This group of about 400 service members and civilians worked with military forces to safeguard historic and cultural monuments from war damage and, as the conflict of WW II came to a close, to find and return works of art and other items of cultural importance that had been stolen by the Nazis or hidden for safekeeping.
Many of the men and women of the MFAA went on to have prolific careers. Largely art historians and museum personnel, they had formative roles in the growth of many of the United States’ greatest cultural institutions.
But even before the U.S. entered World War II, art professionals and organizations were working to identify and protect European art and monuments in danger of Nazi plundering. Commonly referred to as the Roberts Commission, this early group was dissolved in June 1946 when the State Department took over with the formation of the MFAA.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower facilitated the work of the MFAA by forbidding looting, destruction, and billeting (or camping out) in structures of cultural significance. He also repeatedly ordered his forces to assist the MFAA as much as possible.
This was the first time in history an army attempted to fight a war and at the same time reduce damage to cultural monuments and property.
“Prior to this war, no army had thought of protecting the monuments of the country in which and with which it was at war, and there were no precedents to follow…All this was changed by a general order issued by Supreme Commander-in-
As Allied Forces made their way through Europe, liberating Nazi-occupied territories, Monuments Men were present in very small numbers at the front lines. Lacking handbooks, resources, or supervision, this initial handful of officers relied on their museum training and overall resourcefulness to perform their tasks.
There was no established precedent for what they confronted. They worked in the field and were also actively involved in battle preparations. In preparing to take Florence, for example, which was used by the Nazis as a supply distribution center due to its central location in Italy, Allied troops relied on aerial photographs provided by the MFAA which were marked with monuments of cultural importance so that pilots could avoid damaging such sites during bombings.
When damage did occur, MFAA personnel worked to assess the damage and buy time for the eventual restoration work that would follow. Monuments officer Deane Keller had a prominent role in saving the Campo Santo in Pisa after a mortar round started a fire that melted the lead roof, which then bled down the iconic 14th century fresco-covered walls.
Keller led a team of Italian and American troops and restorers in recovering the remaining fragments of the frescoes and in building a temporary roof to protect the structure from further damage.
Restoration of those frescoes continues even today.
Frequently entering liberated towns and cities ahead of ground troops, Monuments Men worked quickly to assess damage and make temporary repairs before moving on with Allied Armies as they conquered Nazi territory.
American and Allied Forces discovered hidden caches of priceless treasures, many of which had been looted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, while others had been legitimately evacuated from German, French or Italian museums for safekeeping. Monuments Men oversaw the safeguarding, cataloguing, removal and packing of all works, regardless of their origin.
In the next installment, moving on to Italy and the Tuscan and Florentine treasures.