Dallas author and philanthropist passes the baton to new Monuments Men and Women program

WASHINGTON — A new generation of Monuments Men and Women, who restored artifacts stolen by the Nazis during World War II, take their place in the military as the first class of curators, archaeologists and others were sworn in Friday.

Dallas-based author and philanthropist Robert Edsel, who played a key role in popularizing World War II monument officers through a book, film and foundation, charged the inaugural class of the new Army Monuments Officer Training Program to carry out vital preservation work at a starting address.

Born from a partnership with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, the AMOT program teaches participants how to preserve cultural treasures while serving in the Army Reserve.

“Cultural heritage gives us as human beings, as people belonging to particular nations and communities, a sense of identity. It gives us a sense of our history,” said Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar and Goodwill Ambassador Richard Kurin during his remarks. “It provides the touchstones for learning about the past, and provides knowledge and hopefully some wisdom for living in the present.”

Edsel said the program is “tremendously” important. In his opening address to the class, he said they will likely face greater challenges than the original monument officers, but with increased conflict and natural disasters brought about by climate change, there is a great need for people dedicated to cultural preservation.

Earlier Friday, Edsel helped lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. He was accompanied by the nephew of one of the two Monument Men killed in action during World War II, and Colonel Scott DeJesse, who runs the AMOT program.

A member of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, holds a wreath before it is laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, by the Monuments Men and Women Foundation, in Arlington National Cemetery, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)(Cliff Owen/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

After the ceremony, he said the need for officers focused on cultural preservation arose following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where US forces failed to protect many cultural treasures.

“I see something like this happening and I wonder how, if we did such a good job in World War II… how could we do such a bad job now,” Edsel said.

At the time of the invasion, Edsel said he had already begun to look into the Monuments Men of World War II. He said he realized that many people didn’t know about this story, which prompted him to popularize the stories and work.

Edsel wrote and self-published the book The men of the monuments in 2009.

“Everyone has a connection to this story,” Edsel said of the Monuments Men. “But it needs someone to translate it where they can see it.”

Monuments Men and Women Foundation President Robert Edsel, top right, awaits the...
Monuments Men and Women Foundation President Robert Edsel, top right, waits for the Foundation to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/ Cliff Owen)(Cliff Owen/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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Initially, Edsel said he wanted to resurface a modern Monuments Men and Women service, but received varying levels of support from the government, which slowed the process.

The pivotal moment, he said, was the adaptation of his book in the 2014 Monuments Men film. One of the film’s stars, George Clooney, lobbied for the film to be screened at the White House during the Obama administration. Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett were among the other actors in the film.

Dallas author Robert Edsel turns an obsession into a Hollywood movie

“It was a critical moment in my opinion,” Edsel said of the screening. “You’re making sure that decision makers at least know who these people were in World War II in hopes that if every time the next conflict comes around someone says, ‘Hey, well, did we those monument men and women over there?’ ”

The modern force includes people from Italy, Lebanon, Austria, the Netherlands and Honduras. Edsel said it was a good start for the program.

While the partnership was finalized in 2019 with the first session scheduled for March 2020, the pandemic delayed it until last week. Over the course of 10 days, participants learned skills to complete their directive and to go on and bring lessons about cultural preservation to their own communities.

Dallas oilman-turned-author Robert Edsel has been honored by the Foundation for...

Dallas oilman-turned-author Robert Edsel has been honored by the National Archives Foundation for telling the little-known story of the unit dedicated to rescuing Nazi-damaged and looted art.
(David Woo – Personal Photographer)

For Edsel, Friday’s ceremonies were an emotional event that he says feels like passing the baton. He said he will advise and guide the program where needed, and will continue the work of the first monuments officers to recover stolen artifacts in Europe.

“It was that early belief when no one else really believed in the power of a story to change things,” Edsel said. “And you know, here we are 20 years later.”

Lola R. McClure