The Memorial's Hollywood Connection
What link does the Australian War Memorial have to George Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett?
In the Memorial’s National Collection is a Second World War medal group belonging to Aeneas John Lindsay McDonnell, born at Toowoomba, Queensland, in 1904. He enlisted for military service in Brisbane in May 1944. McDonnell had already served overseas with the Red Cross in Africa and the Middle East from April 1940 until November 1943, and enlisted with the AIF at the rank of lieutenant.
So what connects this medal group to the likes of George, Matt and Cate? The fact that McDonnell was one of the ‘Monuments Men’ – the story of which is told in their new film of the same name. Under the Civil Affairs Division of the Allied armies, McDonnell served as an Australian representative on the Commission of Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) – also known as Monuments Men. Upon his secondment for special duty with the MFAA, McDonnell was listed as temporary lieutenant colonel, and during the war was sent to France, Germany and Austria.
American soldiers carry rescued paintings down the steps of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, which was used by the Nazis to store thousands of treasures stolen from French collectors, including the Rothschilds. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
Established in 1943, the MFAA's initial responsibility was to protect cultural artefacts and monuments from war damage, then afterwards, repatriate cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners when and where possible. The MFAA was made up of approximately 350-400 men and women who were trained as museum directors, curators, art historians, and educators. Being an avid art collector, connoisseur and partner of Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, in civilian life, McDonnell was well equipped with the necessary skills and experience to work with the MFAA. From 1943 till the cessation of hostilities, officers of the MFAA saved and protected countless cultural artefacts, monuments and churches across Western Europe.
Monuments Men use a a pulley to lift Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna out of a salt mine in Austria before loading it onto a salt cart for its long trip home to Belgium. National Gallery Archives, Washington D.C.
As the Allied armies moved into Germany and Austria in 1945, they uncovered a vast amount of hidden caches of cultural treasures often in abandoned salt mines, which offered appropriate humidity conditions and relative safety from Allied bombing. The first mine investigated by the Monuments Men, near Siegen in Westphalia, Germany, in April 1945, contained works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Rubens, as well as an original score of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. Many of the treasures uncovered in the mines and castles of Germany and Austria had been looted by the Nazis from all over Europe; the salt mine at Alt Aussee in Austria, uncovered by Patton's Third Army, contained Goring's personal collection of stolen Italian art. Additionally, cultural treasures from German and Austrian collections had been stored in these caches for safety and preservation.
Two unidentified men standing with sculptures and other recovered items. National Archives and Records Administraiton, College Park, MD.
For his services to the French people, McDonnell was awarded the Légion d'honneur in the class of Officier (the medal shown below, REL38409.007). Upon his discharge from service in January 1947, he was granted the honorary rank of lieutenant colonel, and from 1947 to 1963 he served as the London adviser to the National Gallery of Victoria's Felton Bequest, which acquired masterpieces for the gallery's collections. McDonnell died in London in 1964.
Monuments Men (Columbia Pictures and Fox 2000 Pictures) was released in March 2014 in Australia.
Lynn H. Nicholas, The rape of Europa : the fate of Europe's treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, Macmillan, London, 1994.
Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, Monuments men: Allied heroes, Nazi thieves and the greatest treasure hunt in history, Arrow, London, 2010.