WASHINGTON - When art historians saw Paris fall to the Nazis in World War II, they immediately realized Europe's vast monuments, art, cathedrals and architecture were at risk and began mobilizing to protect such treasures.
In Washington, the newly opened National Gallery of Art became the U.S. museum world's epicenter for lobbying President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Allied forces in 1941 to prevent the destruction of Europe's monuments. Their efforts would create a corps of U.S. and British soldiers who worked to protect cultural sites and recover looted art after the war.
Now for the first time, photographs, maps, correspondence and records - including lists of art amassed by Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders - from the corps of soldiers known as "monuments men" are going on display at the National Gallery of Art, an archives gallery at the Smithsonian's Donald W. Reynolds Center and the National Archives.
At the same time, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett tell the story in "The Monuments Men" movie opening Friday, drawing new attention to the history. It's a story straight out of the nation's archives and art repositories from the records that real monuments men and women left behind.
One of them was George Leslie Stout, an art conservator at the Fogg Museum in Boston, who drafted a plan for a special military team to protect Europe's art from Allied bombings. He even enlisted in the Navy with hopes of seeing his plan through. Leaders at the National Gallery of Art pressed the case with justices of the Supreme Court and the president, and their efforts led to the creation of the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section.
Shortly before D-Day, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower issued an order for every field commander to guard irreplaceable sites as Allied troops invaded the European mainland to defeat Germany.
"Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve," Eisenhower said in 1944. "It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible."
Surrounded by the destruction of war, the monuments unit mapped important sites to save and later turned to recovering and returning stolen artwork - a change from the spoils-of-war practices of the past.