Over the past year there has been any number of news accounts concerning artwork apparently seized by the Nazis during their occupation of Europe in World War II. Adolph Hitler and Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering were particularly rapacious in this regard. Recently a large collection of paintings and other works believed to have been taken during the war turned up in a private German collection, sending investigators and attorneys scrambling to sort out the mess.
Several years ago I read The Monuments Men, a riveting account of the heretofore little known Allied effort to protect historic sites, structures, artworks and libraries in the midst of savage combat. Wow!, I thought, this would make a great film. Well, apparently George Clooney felt the same way, and so with the release of the film of the same name the story is becoming better known. As the book and film clearly show, this extraordinary effort was one supported by President Roosevelt, and ultimately coordinated through various Allied army commands in the European and Mediterranean theaters.
An unlikely group of art historians, curators, conservators, architects, librarians and art dealers was pulled together in 1943 and tasked with not only protecting from harm what we would today call “irreplaceable cultural resources”, but also charged with repatriating works stolen by the Nazis. Many of these individuals were older, with established careers at leading American, British and European museums and libraries. The challenges facing this small group of men and women (about 350 in total) were staggering, not the least of which was trying to educate their own forces about the need to conduct operations in a way to avoid (or at least limit) damaging historically significant sites and collections. In a real, very fundamental, way such assets represented the cultural patrimony of particular nations and, by extension, mankind. Still, it could be a bit of a hard sell when confronting the Allies’ desire to limit their casualties.
Among the men recruited for this program, called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) group, was a 42-year-old Yale University art professor named Deane Keller. A New Haven native, Keller, married and the father of a three-year-old, was an award-winning painter who studied in Italy in the 1920s. Following MFAA training in North Africa, the newly-minted Captain Keller arrived in Italy behind invading Allied troops in 1943. Italy’s surrender to the Allies resulted in Germany asserting almost virtual control over the northern half of the country, greatly complicating the task of protecting cultural assets. The destruction of the famous ancient Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino by American bombers made it clear to everyone that the stakes were high indeed. Outcry following the attack ultimately worked in the favor of the MFAA officers, strengthening their arguments for protecting cultural sites.
Over a period of three years Deane Keller worked long and hard to locate, protect and, as needed, repatriate some of Italy’s most amazing artworks and library collections. Working out of a jeep, he slowly moved up the Italian peninsula, armed with a portable typewriter, camera, and amazing determination to minimize the destruction of Italy’s cultural treasures. In time he was assigned as the primary MFAA officer in culturally rich Tuscany, which included Florence and Pisa. His efforts, like those of many other MFAA officers in Italy, were later officially recognized by the United States and Italian Governments, as well as the Roman Catholic Church. They were truly unsung heroes.
After the war Keller rejoined the Yale faculty and taught until his retirement in 1970. His son Deane G. Keller grew up to be a teacher and talented artist, and CHS has examples of the work of both men in the collection. Deane Keller’s wartime papers and photographs are housed at Yale University.
Other works dealing with what can best be described as Nazi “cultural genocide” include The Rape of Europa and Saving Italy. Keller plays a substantial role in the latter volume. The story of this organized looting (more than five million artifacts were believed taken during the course of the war) is certainly a cautionary tale, and reminds us all that cultural treasures not only serve to engage and inspire, but in the end help define who we are, a reflection of our shared humanity.