June 6 is the sixty-eighth anniversary of the D-Day landings that marked the beginning of the Western Allied invasion of German-occupied northwestern Europe. About 160,000 Allied soldiers came ashore that day, almost half Americans, many braving a hailstorm of bullets, artillery, and mines. The blood stained beaches of Normandy, France served as a testament of their heroism. 9,387 American men, many just teenagers, are buried at the American Cemetery located on the once German-held ridge above Omaha Beach where they fell. Those that survived would carry the memory of their fallen comrades with them into Germany as they liberated the people of Europe – and those in the death camps – from the tyranny of Hitler and Nazism.
By July 4, the Allies had put ashore more than one million soldiers including a forty-six year-old art restorer named George Stout, the man who more than any other developed the idea that lead to the creation of the Monuments Men. This handful of cultural preservation officers worked alongside troops to protect churches, museums and other historic structures from the destruction of war, in particular by Allied forces. Soon their efforts would concentrate on locating some of the millions of cultural objects – paintings, sculpture, church bells, library books, and religious objects – stolen by the Nazis. In the course of their journey two Monuments officers would be killed during combat. Their mission would survive the war’s end by almost six years. By 1951, the Monuments Men had returned more than five million stolen objects to the countries from which they’d been taken.
Today is the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, an organization I founded to preserve the historic legacy of the men and women who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section during World War II. The announcement of this organization took place at the United States Senate on the occasion of Resolutions unanimously passed by both Houses of Congress that for the first time honored the service of these heroes of civilization. Four Monuments officers joined us for that special occasion and represented the other 345 officers of thirteen nations who served this great cause.
Since that time the Foundation has been honored in numerous ways including its receipt of the National Humanities Medal, our nation’s highest honor for work in the humanities, presented by the President of the United States at a ceremony in the White House. The publishing of my two books on the Monuments Men – Rescuing Da Vinci, and The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History – have reached readers in more than eighteen languages.
Many wonderful consequences that will further honor these heroes have since accrued. My new book – Saving Italy – about the efforts of the Monuments Men in the cultural cradle of civilization, will be published next year. Soon The National World War II Museum will construct a permanent exhibit about the Monuments Men as part of its Liberation Pavilion. And work is underway by George Clooney and Grant Heslov on their film, based on my last book about the Monuments Men, which will reach a global audience. These developments ensure that these heroes’ legacy will forever be known and honored. Their service expands our understanding of the achievements of “The Greatest Generation.” This day reminds all people who enjoy freedom, and the arts, of the debt we owe the men and women who struggled so mightily to defeat the greatest threat to civilization of the twentieth century.