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“What we had done was something that every American should be proud of,” said Ettlinger, who is the only remaining Monuments Man who is still well enough to appear in public. “Instead of taking things, we gave them back.”
Three hundred and forty-five men from 13 nations returned 5 million cultural items that had been looted or displaced in Nazi-occupied countries. Established by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943, the MFAA executed the most large-scale effort to preserve cultural goods in a war zone — but it was not completely unprecedented: The first modern laws to protect cultural properties were introduced by the Union during the Civil War, in 1863.
In addition to translating paperwork, Ettlinger accompanied his superiors — one of whom was James Rorimer, played in the movie by Matt Damon — to several of the hideouts where the Nazis had stored stolen artwork. This included the Neuschwanstein Castle near Munich, where the art treasures of the Rothschild family had been kept by the Nazis, and the salt mine in Heilbronn, from which the Monuments Men retrieved the stained glass windows of the Strasbourg Cathedral. Ettlinger has a carefully kept black-and-white newspaper clipping that displays his commander, Lieutenant Dale Ford, and himself holding a self-portrait by the Dutch artist Rembrandt. Originally from the Kunsthaus Karlsruhe, they retrieved it from the Heilbronn mine. A print of the picture hangs in Ettlinger’s living room.
The MFAA, which ceased service in 1951, had been mostly of interest to a small number of researchers — until Robert Edsel, a retired Texas oil businessman, came across the story while living in Florence. He started researching art that had been lost during World War II, and invested his own money into his Monuments Men Foundation, which he founded in 2007. In the same year, the Foundation received a National Humanities Medal. Two years later in 2009, Edsel published the book “The Monuments Men,” on which the movie is partially based.
Wesley Fisher, the director of research at the Claims Conference, which represents world Jewry in negotiating for restitution, says he hopes the movie will bring more attention to the issue of lost, looted artwork. “[The Monuments Men] might have been heroes, but they made mistakes,” he added.
This included returning artworks to Nazi art dealers, such as Hildebrand Gurlitt, who claimed that some paintings belonged to him that were, in fact, stolen by the Nazis, and Ante Topic Mimara from former Yugoslavia, who successfully maintained that he owned artworks that had been looted from Jews.