Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men, the book on which the film was based, will speak at the National Archives tonight at 7 p.m. You also watch online at Ustream: http://www.ustream.tv/usnationalarchives. Edsel and a panel will discuss his books as well as the recent film adaptation. The panel includes our senior archivist Greg Bradsher.
The Monuments Men opened in theaters on February 7, but its origins began at our very own National Archives nearly 20 years ago.
Senior archivist Greg Bradsher has been at the National Archives for 37 years. Early in his career, he processed and appraised records relating to Holocaust-era assets. For him, the story of the Monuments Men is a massive treasure hunt spanning the globe.
“In the mid- to late-1990s, Holocaust-era assets suddenly became a hot topic,” Bradsher recalled. “At the time, I was the Assistant Branch Chief to Research Services at Archives II, so they asked me to become an expert since I already had the knowledge to deal with different researcher interests.”
His expertise came in handy when then-researcher Miriam Kleiman came to Archives II in March 1996 looking for records related to Swiss bank accounts during the Holocaust. Naturally, Bradsher was tapped to assist her. (Kleiman is now working at the National Archives as a Public Affairs specialist and occasional blogger.)
“Within weeks, the Senate had hearings on the subject,” Bradsher recalled. “And then it just snowballed. I mean, looted gold. Looted art. Swiss bank accounts. Unpaid insurance policies. It got so busy that I collapsed and was taken to the hospital.”
After his health scare, Bradsher decided to step down as a supervisor to focus on all the different activities required of him, such as testifying before Congress, working with a Presidential Commission, and dealing with foreign governments. “It was very stressful,” he said. “They were concerned with anything that impacts reputations or cost money. And they were very concerned with what the records say.”
And, as we know, the National Archives has a lot of records.
So Bradsher produced a 1,100-page finding aid.
“The President wanted a report on the subject, so I produced the finding aid as an appendix to it,” he explained. “We were overwhelmed with researchers, and eventually started a process to microfilm key records, which were subsequently digitized and made available online. Finding aids save a lot of time for researchers and staff because we don’t have to answer questions over and over again. And digitization helps protect the documents from the wear and tear of constant use.”
In the summer and fall of 1996, Bradsher became the National Archives representative on an interagency committee on Holocaust-era assets put together by President Bill Clinton. Congressional hearings in 1997 and 1998 discussed looted art and unpaid insurance from the Holocaust. “The room was packed,” Bradsher said. “Art is more sexy than insurance, but both are very important, with lots of money involved. The same issues came up in the art world. People have artwork they shouldn’t legally have. It was like a pebble thrown into water: Swiss bank accounts expanded to gold, expanded to art.”
The records were useful in helping establish people’s rights to certain things, especially since laws of legal ownership vary widely from country to country. In the United States, if a person comes to own a piece of art that is stolen, that item will always be considered stolen and will have to go back to its legal owner. However, in Europe, if a person happens to own a stolen artwork in good faith, then they are generally allowed to keep it. The efforts of the international community to return stolen works to the proper owners is ongoing to this day, and these records remain vital to provenance researchers and attorneys.
During the course of his work, Bradsher was surprised by how thoroughly detailed the records are, especially during wartime. He was also surprised to learn that there were ten United States agencies involved in dealing with looted assets, and to see the cooperation among them. The Monuments Men were just a part of the collective international effort.
Bradsher modestly says he only had an indirect relationship to the movie, but he did have a direct hand in Robert Edsel’s research for his book, The Monuments Men.
By the time Edsel visited Archives II to conduct research on his book, Bradsher was already something of an expert with Monuments Men records. In his own research in 1999, he found an interesting story about Merkers Mine, so he wrote the story for Prologue magazine. At the time, Bradsher thought it was interesting, but did not know that his article would eventually become a scene in a motion picture.
“I wrote the article for Prologue before the movie was ever something that was going to happen,” Bradsher said, still sounding stunned. “The movie is visible evidence of the importance of records, and the staff who made it possible. I worked with Stuart Eizenstat for four years, beginning when he was Under Secretary of Commerce and then as Under Secretary of State, and I pretty much stole his term for what we do: ‘What we’re doing as the US government is turning history into justice.’ NARA’s holdings are helping to turn history into justice.”
When asked about what inspires him to keep digging into history, Bradsher chuckled.
“You mean, am I bored? No. Like many archivists, I have a curiousity about things,” he said. “My job is basically stumbling on records and saying ‘Hey, that’s an interesting story.’ Just when you think you know everything about something, you find out there’s more information you didn’t know.”
Bradsher added that he’s amazed by the interest shown in the Monuments Men records over the years.
“In the beginning, when I was first processing the records, I didn’t have a clue,” he said. “If you had told me that, in 10 or 15 years, these records would be one of the most requested things at the National Archives, I would’ve just laughed!”