DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Big-budget Hollywood movies have taken us to the front lines of war in the past but never quite like this. The new film "The Monuments Men," brings us onto the battlefield with art historians and curators.
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GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Lt. Frank Stokes) The Nazis are on the run, but they're taking everything with them. So we have to get as close to the front as we can.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
George Clooney stars in and directs the movie. It tells the story of a special group of soldiers trying to protect masterpieces of European culture during the chaos of World War II and its aftermath.
GREENE: The true story of the Monuments Men and women is messier and less glamorous than the Hollywood version. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: George Stout was the real-life conservator and museum director who helped start the Monuments Men. He's the basis for Clooney's character in the film.
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CLOONEY: (As Lt. Frank Stokes) You can wipe out a generation of people. You can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they'll still come back. But if you destroy their achievements, and their history, then it's like they never existed.
ROSE: That part of the story is true, as far as it goes. The Nazis stole artwork on a scale like no one before or since. They plundered museums and churches across Europe and seized works from Jewish collectors. In response, the U.S. created the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Army - better known as the Monuments Men. Charles Parkhurst was its deputy chief. Parkhurst died in 2008 but the year before he was featured in a documentary called "The Rape of Europa."
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CHARLES PARKHURST: There was lots of German art hidden where they thought it would be safe during the fighting. And it was our duty to search, and find, and save.
ROSE: They found stuff everywhere - hidden in caves, bank vaults, remote castles, even in salt mines.
HARRY ETTLINGER: This will give you an idea of what some of the items that we had in the mine. You can see here, boxes.
ROSE: Harry Ettlinger shows me photographs of himself in uniform almost 70 years ago. Ettlinger is now 88 and living in New Jersey. He was born in Germany but fled with his parents when Hitler came to power. Ettlinger was drafted into the Army in 1944 and because he could speak German, wound up in the Monuments Men. That's how Ettlinger found himself hundreds of feet below ground in a salt mine in southern Germany, sifting through 40,000 cases of artworks that the Nazis had stored there for safekeeping.
ETTLINGER: It became part of my job to actually take the case, and have it brought to the surface.
ROSE: The Nazis stashed art all across Europe.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The castle at Neuschwanstein housed a great part of the art treasures stolen by the Nazis.
PARKHURST: It took us a year to empty that castle. Forty-nine train-car loads; that's a lot. All packed tightly.
ROSE: Deputy Chief Charles Parkhurst said the Monuments Men did the best they could.
PARKHURST: We were charged with much more than we could encompass in our minds, even. We had no trucks, no jeeps - nothing but our shoes. And no support of any kind from officialdom.
ROSE: To make the job even harder, Allied bombing had left Germany in a shambles.
ANNE OLIVIER BELL: It was difficult because the telephones, they didn't work. It would take you half a day to get through to Hamburg.
ROSE: Anne Olivier Bell served in the British counterpart to the Monuments Men. Bell is now 97 years old and lives in the south of England. She went on to make a name for herself as the editor of Virginia Woolf's diaries. But Bell still recalls her work in the British occupied zone after the war, when simply driving from one town to another was a major undertaking.
BELL: Conditions were very bad in Germany at that period, and the cars were always breaking down, or a driver didn't come. So a lot of my time was wasted - or not wasted, doing all these trivial but necessary things. You could say it was boring sort of work. Necessary, but on the whole, rather dull.
ROSE: Allied forces had to figure out which artworks and objects should go back to museums and which belonged in private collections. Under the chaotic circumstances, the Monuments Men focused on returning the most famous and valuable works. But critics say that strategy accounted for just a fraction of what the Nazis and their collaborators had plundered.
MARC MASUROVSKY: Let's put it this way: It leaves out 90 percent of what was stolen. I mean, that's part of the story. It's unfortunate.
ROSE: Marc Masurovsky is a historian and founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. After the war, he says mountains of stolen and misplaced property were piling up at Allied collecting points across Europe. And Masurovsky says the Monuments Men simply lacked the resources to settle disputes about who owned what.
MASUROVSKY: They had a task, which was to clean up this mess. But also the other task that really needs to be remembered is that they were there to rehabilitate. In other words, to help the Germans put themselves back together culturally. So they went out of their way to help reopen museums; they organized exhibits.
ROSE: To do that, the Monuments Men had to work quickly and rely on local experts. And in some cases, they made mistakes.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bavarian officials are remaining tight-lipped about an incredible tale of lost Modern art worth millions of euros...
ROSE: That art collection is actually worth over a billion euros. It contains more than 1,000 pieces of art, including works by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall - all discovered in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt. His father Hildebrand was an art dealer who collaborated with the Nazis. Cornelius Gurlitt claims his father acquired the artworks legally.
U.S. records show that a number of the works found recently in Munich were seized by Allied forces but later returned to Hildebrand Gurlitt. Marc Masurovsky believes this was not the only time the Monuments Men let stolen objects slip through their fingers.
MASUROVSKY: There were a lot of things that basically were left by the wayside. And in that sense, they did not do their job. It's really not disparaging their work - I'm not saying that at all. I think they were not properly equipped.
ROSE: Still, admirers of the Monuments Men say those mistakes should not tarnish the rest of what they accomplished. Real-life Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger says the U.S. effort to return major works of art to their rightful owners went a long way toward earning the trust of the German people.
ETTLINGER: I've always said that what we did was very unusual, something that the average American ought to be very proud of - that instead of stealing things, we returned it, which is something that had never been done before.
ROSE: And Ettlinger is happy to see Hollywood taking notice. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.