While soldiers fighting Nazi aggression in World War II sought to protect the values of their homelands, others worked secretly to preserve the valued symbols of their countries. They located and saved tens of thousands of art treasures from Nazi looting.
“Everyone loves a great story, and what these brave men and women did constitutes one of the greatest collections of stories ever assembled,” says Robert M. Edsel (’79). He tells those stories in Rescuing da Vinci. The 2006 book recounts the activities of the U.S. War Department’s section on Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives – about 350 men and women, curators, historians and other experts from 12 nations who saved Europe’s artistic past. They were called, in the vernacular of the day, “Monuments Men.”
“This was the first time an army attempted to fight a war even as it tried to mitigate damage to cultural monuments and other treasures – the first time a nation said, ‘To the victors do not belong the spoils,’” Edsel says.
Edsel also co-produced “The Rape of Europa,” a documentary based on Lynn Nicholas’ 1994 book about Hitler’s systematic pillaging of European art. The film was praised by Variety as “a mesmerizing morality play” and in 2008 was nominated for Best Documentary Screenplay by the Writers Guild of America.
In addition, Edsel established the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art to honor “the legacy of [their] unprecedented and heroic work” and raise public awareness “of the importance of protecting civilization’s most important artistic and cultural treasures from armed conflict.” In 2007, the Foundation received a National Humanities Medal, presented in a White House ceremony by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush (’68) to Edsel and four of the 12 living Monuments Men.
At SMU Edsel was a general business major and nationally ranked tennis player. As a pioneer of horizontal-drilling techniques, he achieved success in the Dallas oil and gas industry that allowed him to sell his business and move to Italy in 1996. (He has since returned to Dallas.) While in Florence he read The Rape of Europa and realized, “I was embarrassed to think of the number of times I had visited the great museums, toured the great cathedrals, and never once wondered how all this survived the most destructive conflict in history,” he says.
The more that people understand about the Monuments Men, Edsel says, “the better our chance to preserve our civilization for future generations. Learn from history – the Monuments Men got it right, and we as a nation got it right.”