During World War II, the Nazis stole 22 million works of art. Those works included great masterpieces of European painting, sculpture, literature, and music. But a small group called Monuments Men worked to track down the stolen art and bring the thieves to justice. Thomas Thibeault has written a novel about the Monuments Men titled Balto’s Nose. He discussed the topic during a 2012 presentation for the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society. Thibeault also shared themes from the book in a conversation with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Kokai: So first of all, I have to ask you about the title. People will hear that title and think, “OK, who was Balto, and why was his nose important?”
Thibeault: His nose was very important because he was a dog.
Kokai: And who is Balto the dog?
Thibeault: Well, Balto the dog is a hero of the first order. He was the lead dog taking the medicines across Alaska in 1924 during a diphtheria epidemic. And this dog, everybody thought was just a complete fool. He would go and play or wouldn’t do his job. But he finished over 280 miles on a dog sled carrying these medicines to people who were dying. And he became a hero — such a hero that a statue was put up for him in Central Park. And generations of children since 1925 have been taken to Central Park in New York City. They’ve played on Balto’s statue, jumped off of his back, probably cracked a few heads in the process, and rubbed his nose for good luck. Now, if you look very carefully at the statue, underneath the plaque it says, “Endurance. Fidelity. Intelligence.” And that’s what my book is about.
Kokai: And how does Balto’s nose then tie in with the story of the Monuments Men?
Thibeault: Because all of these Monuments Men were people that we do not consider great heroes. We think of them as professors in universities, archivists holding the dust of centuries in their craggy faces and all the rest of it — people who are, by and large, forgotten in what they do. Now during World War II, a group of 15 of these professors, shall we call them, were banded together to preserve the artwork and the monuments, archives, and fine arts of Europe during World War II, actually during combat.
So these were frontline soldiers. These were not people who just went around looking amidst ruins for some beauty. They actually went out with the troops and saved all of these monuments of civilization. So my book has put together the professors and their drivers, who are even more forgotten. These were people who’d served time in jail, people who could steal cars, people who knew how to read maps properly, and especially, knew how to operate weapons. So, the connection between the two is that the Monuments Men — the geniuses on the one hand, and the drivers, the noncommissioned officers, sergeants by and large, on the other hand — they worked together to fulfill this mission, in many ways just as Balto the dog worked with all of these qualities of his own character to fulfill a mission.
Kokai: So let’s get more into the story of the Monuments Men themselves. This was a rather small group — I understand maybe 15 or so people total?
Thibeault: At the beginning there were 15 people. George Stout was one of the main people concerned. George was the conservator of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. He joined the Navy in 1941, just after Pearl Harbor, as a common seaman. Because he was an artist, he was set to painting the sides of battleships, which was a bit of a comedown for a man who had completely reinvented the art and science of art restoration. Practically everything that we see in a museum today, whether it be a painting, a sculpture, a work of marquetry or parquetry, manuscript volumes — anything that you would see in a museum today — has gone through the process of conservation, which George Stout himself revolutionized in the 1920s and ’30s.
Kokai: Some people may hear the basics of this story, which is all that we’re going to be able to get to in this interview, and say, “Well, while soldiers were fighting Nazis and lives were being lost in the tens of thousands at a time, why was it so important to have this small group actually focused on art and preserving art?” Why was that such an important goal that, during the midst of all of this death and chaos, this was something that this group pursued?
Thibeault: I’m so glad you’ve asked that question because this is one of the questions that’s at the basis of my novel, Balto’s Nose. Why is art important, especially when it comes to people’s lives and situations? Well, clearly, why people fight wars is as important as why we have the peace after these wars. The Monuments Men, in particular Gen. [Dwight] Eisenhower, were extremely aware we were not just fighting one of the worst evils that humanity has somehow created; we were also fighting for our own civilization. So these monuments of the past were very literally our civilization. There was no use winning a war on a battlefield [if] you were going to somehow lose the battle for that civilization after the war. And so, what we do with our art during warfare really determines what happens to us after the bullets have stopped flying. And so these people were very, very aware of the monuments of civilization [that] help us to be civilized.
Kokai: Do you have the sense that a lot of these millions of works of art that were stolen are around today because of the work of the Monuments Men? Would they have disappeared forever, or been destroyed, had they not done what they did?
Thibeault: Well, don’t forget the Monuments Men worked for another 10 years after the end of World War II under various guises, under various organizations, through the United Nations. Now we have repatriation, restoration, and restitution commissions to deal with this work, but possibly only 75 percent of these works of art were actually restored to their rightful owners. This is extremely important today, even on a tactical level for our civilization. Supposedly we’re in a war on terror. We must remember that art looting and art crime is the third most profitable crime in the world today, ranking after terrorism, drug dealing, and then art theft, because drug dealing and art theft finance terrorism.