he knows Balfour went to Cambridge, Oxford’s greatest rival.
Stout looks out over the thatched cottages and tumbling stone walls of the nearby village and beyond, over the English countryside and its patchwork quilt of fields and country lanes. But its simple beauty saddens the American. He knows that where he’s going, sights like these will be rare.
In exactly two months’ time, on D-Day, the Allied forces will begin their invasion of Nazi-occupied Western Europe. George Stout, Ronald Balfour, and all the other Monuments Men will be going with them.
Stout sighs and takes one last look at the beautiful view. Then he and Balfour descend from the tower and head back to base, getting ready for war.
Act Two: Setbacks
It’s August 13th, 1944, more than a year after the creation of the Monuments Men.
In a field in Normandy in northern France, a meeting is underway. Four Monuments Men gather around a beat-up Volkswagen. The car is missing its windshield and roof, but it’s the most reliable transportation any of them have been able to find.
They’re all exhausted and unshaven; their boots and uniforms caked in mud. All, that is, except for George Stout. They’re in the middle of a warzone. And even now they can hear the distant thump of artillery. But Stout looks as polished and dapper as ever.
But Stout called this meeting because the Monuments Men have been running into problems. And Stout wants to solve them.
He’s been in France for six weeks; one of the first Monuments Men to cross the Channel from England after the D-Day landings. Since then, he is being tearing around Normandy in this battered Volkswagen, which he found left behind by the Germans. He knows the other men here have put in time and effort, too. But they’re all frustrated.
Especially James Rorimer, a 38-year-old bulldog of a man from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. James is a star at the Met. But he’s finding the army bureaucracy stifling.
At the meeting, Rorimer counts off the problems on his fingers, saying, “We got no radios. No cameras… motor pool won’t even give any of us a Jeep." Rorimer also complains that he feels the army isn’t doing enough to keep them safe.
Stout nods in agreement, and he assures the men that he’s frustrated, too. He tells them he’s lined up a meeting with their superiors to address the long list of problems. In the meantime, they’ll have to make do. Stout reminds them that their work may be dangerous, but it’s also important.
The men nod. Despite their frustrations, they're all proud of the work they’ve done so far. But they also know Normandy is a small place, with few monuments to be rescued. They are fully aware that as the Allies fight their way out of Normandy and head toward the big cities of Germany, their job will only get harder.
It’s March 20th, 1945, seven months after Monuments Men met in the field in Normandy.
At a US Army command post in the German city of Cologne, Lieutenant George Stout is on his way out of the officer’s barracks when he hears a voice behind him.
There's a telephone call for him.
And as George heads for the phone, he hopes it's someone with useful intelligence about the treasures stolen by Hitler. They've found nothing here in Cologne. The Allied troops captured the city a couple of weeks ago, but it had already been flattened by bombing raids. With few monuments or artwork left for Stout to document, he’s anxious to keep moving and head to other towns in Germany where his skills can be put to better use.
Stout picks up the receiver and in an English voice answers: “... good morning, Lieutenant. I’m afraid I have some rather bad news.”
The voice on the other end of the line tells Stout that one of the Monuments Men has been killed; Stout's heart sinks. It was his friend, Ronald Balfour, the Cambridge scholar Stout got to know in England. Balfour was working in a place called Kleve, a town close to the Dutch border in northern Germany. Much of its medieval center had been blown apart in the fighting, but the treasures of the Christ the King Church in its suburbs survived. With Allied troops still battling the retreating Germans, Balfour wanted to get the church’s precious medieval relics out of harm’s way.
But Balfour struggled to secure reliable transportation. So he recruited four local civilians in Kleve, along with a handcart, to help him. Together, they packed up the church treasures, loaded them onto the cart, and wheeled it through the streets of the war-torn town. But on their way back, a shell whistled down through the sky and exploded around them. The handcart, the treasure, and the four civilians were unharmed. But the blast tore apart Balfour’s spine, and he died soon afterward.
Stout thanks the British officer for letting him know and hangs up the phone. Stout always knew it was only a matter of time before he received a call like this. Their work is dangerous. They’re on the front lines. They have to be if they want to protect what they’re here to protect. But Balfour’s death still hurts. Stout stands, silent and stoic for a moment. But he knows he cannot linger. There is much work to be done. So Stout straightens his uniform, fixes his hair, and steps out of the office.
Reginald Balfour won’t be the last Monuments Man to die during the war. Still, in spite of the danger, the Monuments Men will continue their work. They know that as the Allies fight their way deeper into Germany, the Nazis will run out of places to hide their stolen loot. And, before long, George Stout and his unit will uncover the greatest treasure hoard in history.
Act Three: Treasure
It’s May 21st, 1945, almost two years since President Roosevelt signed the order that established the Monuments Men.
A US Army Jeep winds its way through the streets of Altaussee, a pretty village nestled among the mountains of central Austria. Soon, the jeep passes a checkpoint manned by American soldiers and turns into a yard that surrounds the entrance to an ancient salt mine.
When the jeep pulls to a stop, Lieutenant George Stout clambers out of the back. He smooths down his hair and heads toward the mine’s entrance.
The war in Europe is over. Three weeks have passed since Nazi leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. Germany surrendered to the Allies soon after. But the hunt for the art treasures stolen by Hitler’s regime continues. And today, the Monuments Men have tracked down a vast hoard of treasure hidden by the Nazis inside an Austrian mountain.
Stout is led to the salt mine by another Monuments Man, a 38-year-old Private named Lincoln Kirstein.
The summer’s warmth seeps away as the two men descend into the darkness of mine. They tread carefully, their flickering lamps barely puncturing the deep black shadows of the shaft.
Kirstein points toward a side passage and says to Stout: “It’s through here, sir.”
Stout and Kirstein duck through another narrow tunnel and walk a little further, before they emerge into a vast cavern.
Then Stout raises his lamp.
The rough stone walls are lined with long wooden racks that stretch right up to the ceiling. Crammed on the shelves are more than six thousand paintings and hundreds of other cases stuffed with precious statues, books, and tapestries.
Kirstein carefully lifts a small box off a nearby shelf and says: “We found this in one of the deeper chambers”. He hands it to Stout who kneels and gently glides the contents out of the box.
It’s a painting. And Stout recognizes it at once. It’s The Astronomer, the masterpiece of Vermeer which was stolen from the Rothschilds in 1940. Now, this painting, and all the other treasures hidden in the mine, can be reunited with their true owners.
As Stout gazes at the masterpiece, he remembers the words of his friend, Ronald Balfour, who said: “No age lives entirely alone; every civilization is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be poorer for it.”
During the Second World War, the daring efforts of the Monuments Men stopped the West from losing its history. At the salt mine at Altaussee, and countless other sites across Europe, they secured the treasures of the past for future generations to cherish.
And their daring story was a triumph of science and knowledge over the forces of greed and hate. And it all began with the flick of a President’s pen, authorizing the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments, on June 23rd, 1943.
Next on History Daily.June 24th, 2010. After an internal party struggle, Labor politician Julia Gillard becomes the first woman to be Prime Minister of Australia.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.