“These monuments are not merely pretty things, not merely valued signs of man’s creative power. They are expressions of faith, and they stand for man’s struggle to relate himself to his past and to his God.” Lieutenant George Stout
The movie The Monuments Men brings the fascinating story of some of the unsung heroes of World War II to the big screen. You can watch the trailer here. The historical details of the Monuments Men can be found in the books The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas and The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel.
The men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section of the Allied Army were commissioned by General Dwight D. Eisenhower to protect monuments and cultural treasures from destruction during combat. This endeavor was monumental (pun intended) because it marked the first time an army fought a war while at the same time attempted to preserve the culture in the midst of combat.
The executive decision to protect our cultural heritage was in large part due to a pamphlet entitled Protection of Monuments: A Proposal for Consideration During War and Rehabilitation written by Lieutenant George Stout, who argued for the necessity for ‘right conduct’ with regards to safeguarding monuments. Here is an excerpt,
To safeguard these things will not affect the course of battles, but it will affect the relations of invading armies with those peoples and [their] governments.… To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to a particular people but also to the heritage of mankind. To safeguard these things is part of the responsibility that lies on the governments of the United Nations. These monuments are not merely pretty things, not merely valued signs of man’s creative power. They are expressions of faith, and they stand for man’s struggle to relate himself to his past and to his God. With conviction that the safeguarding of monuments is an element in the right conduct of the war and in the hope for peace, we… wish to bring these facts to the attention of the government of the United States of America and to urge that means be sought for dealing with them (The Monuments Men kindle edition, pp. 22-23).
The MFAA’s second directive was to reclaim and return countless works of art and religious artifacts stolen by the Nazis. As noted in Edsel’s book, Hitler had been eagerly planning to loot Europe long before the first shot was fired.
Robert Edsel notes, “Years earlier, German art scholars had begun visiting the countries of Europe, secretly preparing inventories so that when Hitler conquered each country— oh yes, he had been preparing for conquest even then— his agents would know the name and location of every important object of artistic and cultural value (The Monuments Men kindle edition, p. 13). The MFAA spent many long years returning cultural treasures to their rightful countries. However, private Jewish art collections confiscated by the Nazis remained unclaimed after the war because whole Jewish populations of nations were either killed or forced to flee, never to return. It was finally decided that a charitable organization could act as ‘successor’ for this cultural property. Two organizations were founded to take on the problem of ‘heirless’ Jewish property, the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRWO) and the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction organization. They took on the difficult task of distributing religious and cultural objects, including thousands of Torah scrolls, to groups worldwide (The Rape of Europa kindle edition, location 8366).
The Other Monuments Men
The MFFA were not the only ones who protected priceless artifacts from Hitler during World War II. I would like to highlight some other Monuments Men, the ‘unsung’ unsung heroes who are not mentioned in either the books or the movie but are just as noteworthy. This is the story of the monks and townspeople of Berat, Albania who risked their lives to protect the Purple Codex of Berat from being confiscated by Nazi soldiers in 1944.
I first learned about this New Testament manuscript while watching a lecture on you tube given by Dan Wallace regarding recent discoveries of manuscripts (story begins at 10:27 mark). He is the founder and director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM). Dan Wallace and his team are committed to digitally preserving every known ancient Greek New Testament manuscript. In the process of their work they have discovered numerous new manuscripts; this year alone they have added eleven to the official catalog of manuscripts. The abundance of ancient Greek manuscripts (5,838 as of September, 2013) allows textual critics to get back to the original wording of the New Testament, which is crucial in verifying its accuracy and reliability.
The Story of the Purple Codex of Berat
Dan Wallace and his team travelled to Albania in 2007 to digitally photograph 13 manuscripts, but were ecstatic to find there were 45 manuscripts; the second largest cache of Greek manuscripts discovered in the last half century. Found among the manuscripts was the Purple Codex of Matthew and Mark from the early 6th century. Purple Codex manuscripts are handwritten gospels on parchment, dyed a deep red (purple) with letters written in silver. The words Lord, God, Jesus, and Christ are written in gold. There are only four other purple codices from the 6th century.
In 1943 Hitler demanded from the Albanian government three things: the 6th century Purple Codex, a list of Jews, and the reserve gold from the national bank. Upon hearing this threat, the monks immediately hid the Purple Codex in a metal chest beneath a well in the monastery. In the fall of 1944 a Nazi general came to Berat, Albania specifically to collect these items for Hitler. The soldiers threatened the monks and townspeople at gunpoint to hand over the codex. After interrogating them, they eventually left, convinced by their testimonies that they knew nothing about the codex. The next day, there was a long line of monks and townspeople waiting to confess their sins of lying to the soldiers. Oh and by the way, they never gave the Nazis the list of Jews either (from The Codices of Albania).
It is impressive that these ordinary townspeople, who could not read or speak Greek and who perhaps did not fully understand the value of the codex, risked their lives to protect this Scripture from harm. Today the Purple Codex of Berat is the national treasure of Albania and is a living testimony of the history of Christianity in their country. It has been digitally preserved by the CSNTM and now textual critics are able to compare it to all the other ancient manuscripts and continue the work of confirming the original wording of Matthew and Mark.
A Word About Courage
The reason we admire the monks and townspeople of Berat is because we recognize their courage. They exhibited strength to do the right thing even in the face of certain death with no promise of reward. Make no mistake, these people had reason to fear for their lives on that day because in 1944 most of the world, including the people who lived in the small town of Berat, Albania, knew the Nazis had no reservations about murdering civilians in order to give Hitler what he demanded.
According to Plato and other philosophers, there are four cardinal virtues. ‘Cardinal’ meaning the practice of all other virtues hinge on these four: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (fortitude). C.S. Lewis goes one step further by arguing that courage is the most vital and essential virtue. He writes,
Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality (Screwtape Letter #29).
In other words, courage is necessary in order to practice any virtue when tempted or pressured. We cannot claim to be virtuous unless we have exhibited virtue at the testing point. After all, Pilate was merciful until it became risky. Lewis argues that one of the reasons God created a dangerous world is to force the humans he made to make moral decisions. Making moral decisions very often means choosing between courage and cowardice (Screwtape Letter #29).
Our culture increasingly favors and extols the soft virtues of love and mercy while ignoring the hard virtues such as courage and temperance. But let us remember that in order to truly exhibit love and mercy, we must learn to appreciate and cultivate the hard virtue of courage, which is simply doing the right thing at the point of highest reality.