“We have a responsibility to preserve the treasures of the spirit which we hold in trust from the past for the benefit of the generations to come.”
While The Rockefeller Foundation likely won’t get its own Oscar nod next year, a little known story from the historical record reveals that the foundation played a surprisingly major role in the “greatest treasure hunt in history.”
By now, you’ve probably seen George Clooney’s latest film, The Monuments Men, or at least know it’s premise: During World War II, the Allied Forces were on a quest to protect landmark structures and locate stolen art in Europe. The Army unit known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section (MFAA), or “Monuments Men,” were highly educated curators and scholars, older than the average fighting forces and pulled from civilian ranks. That’s all in the movie.
But what moviegoers may not know is that Rockefeller Foundation funds supported the committee that compiled lists of potential recruits for the unit. Not only that, but the foundation stepped in to help fund the maps and lists that helped these Monuments Men to know what to protect, what to seek out, and where to find it. Before World War II, there were almost no comprehensive guides to the countless treasures of Europe, and certainly not for the more obscure ones. Ordinary troops might know about the Mona Lisa, but would they recognize the oldest church in Italy, or the works of Durer?
It began in January 1943, when the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) formed a committee led by W.B. Dinsmoor, a Columbia University archaeologist, to alert the U.S. government to the complicated problems of Nazi looting, destruction from bombing by both sides, and the need to compile data on art and qualified art historians, conservators, antiquities experts, and so forth. Immediately, the committee received letters supporting the idea from the Secretary of War and the highest-ranking military generals. But there were no funds to accomplish the work.
With a pressing task and no money to do it, the ACLS, a longtime Rockefeller Foundation grantee, made its first call to John Marshall, the Foundation’s Associate Director for the Humanities. Marshall expedited a special request, securing $16,500 from the Trustees within weeks (more than $220,000 in today’s dollars). The Foundation and ACLS saw themselves in “a race against the bombers.” For almost a year, the Rockefeller Foundation supported the first and intense wave of work done by draftsmen, secretaries and research assistants that quickly produced maps of Europe’s libraries, museums, galleries, palaces and churches. The maps were sent to Allied bombing headquarters in advance of operations, and carried by the Monuments Men in follow-up operations to investigate damage. Often the maps were flown to Europe and the Mediterranean in a matter of hours. Never before had such detailed data been gathered. As one monuments officer wrote, “The maps are so good that they have been used for other purposes for which they were not designed. You will be amazed when I tell you.”
“There is no future for what we most desire in a world dominated by fascism.”
Eventually the government did assume the reins of the operation when it established the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of the Artistic and Cultural Monuments in Europe, but not before the RF contributed another $7,500 to the cause. All in all, the RF contribution totaled more than $300,000 in today’s terms, and pushed urgent work forward quickly.
Why was the Foundation willing to fund what most people agreed was the government’s responsibility? As Foundation President Raymond Fosdick explained, “We must of necessity serve the war effort, for there is no future for what we most desire in a world dominated by fascism. But we have a responsibility equally compelling to preserve the treasures of the spirit which we hold in trust from the past for the benefit of the generations to come.”
And moviegoers, too.