Saving Art during Wartime: A Monument Man’s Mission

Guiding Question:

How and why did professional artists and art historians serve in the European Theater of World War II?


Students will understand and evaluate the purpose of the Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives Commission during World War II. They will investigate the career of the only U.S. member of the MFAA killed in action, Walter J. Huchthausen. Students will consider multiple viewpoints in the modern controversy over returning artworks removed from their original site during World War II.


Historical Context

Captain Walter Huchthausen of the Ninth Army served as a member of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives in World War II. The purpose of the MFAA was to protect historic art and cultural monuments from war damage and to find and return articles of cultural importance that had been removed during the war. Huchthausen was uniquely suited to this work because he spoke German fluently and taught art and architecture at the University of Minnesota.

After the Battle of Aachen in 1944, Huchthausen entered the historic city with the Ninth Army to assess damage and make repairs. Much of the city was devastated. Huchthausen moved quickly, organizing recovery and restoration efforts across the area. He found a large cache of art in Aachen’s Suermondt Museum. Huchthausen used the building as a base from which to direct operations. Through his interrogation of German prisoners, Huchthausen was able to pinpoint 30 repositories of art hidden by the Nazis. Huchthausen was killed during the Battle of the Ruhr Pocket while working to salvage an altarpiece near Aachen. Men like Walter Huchthausen served a unique role in the war, preserving the historical and cultural heritage of Europe. Working on the front lines was a dangerous job, and Huchthausen gave his life protecting the art that he loved. He, along with more than 8,000 Americans, is buried in Netherlands American Cemetery.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Understand the motives for the creation of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Commission;
  • Explain the role of the MFAA officers in Europe from 1944 – 1946;
  • Reflect on the value of cultural heritage during war; and
  • Discuss issues involved in protecting art during war and returning displaced art after war.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.9-10.1.A Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among the claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.9-10.1.B Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying data and evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both claim(s) and counterclaims in a discipline-appropriate form and in a manner that anticipates the audience's knowledge level and concerns.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.His.16.9-12 Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.
D4.1.9-12. Construct arguments using precise and knowledgeable claims, with evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging counterclaims and evidentiary weaknesses.
D4.7.9-12. Assess options for individual and collective action to address local, regional, and global problems by engaging in self-reflection, strategy identification, and complex causal reasoning.

Lesson Preparation

Activity One: Researching the MFAA

  • Print one copy of The Career of a Monuments Man or one copy of The MFAA (depending on the reading or grade level of the class) for each student.
  • Print one copy of the Art in Wartime Activity for each student.
  • Divide the class into groups of three.
  • Provide computers for each student or group (optional).

Activity Two: Restitution Summit


Activity One: Researching the MFAA (45 minutes)

  • Show the trailer for the Rape of Europa, a documentary about looted art during World War II (02:37)
    • Explain that European art works were damaged and displaced during World War II. The Allies sent a group of artists, scholars, technicians and historians, the MFAA, to protect the works and restore them to their original owners.
  • Divide class into groups of three.
  • Read either The Career of a Monuments Man or The MFAA at teacher discretion.
  • Distribute the Art in Wartime: Understanding the Issues handout and ask each group to read and discuss one of the three issues in the handout.
  • Ask students to share the highlights of their Art in Wartime discussion with the class.

Activity Two: Restitution Summit (45 minutes)

  • Explain that hundreds of art works removed during World War II are still displaced and there is controversy concerning the return of these art works.
  • Divide the class into two groups - a German viewpoint team and a Russian/Ukrainian viewpoint team.
  • Distribute the appropriate Restitution Summit Handout (German Team or Ukrainian Team) that corresponds to their group’s perspective to learn about the modern controversy surrounding the return of art works displaced by World War II.
  • Meet in teams to plan strategy for presenting their point of view at the restitution summit.
  • Engage in a restitution summit, where each group presents their point of view and discusses solutions to the problem of displaced artwork in debate or discussion format.
    • At the end of the summit, the class can vote to decide what should be done with the art in question.

Assessment Materials

  • Using the Restitution Summit Rubric, evaluate student contributions to the summit.
    • Did they integrate the information from the MFAA activity into their discussion?
    • Did they present one point of view clearly?
    • Did they construct reasonable arguments to support their point of view?
    • Did they assess strategy, considering the other point of view and come up with solutions?

Methods for Extension

  • Students can write out a policy statement after the Restitution Summit, outlining how to treat art works of disputed provenance.
  • Students can write a letter to Huchthausen’s parents, explaining the importance of his work as a Monuments Man.
  • Students can research Huchthausen’s career before his work as a Monuments Man, and view his artwork.
  • Students can search for articles about the return of art works displaced in World War II.
  • Students can listen to oral interviews of Monuments Men.
  • Students can view the documentary, The Rape of Europa.
  • Students can watch the film, Woman in Gold.
  • Students can read an excerpt from the book, The Rape of Europa.
  • The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains U.S. military cemeteries overseas. These cemeteries are permanent memorials to the fallen, but it is important that students know the stories of those who rest here. To learn more about the stories of some of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, visit the Understanding Sacrifice Interactive Map.


  • For younger learners and students requiring extra support, teachers can read the Student Handout aloud to students or with students, and assist students in filling out the Student Handouts.
  • For a very brief lesson, teachers can use the PowerPoint slides to give students a general idea of the MFAA’s role in World War II.
  • For Restitution Summit, teachers should ensure that each group has a student or students who can organize several speakers on different aspects of the topic.


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