The Mission Matters this month is a review essay of a pair of books by Robert Edsel, the author of “Monuments Men.” Edsel will be on campus at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 28th as part of this year’s University Series Pressing Forward, Pressing On. You won’t want to miss this event!
By Michael G. Cartwright, Vice President for University Mission and Associate Professor of Philosophy & Religion
As many people know, I enjoy recommending books to others to read, but I am even more grateful when people give me reading recommendations. In particular, I am glad that Katherine Fries proposed that Robert Edsel give the Penrod Lecture because it gave me an excuse to read Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (2007). Just about the time I finished reading that fine book, I heard about Edsel’s next book Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis (2013), which is more like a “prequel” to the first book than a sequel in the usual sense. After reading these two remarkable books, I decided to write this review essay for this month’s Mission Matters because the book invites further reflection about what it means to be stewards of cultural treasures and/or intellectual traditions.
Edsel’s initial interest was piqued by his discovery that the identities and achievements of the “Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives” (MFAA) section of the Western Allied military force during World War II were virtually unknown. At different times, more than 350 men from 13 nations served as “Monuments Men” from 1943 to 1951, but at the end of combat in 1945, there were only 60 men serving in Western Europe. Most were British and Americans. They “didn’t carry machine guns or drive tanks,” but in many cases, the Monuments Men worked alongside military service personnel who were using weapons, and they could only do their work by respecting military authority.
Before the war, most of these men had served as professors, art historians, directors and curators of art museums. The Monuments Men tended to be well educated and well traveled; they had expertise in the history of art as well as the cultural history of Europe. As Edsel explains, “Their initial responsibility was to mitigate combat damage, primarily to structures – churches, museums, and other important monuments. As the war progressed and the German border was breached, their focus shifted to locating movable works of art and other cultural items stolen or otherwise missing.” (xiv)
Many – but not all – of the stories are dramatic accounts of heroism that took place in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria from June 1944 to May 1945.
Beyond the Story of Monuments Men: the Role of Rose Valland
Perhaps the first thing potential readers of Monuments Men need to know about this remarkable book is that Robert Edsel is the kind of storyteller who is not content with telling the obvious. He wants to get the story behind the story. For example, he goes to great lengths to reconstruct what the German military leaders (at various levels) were doing at the time that the Monuments Men were protecting and/or saving works of art like the Ghent Altarpiece and the Bruges Madonna. And because he is persistent in his explorations, readers of his remarkable book Monuments Men learn much more about how a group of art gallery curators turned military men stopped “the greatest looting operation in the twentieth century.” (71) So much so, in fact, that I found myself wanting to explore side-trails one might enter from the main path of Edsel’s narrative.
Let me illustrate. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Edsel recounts the conversation between a leader in the French Resistance (Mr. Jacques Jaujard) and one of the American “Monuments Men” (Lt. James Rorimer) who had been sent to Paris to coordinate the Allied forces effort to locate and secure works of art stolen by the German army. They are talking about how the Nazis had gathered more than 22,000 works of art, which they have shipped (by train) from Paris to locations in Germany and Austria. The American art expert was puzzled to hear his French counterpart say, “Before leaving Paris, the looted artwork was all brought to one spot for cataloging and crating: the nearby Jeu de Palme. And we had a spy inside.” (160)
Having visited the museum on many occasions during the three months he had been in Paris, James Rorimer was puzzled about who could have carried out such an undercover role. It never occurred to him that it might be Rose Valland. “He had seen her several times since then, and yet he found it hard to remember much about her besides her drab outfits, small wire-rimmed glasses, and ever-present grandmotherly bun of hair.” (160)
Edsel takes readers inside Rorimer’s mind as he tries to figure out how it is that this “matronly” person could have spied on the German operation. “And yet . . . he had always believed that there was more to her. And it wasn’t just the fire and intelligence in her eyes. Or that he had begun to suspect the depth of her involvement. . . .Because he hadn’t, not until now. She had, over the weeks of their occasional acquaintance, remained as inscrutable as their first meeting. She rarely spoke, and almost never revealed anything of interest. She was unafraid to challenge his assumptions, often with dry sarcasm, but never in a way that left him dwelling on it later. He could never, in fact, remember much of what she said at all, which in itself, he now realized, should have made him suspicious. She wasn’t just a frumpy, anonymous museum employee. Or perhaps because she was . . . she was also something else. She was the ideal spy.” (160)
Another feature of the story is that Rose Valland comes from an undistinguished background. She is not from one of the first families of France. She has a limited education – not from the Sorbonne but from a regional French university. In the world of art collectors and museum directors, she is treated as little more than a clerk at the Jeu de Palme museum where she continues to work as a volunteer during the war years. “Madame Valland is reluctant to turn over all her records and information.” (161) Edsel does not go into all the details about this part of the story, but one can imagine how uncertain Rose Valland would be in such a circumstance. Could she trust this man — this American, this military figure — to protect these remarkable works of art?
Eventually, James Rorimer gains her trust and she passes on the meticulous records she had kept about what works of art had been stolen and where the Nazis had shipped them. Thereafter, Rorimer and the other “Monuments Men” race to various locations in Germany and Austria where the Nazis have hidden the paintings and sculptures. In the closing days of the war, the Americans rescue most of the art before the Nazis can carry out plans to destroy all the non-German works of art and before the Russians can capture the stolen art to avenge their own losses and cultural destruction at the hands of the Third Reich.
On the one hand, we have the heroic stories of men who explore caves where the Nazis stored rare paintings and even sculptures – cultural treasures that were in real danger of being destroyed given Hitler’s order that these storage facilities should be blown up rather than be (re-)captured by the Allied forces. On the other hand, we have the intrepid figure of Rose Valland who, acting as an agent of the French Resistance, carries out an undercover operation that keeps track of which piece of art was processed at the Jeu de Palme facility before being shipped elsewhere by the Nazis. In 1944, Madame Valland’s supervisor Jacques Jaujard told James Rorimer that this unassuming woman had “probably saved more important paintings . . . than most conservators will work within a lifetime.” (163)
At the end of Monuments Men, Robert Edsel recounts what happened to the various figures in the book, many of which had been forgotten until he began gathering their stories at a point where these men were at the end of their lives. I was particularly interested to learn what happened to Rose Valland – a curiosity that I suspect many readers share. After the War, Rose Valland spent another six years helping to track down the stolen treasures. Despite such remarkable achievements, Rose Valland would continue to be overlooked. Not until the mid-1950s would she finally be granted the title of “curator” at the Jeu de Palme museum.
In due course, Rose Valland was honored by both the French and American governments for her selfless efforts to save thousands of works of art. But because she took the calculated risk to give the information about the stolen art to the American military officer, many French citizens regarded it as “a breach of protocol bordering on unpatriotic.” Many others “came to resent her for her relentless pursuit of information about the Nazis and restitution of stolen art.” At a time when many people want to forget what had happened in France (Vichy regime), Rose Valland “would never forget and would never let it rest.” (413) This woman raised too many uncomfortable questions for her fellow citizens to embrace her wartime efforts to preserve cultural treasures.
As Edsel suggests, in addition to the thrilling story about how 22,000 pieces of art that had been stolen from French collection were saved, this is not only a story about how a determined woman working with the French Resistance prevails against the Vichy regime and the German occupation forces but also how she confronts other formidable foes including sexism, classist elitism and the national pride in a country where people continue to find it difficult to talk about Vichy collaborations with the Nazis. Clearly, Edsel (as a privileged white male from the USA) is haunted by these storylines, as am I. With these additional dimensions of the story of the life and work of Rose Valland in view, I invite readers to consider the second set of related narratives that took place several years before the incidents in Paris in other locations in Europe where Monuments Men worked alongside other stewards of local treasures.
Beyond War Stories: The Role of a Library at the University of Louvain
Precisely because Robert Edsel is the kind of storyteller who is not content to tell the story that is immediately in front of us, readers of his two books also learn about “the back story” without which the stories of the Monuments Men and Saving Italy would lack the necessary historical context. Edsel’s second but no less fascinating book Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis (2013) is about how allied military personnel “stopped the greatest looting operation in the twentieth century.” (71) Whereas Monuments Men focuses on the efforts of the Monuments Men teams to recover works of art during the last 18 months of the war in France, Germany and Austria, the “prequel’ tells the story of what takes place in North Africa and Italy prior to the June 1944 D-Day invasion (1942-1944) The Monuments Men formed units that worked in tandem with military regiments to protect cultural treasures, including the statue of Michelangelo’s David, Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco of The Last Supper and Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence. (118)
In this context, Robert Edsel also takes the time to spell out more of the “back story” of European resentment about German displays of cultural superiority, particularly with respect to the destruction that took place in World War I. As Edsel is careful to explain to readers, both the United States and Germany took steps to protect cultural treasures during World War II. In both cases, the reason why had everything to do with what had transpired during the first World War. In particular, what transpired at the University of Louvain was a matter of infamy, which had been decried around the world.
Here is the summary Edsel offers in Saving Italy: “On August 25, 1914, less than a month after Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium and the outbreak of World War I, German soldiers patrolling the ‘open’ and undefended university town of Louvain, near Brussels, were shot and killed. Believing their deaths to be the act of partisan snipers, German military authorities first rounded up and executed 248 citizens and then ordered other residents to stand in the streets while German troops burned their homes, one by one. The soldiers then torched the University of Louvain’s library, one of Europe’s oldest and most distinguished collections. The blaze destroyed 250,000 books – some eight hundred of which had been printed before the year 1500 – and five hundred illuminated manuscripts.” (Saving Italy, 69-70)
For all of these reasons, the destruction of the Louvain library “became a notorious example of wanton wartime destruction.” (Saving Italy, 69) Indeed, it became a symbol of collective responsibility for the intellectual heritage of the European past that led to widespread participation. The effort to rebuild the Library at Louvain took more than a decade; it did not re-open until 1928. Given what had transpired in 1914, one would have hoped that the German military forces would have gone out of their way to avoid destruction of university facilities. However, as Robert Edsel explains, no such restraint was shown by the Germans at the outset of World War II.
“On May 10, 1940 Nazi Germany invaded Western Europe and, for a second time, occupied Belgium. Incredibly, seven days later, the University of Louvain Library — having reopened in 1928 after ten years of rebuilding – was reduced to ashes. Of the nine hundred thousand books destroyed that day, some two hundred thousand had been donated to the library by Germany per terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The painful irony was that many of those books contained bookplates with the Latin motto, Sedes Sapientiae non Evertetur (The Seat of Wisdom Shall Not be Overturned). German forces claimed that British troops fleeing the town had started the fire; a subsequent investigation attributed the source to German artillery.” (Saving Italy, 70-71)
As the current website for the University of Louvain succinctly states: “To have a library destroyed by an accidental cause is a tragedy. To have a library destroyed by a deliberate act of war is even more so. But for a library to be destroyed twice by acts of war is almost unthinkable. Yet that was the case with the Library of the University of Louvain in Louvain, Belgium. The library was destroyed in both World War I and World War II.”
The challenge, then, is for readers to think the “unthinkable” – to consider what it means that not only did this take place, but that it took place in a time and place where people were carrying out the mission of higher education.
Back to the University: The Role Played by Our Intellectual Traditions
That is where Robert Edsel has to leave the story of the Library of the University of Louvain. His purpose in this instance is rightly limited to explaining why Allied suspicions of Hitler and the German military were justified – and in some cases eerily accurate — in their identification of the most likely targets for destruction. However, there is more to the story if you are the kind of reader who is curious about what faculty and staff at universities did during and between the World Wars to protect the scholarly treasures, particularly with respect to libraries and archives. Before the Second World War, it is possible to find examples of the ways that university personnel acted to preserve and protect works of art as well as monuments. And in the wake of World War II, some of the Monuments Men returned to positions at colleges and universities where they taught the next generation of artists, art historians, and curators/directors of art museums.
In my judgment, these are is the kinds of stories that we as faculty and staff colleagues at the University of Indianapolis need to know and be able to tell, and that is what I propose to do in the remainder of this review essay.
As it happens, four years ago this month, I had the opportunity to visit the University of Louvain in 2015 while my wife and I were traveling in Belgium. I already knew a few things about this historic community of learning. For example, I knew that Louvain was the site of one of the oldest Catholic universities in Western Europe. I also knew people, like my friend Paul Gabonay (who formerly served as UIndy’s Director of Career Services), who had studied at Louvain in the 1960s and 1970s.
I had another set of reasons for wanting to visit the University of Louvain/Leuven. I have long admired the Christian Humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam (1484-1536), who famously went around Europe and consulted the various manuscripts of the Greek New Testament in order to put together an accurate translation of the Bible into Latin. Later, I learned that Erasmus had proposed to reorganize the University around a trilingual curriculum where students and faculty would be literate in Greek and Hebrew as well as Latin. Before we went to Louvain, I was able to visit his home on the edge of Brussels. While in Louvain, we had the opportunity to visit the site of the commune in Louvain associated with the Brotherhood of the Common Life, and we saw the fascinating community of women known as the Beguines, local sites that for decades have attracted inquiring tourists eager to learn about treasures of European history.
While in Louvain, I also stopped to visit the library, which I had heard was a very impressive facility. To be honest, though, until that point I had only a vague awareness of the dramatic destruction of Louvain during the first and second World Wars, but my knowledge was limited, to say the least. I spent the afternoon exploring various exhibits, which tell about the story of the destruction and successful efforts to rebuild the Louvain Library (between 1915 and 1928) as well as after World War II. The remaining tower of the library includes exhibits about the destruction in 1914, the rebuilding that concluded in 1928, and the subsequent destruction in 1940. I quickly realized that I would not be able to do justice to all the exhibits, but two, in particular, grabbed my attention. I spent the rest of the afternoon learning more about the intellectual traditions of the University of Louvain.
The First Exhibit: Responsibility for Louvain’s Library
One of the exhibits deals with a remarkable statement by a group of German intellectuals who wrote a statement defending Germany against the charge that they were responsible for the destruction of the Louvain Library. In part, this statement shifts responsibility to local authorities (as if they could have prevented the destruction), but what is even more remarkable about the statement is the assertion of what amounts to German exceptionalism – namely the contention that Germans have a higher appreciation for art that other cultures do.
The German Statement of the Committee of 93: “It is not true that our troops treated Louvain brutally. Furious inhabitants having treacherously fallen upon them in their quarters, our troops with aching hearts were obliged to fire a part of the town as a punishment. The greatest part of Louvain has been preserved. The famous Town Hall stands quite intact; for at great self-sacrifice our soldiers saved it from destruction by the flames. Every German would of course greatly regret if in the course of this terrible war any works of art should already have been destroyed or be destroyed at some future time, but inasmuch as in our great love for art we cannot be surpassed by any other nation, in the same degree we must decidedly refuse to buy a German defeat at the cost of saving a work of art.”
The statement of the Committee of 93 German intellectuals appealed to “the nations of the civilized world” to remember that the German people prize scholarship and the arts: “Have faith in us! Believe, that we shall carry on this war to the end as a civilized nation, to whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven, and a Kant is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes. . . . For this we pledge you our names and our honor.” The fact that the names and examples of cultural treasure that were used in this statement were exclusively German may have been self-satisfying, but the statement only succeeded in persuading British, French, and Belgian leaders that the Germans did not respect the wider cultural inheritance of Western Europe.
This attempt to provide intellectual justification for the actions of the German army was bitterly resisted by many scholars at the time, but none more eloquently (with deep emotion) than by the Professor and Librarian P. Delannoy, who offered a detailed description of what had been destroyed at the University of Louvain. At the invitation of the Editor of The Nineteenth Century, he set out to refute the “claim that the loss of the Library of the University of Louvain is of no great importance.”
The Librarian of the University of Louvain stipulates the most obvious effects of the destruction. “The burning of the Library of Louvain has caused two irreparable losses: the loss of a historic monument: a gem of the most beautiful architecture of two distinct periods – the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries – and the loss of the collection of manuscripts, books, and relics of the University of Louvain.” He went on to provide an even more detailed account of what had been lost.
Proceeding roughly in chronological order, Prof. Delannoy described the library’s holdings in the context of the university’s history, which began in 1432. He began by describing the 500 original manuscripts, many of which were illuminated, which included a prized volume of sermons “written by the hand of Thomas à Kempis.” He explains that Louvain also was one of the centers of the introduction of printing into Belgium, and the library had a rare collection of incunables (some of the earliest printed books 15th century), which included the capacity to print in all three languages: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
The University of Louvain also was a center for interpretation of intellectual conflicts, which not only pertained to the history of Belgium but included the role played by the Catholic Faculty in Theology in disputes with Martin Luther among other Protestants. In addition to such Reformation-era doctrinal conflicts, the library’s collection included original copies of books and papers about disputes of Prof. Jansenius, a scripture scholar at Louvain, with Jesuit opponents, and a special archive of documents pertaining the controversy over “the heresy of Baianism.” As Professor Delannoy lamented, the library staff was preparing to publish catalogues of all these treasured rare books and archives of texts when they were destroyed by the German soldiers.
In an especially haunting passage, Prof. Delannoy recounted what he saw when he visited the ruins of the library — knowing “the rich treasure it [had once] contained” — eight days after the fire. “In the streets of the ruined and deserted city, where the soldiers were completing their work of pillage, and further on even into the country, leaves of manuscripts and books fluttered about, half-burned, at the mercy of the wind.”
When you are standing before the ruins of the university’s most iconic building, it would be sorely tempting – I imagine – to surrender to despair. Confronted with limited capacity and wartime realities, one might simply give up. That was not what this Belgian professor did in the spring of 1915. Instead, at the end of the article that he published in the journal, The Nineteenth Century, about the destruction of the library, Professor Delannoy avowed: “The halls of Louvain will rise again from their ashes; they will become, as in former days, the centre of a school of learning of which the glorious past is a guarantee for the future. In building a new and magnificent Library we wish not only to restore to our professors and students those materials indispensable to all scholarship and scientific work; we wish also to show present and future generations that, if the German intellectuals accept the responsibility for the most odious crimes against reason and civilisation, on the other hand the civilized and right-thinking world knows how to unite in execrating barbarity as it deserves, and in solemnly avenging the intellectual and artistic patrimony of which barbarians have callously robbed it.” (emphasis added)
Given Prof. Delannoy’s adamant determination to hold the German intellectuals (and by implication their government) responsible for the destruction of the cultural treasures in the library, it is all too easy to overlook the other two avowals of this remarkable statement. The first statement could only have been heard as an expression of bravado given that there would have been little or no basis for “the halls of Louvain” to re-assert the kind of institutional capacity to carry out the university’s mission in the fullest sense. The second avowal, which enlisted the community of nations around the globe in the cause of avenging the loss of the Louvain’s “intellectual and artistic patrimony,” also lacked – at least initially — the kind of agency that would make this a realistic goal.
One could easily imagine how both of these efforts could have fallen flat, like so many other invocations of the ancient image of the phoenix rising from the ashes. But that did not happen. In addition to the German government’s eventual payment of reparations to replace 200,000 books in the library, contributions from around the world helped rebuild the Library at the University of Louvain. Even high school and college students in the American Midwest raised more than $100,000 to restore Louvain’s library!
These are the additional stories that I found myself fascinated to discover – narratives that are not part of Edsel’s agenda to tell as part of the saga of the Monuments Men — but which I think it is important for readers at a university like ours to take the measure of the example of the University of Louvain even while enjoying the adventure story of the Monuments Men bringing out priceless paintings from the places where they had been hidden by the German military on the orders of Adolf Hitler and Field Marshall Herman Goering, the supreme commander of Germany’s military forces.
The Second Exhibit: The Husserl Archive at Louvain (1939 to present)
The same day that I was visiting the University of Louvain in March 2015, I also saw an exhibit about the work of the philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), whose writings about the “phenomenology of the body” and “transcendental consciousness” were controversial during his lifetime and remain so in many quarters. I am not embarrassed to say that I have never understood Husserl’s philosophical writings. Even so, I know Husserl’s work has been used by scholars who I have long admired, philosophers as different as James Sheridan and Dallas Willard.
Husserl was one of the figures who stood in the crossfire between the intellectual communities associated with English-speaking philosophy and the Continental philosophy associated with German-speaking intellectuals. The conflict was so intense that the word Kulturskrieg (trans. “culture wars”) has been used to describe the mutual antipathy that developed between scholars in England and Germany during the period before World War I. The destruction of the University of Louvain was viewed by the British (and American) scholars as further evidence of the reprehensible views of German intellectuals, and groups like the “Committee of 93” bristled at being shut out of academic conferences and symposia because they professed different convictions.
Before I go further, I need to mention that Edmund Husserl was not listed as a signatory of the statement of the German “Committee of 93” (discussed briefly above), nor is there any record that he spoke out against that group’s justification of the destruction of Louvain’s library. We may never know the full story of his experience as a Jewish scholar living during the interwar period in Germany. I assume that life must have been very complicated for him, and it appears that it became more so after World War I, when his work became suspect from both sides of the Kulturskrieg. Some British philosophers thought that his work was part of a revolution against German Idealism. Others took his claim that what he was doing was “transcendental idealism” as the confirmation of their worst fears that he saw himself as following the train of Immanuel Kant and G.F.W. Hegel. German-speaking philosophers and scientists also questioned the value of his work.
When Husserl gave a series of lectures at the University of Cambridge in 1922, he was the first German-speaking intellectual to be invited to give lectures in England since the end of World War I. The lectures were regarded as “a fiasco,” simply confirming the sense that the “culture wars” between the Analytic tradition of philosophy and the Continental tradition would continue for years to come. Husserl died in 1938, leaving a small mountain of documents and manuscripts, some of which were finished and others of which existed only as drafts at the time of his death.
The year after Prof. Husserl’s death, a Franciscan priest named H.L. van Breda, who was at the University of Louvain, brought Mrs. Husserl, the manuscripts, the extensive philosophical library and the correspondence of Husserl to Leuven where he established the Husserl-Archive in 1939. As the website for the Husserl Archives explains, “The manuscripts comprise approximately 40,000 pages . . . plus 10,000 pages of typewritten transcriptions made by Husserl’s assistants during his lifetime. The library contains approximately 2,700 volumes plus approximately 2,000 separate prints of articles. Besides Husserl’s manuscripts and books, the Archives includes most of Husserl’s extensive correspondence, many documents about Husserl’s life and university career as well as lecture and seminar notes made by his students.”
Today, scholars writing dissertations on Husserl are likely to make their way to the University of Louvain. The Husserl-Archives at the Institute of Philosophy (Hoger Instituut voor Wijsbegeerte) at the KU Leuven (University of Leuven) is a world-renowned center for scholarly research in the field of phenomenology. As the dual name implies, this facility is multi-lingual. Francophone, Dutch, and German scholars commingle with English speakers studying Husserl’s contention that “transcendental” consciousness sets the limits of all possible knowledge.
When I first saw the exhibits at Louvain, I was impressed that Husserl’s papers had been saved, but I simply assumed that – due to the effects of World War II – the Husserl Archives project probably had not actually begun work until the 1950s. Turns out I was wrong. Indeed, I was amazed to discover that even prior to the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940, Husserl’s last two assistants had already embarked on the task of transcribing Husserl’s manuscripts. Remarkably, the Husserl Archives project “is still proceeding today. Approximately 85 percent of all manuscripts have been transcribed.”
I remain impressed by the actions of Fr. Van Breda and his colleagues at the University of Louvain. Without their efforts, the lifework of Husserl might have been lost. And given the controversies around Husserl’s philosophy, some people would have likely rejoiced at that prospect—either as some kind of nationalistic desire for revenge against German scholarship (however misapplied) or out of a more specific hatred of Husserl’s philosophical project. I wish that I knew more about how they accomplished this feat in the months before World War II began. I have to wonder how van Breda thought of this project in relation to his vocation as a member of the mendicant order of St. Francis. Perhaps he thought of it primarily in terms of what it could do for the University of Louvain and not for himself.
I would also be curious to know if Fr. van Bredt recalled Prof. Delonnoy’s emotional avowal that Louvain’s library would “rise again” when he arranged to bring Edmund Husserl’s papers to Louvain where they have been studied and engaged by a variety of philosophers and scientists. Perhaps not. It is quite possible that this effort was not even noticed given all that was going on in Belgium and elsewhere in the months prior to German’s invasion. Like the story of what Rose Valland did at the Jeu de Palme Museum in Paris, this is a story that is easily forgotten, unless someone like Robert Edsel conceived a project that gathers stories about how cultural treasures have been saved. Or unless someone associated with the university where van Breda did his work takes the time to put together an exhibit that tells the story of how this particular feature of the university’s intellectual tradition came to be.
From Monuments Men to the Universities of Louvain & Indianapolis
Robert Edsel is haunted — as I am — by how easy it is to forget figures like James Rorimer and Rose Valland, two of the fascinating figures around whom he built the story of Monuments Men. He puzzles over how this happens; it is actually not hard to explain why. As Edsel, clarifies, the reasons are largely circumstantial. First, the wartime mandate came to an end. In the months following the war, the “sections” of Monuments Men assigned to work in various locations were disbanded as the works of art were repatriated to their locations beginning with the Ghent Altarpiece. (Even the art that belonged to Germans was repatriated, by order of General Eisenhower.) Secondly, there never was anyone who was designated as the overall leader of the various sections of Monumnents Men. The Monuments Men were assigned where they were needed, often in teams of two. “Since they did not serve as a unit, there was no overall history.” (421)
There is a third reason that haunts Edsel – as it should haunt his readers. There was no dedicated unit of “Monuments Men” in the Korean War, “and there hasn’t been one in any war since.” (422) The story of Monuments Men is the exception to the rule. This was the only war in which a cadre of scholarly men (and a few women) were permitted to protect, preserve and save cultural treasures. (The irretrievable loss of the Buddhist statuary and temples in Afghanistan during the Gulf Wars comes to mind.)
For some of these same reasons, Robert Edsel is a passionate advocate for recovering the legacy of the Monuments Men, which he attaches to the saga of “The Greatest Generation” and a resurrected effort to find lost works of art. Wherever he goes, he encourages people to visit the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which tells the story of the American experience. Invariably, he also invites members of the audience to “help us finish the mission” of these self-effacing men who protected the monuments and works of art of European countries. Edsel attempts to “bring visibility to the hundreds of thousands of cultural objects still missing from World War II and assisting those seeking to return those items.” (un. 458)
In other words, he has institutionalized the project; he has created a museum and/or an archive. In sum: Edsel and his colleagues have developed a mission that exists alongside other educational ventures – like colleges and universities – such as the University of Louvain and the University of Indianapolis.
Even as I cheer the efforts of Robert Edsel to celebrate the dramatic story of Monuments Men and to carry out their unfinished mission, I confess that I worry about what seems to me to be another danger — that we will overlook the not-so-dramatic work of colleagues at our own university who have already embraced the tasks of protecting, preserving, and perhaps even “saving” monuments, film, and artworks. Here I would invite you to pause to think about the persons you know who carry out this work from day to day and year to year, decade after decade. One of the reasons why it is important to bring their faces to mind is because these are the persons who make it possible for us to name the intellectual traditions for which we are known as a university.
Consider the way they tell the story of the University at Louvain in the 21st century: “UCL is ranked first among Belgian francophone universities. It is also one of Europe’s most well-established universities, having been founded in 1425. Erasmus, Gerardus Mercator and Andreas Vesalius are among the greats to have graced its halls; it’s where Georges Lemaître formulated his Big Bang theory and Christian de Duve conducted research that won him the 1974 Nobel Prize in Medicine.”
And, we might add, based on the foregoing account that I have offered, the University of Louvain is the institution where a Franciscan priest saved the life-work of a German-speaking philosopher named Edmund Husserl after its library had already been destroyed in 1940 by the German military and suffered the indignity of having German intellectuals speak out in justification of the German military’s actions. In other words, it is a university that has an intellectual tradition that is sufficiently broad and deep to embrace these kinds of endeavors.
Whatever else we might want to say then, the mission of a university includes taking care of cultural treasures. This is no less true of the University of Indianapolis than it is of the University of Louvain, although it is tempting to think that intellectual traditions are easier to identify when an institution has ancient origins, like the University of Louvain, which was founded almost 500 years before UIndy. To be sure, Louvain has a longer history than ours, but if you take the time to learn more about this European “comprehensive” university, I think you will find many commonalities along with salient differences.
To find confirmation of such a judgment, I would argue that you only need to consult the Louvain statement of mission and values (which is almost the same length as UIndy’s current mission statement, which was adopted in 1994): “The values on which UCL’s vision is based are openness to others and to differences, solidarity, freedom and respect. Faculty enjoy academic freedom enshrined in the constitution, specifically, freedom of thought in the pursuit of truth arrived at scientifically and free from the undue influence of current trends. UCL is a cosmopolitan and intellectual human space whose diversity stimulates encounters between people of different backgrounds and with the world itself in the spirit of rational discussion and mutual enrichment. Its Christian tradition is a living heritage, a driving force of an authentic pluralism that benefits and respects all people regardless of their beliefs.”
The more I saw and the more I learned while visiting Louvain Library in 2015, the more impressed I was at this remarkable community of learning, which as the values statement indicates, has its own ecumenical Christian tradition as well as secular strands of intellectual history. What I have learned is that the story of Louvain is not simply about the tragedy of what had transpired in 1914 and 1940. The story of this University located a small city in Belgium is also about the ways that the faculty and staff at the University of Louvain have incorporated this history of destruction into their own multi-stranded intellectual tradition and extended that rich and complex heritage in new ways. This storied institution is a treasure to be cherished by people near and far.
Speaking of treasures, I have a couple of books that I think you will want to read! If you come by my office, I will show them to you. As always, I invite your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, thanks for taking the time to reflect with me.
Remember: UIndy’s mission matters!