History from Non-Historians

Recently, I read Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men, the history of a group of men during World War II who were dedicated to recovering and protecting art that had been stolen or destroyed during conflicts. Throughout the war, the Nazis were focused not only on capturing Europe, but also on creating a massive collection of art. Hitler firmly believed that housing an art museum in his new world was necessary to mark his success. Additionally, this museum would show that he ran a civilized society, for nothing better shows civilization than an art museum. Over time, Hitler sent troops throughout Europe to collect famous artworks and transfer them to locations only known by the Nazis. Anything that they couldn’t collect, especially famous landmarks, would be destroyed.

It was then that Allied soldiers would step in. Forming a group of soldiers called the Monuments Men, or the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program (MFAA), these men were trained artists and art historians who were committed to recovering and protecting art that had been taken and monuments that had been destroyed. The story of these men was written by Robert M. Edsel, an American businessman, author, and art enthusiast with no training in archival research or historical writing. Despite this, his history is accurate and well-told. Readers were engaged by his writing, and a movie loosely based on his history was eventually made, giving a large public face to this small, often overlooked piece of history.

While many historians, especially those who have been working their whole lives in the field, tend to be hesitant to accept history written by non-historians, there are several positives to these kinds of writings. One is that they show that people outside the field of history are interested in researching and writing major works of history. Additionally, it becomes evident that people are interested in reading these histories. Other books, such as those written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, are well-read by the public and usually have a large public face. It is exciting to find that people are still interested in reading about history, particularly when written by those outside of the field. Why is that?

Largely, people want to read books that they can understand. History books written by historians have a tendency to be dry and difficult to read for those outside the field. History books written by historians can sometimes be daunting for the average reader. Historians also tend to be limited in their writings. For instance, you can find books written by historians on topics such as the social history of the French Revolution, but finding a book written generally about the French Revolution is a challenge. Those books tend to have hundreds of pages and are not very enticing. However, if you go to your local book store and look for a book on the French Revolution, you can easily find small, fun books that give you the highlights of the event and are usually entertaining and engaging. As a public history concentration at Messiah, this is something that I find interesting. One of my goals through history is to engage the public and have people stop saying “I hate history.” I hope that through writing engaging and exciting histories, such as Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men, history can again become something enjoyable for all.

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