This weekend, Baltimore moviegoers will get their first look at "The Monuments Men," the long-awaited film by director and actor George Clooney about the Allied effort during World War II to recover thousands of priceless artworks looted by the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners.

The film, with an all-star cast that includes Mr. Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett, is based on the book of the same name by historian Robert M. Edsel and relates the story of how an unlikely band of museum curators, art historians and conservators followed the Allied armies across Europe to ferret out the caves, salt mines and ruined buildings where Nazi officials had hidden these cultural treasures.

The intrepid men and women who carried out this often dangerous task belonged to a little-known unit under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program — hence their sobriquet "the monuments men." Their numbers included two officers, Marvin Chauncey Ross and Charles Percy Parkhurst, with strong connections to Baltimore and its great museums. Sunday at 2 p.m. the Walters Art Museum will present a program honoring their work and that of the roughly 400 other members of the unit whom Mr. Edsel considers to be among the great unsung heroes of the war.

We've become accustomed to thinking of the highest achievements of civilization as humanity's common inheritance from the past, a priceless legacy to be honored and appreciated by people everywhere. But in fact, the notion that we hold a universal cultural patrimony in common, one that belongs to all peoples simply by virtue of their being human, is a relatively recent idea.

In past eras, famous paintings, sculpture, precious metals and jewels, religious objects and books of every description were all considered legitimate spoils of war by victorious armies, which have practiced mass plunder throughout recorded history. To steal or destroy one's enemies most prized expressions of the creative spirit was to confirm their inferior status and deny their humanity. Yet no invading conqueror before or since has ever carried out such cultural despoliation on a greater scale or with such brutal efficiency as did the leaders of Nazi Germany during the 12-year reign of the Third Reich.

Between 1933, when Adolph Hitler rose to power as Germany's chancellor, and 1945, when the Nazi war machine was finally crushed by the combined Allied armies, Hitler's minions looted an estimated 5 million rare artworks, books and other irreplaceable cultural artifacts from museums and private collections across Europe in the countries his armies had vanquished. Among them were some of the most celebrated paintings and sculpture ever created, works by artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael and the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, who in 1432 completed the magnificent Ghent Altarpiece in Belgium's Cathedral of St. Bavo.

Hitler, a megalomaniac who fancied himself an artist and art connoisseur as well as a military genius, hoped to house these unequaled masterpieces in a museum named after him, to be built after the war in the German city of Linz as a monument to the glory of his "thousand-year Reich." But when the tide of battle turned against him he ordered his underlings to hide the stolen artworks from the advancing Allied armies — or to destroy them rather than let them fall into enemy hands. If the Furhrer couldn't have these symbols of intellectual and artistic supremacy, he would make sure no one else could either. Such was the small-minded selfishness of the vengeful little man who would have the world kneel at his bidding.

Fortunately, against great odds the "monuments men" largely succeeded in their mission, rescuing from near certain destruction countless rare and beautiful objects whose loss would have made the world a far poorer place. It was the first time in history that a military force consciously attempted to protect major cultural artifacts and historically important buildings despite the heat of battle in order to preserve them for posterity.

Marvin Chauncey Ross, who was instrumental in the recovery of Niclaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, a pivotal work of the Northern Renaissance, from a château in occupied France, was for many years the curator of medieval art at the Walters Art Museum.

Charles Percy Parkhurst angered his superiors to no end by insisting that all recovered artworks should on principle be returned to their owners rather than shipped to the U.S. -- as some in Washington would have preferred. After the war he succeeded legendary museum director Adelyn Breeskin as head of the Baltimore Museum of Art and ended his career as assistant director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Thousands of objects looted by the Nazis still remain unaccounted for. It's no exaggeration to call the work of the monuments men "the greatest treasure hunt in history." Yet in retrospect it seems almost miraculous that such a tiny group of dedicated men and women, working largely on their own across a devastated battlefield stretching thousands of square miles across northern Europe, could have pulled off an expedition of discovery that has so profoundly affected the cultural environment we enjoy today. Yet they did, and all humanity is in their debt for it.

Glenn McNatt

The program "Monuments Man: The Walters' Marvin Chauncey Ross" will be held from 2-3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.


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