In the spring of 1945, the tide of the war had undeniably turned. Germany was losing ground to the Americans and Brits in the West and the Soviets on the East. So on March 19, 1945, Adolf Hitler issued an order officially titled "Demolitions on Reich Territory Decree." It became known as the "Nero Decree."
Emperor Nero, of course, was blamed for fire that decimated ancient Rome. Hitler's order, though, was clear and direct. Anything that could be useful to the Allies as they marched into German territory had to be destroyed.
In the order, Hitler did not admit defeat, and instead put forward a plan for when his forces would reclaim the land they had been losing. It stated: "The enemy will leave us nothing but scorched earth when he withdraws, without paying the slightest regard to the population." So Hitler commanded that "all military objects, including traffic and communications installations" be destroyed before his troops evacuated an area. Hitler also ordered his regional leaders to demolish "industrial and supply installations, as well as of other objects of valuable." And that's where the Monuments Men came in.
The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, better known as the Monuments Men, were a group of artists, scholars, and historians recruited by the military to find and protect the countless works of invaluable art which had been taken by the Nazis in their march across Europe. The team identified significant architectural masterworks and churches to keep bombers from damaging them during air raids. And the Monuments Men marched in — and sometimes in front of — troops as they entered liberated areas to grab the stolen art before the Germans could set it ablaze.
For the first time, the story of these brave and committed men is coming to the big screen in "The Monuments Men," a film co-written, directed and starring George Clooney. In a behind-the-scenes video premiering exclusively here on Yahoo Movies, Clooney says, "It's so rare to do any story that people don't know." Clooney's co-star Matt Damon describes the film as "a heist movie, and it's a war movie, and ultimately it's a movie about people who are willing to sacrifice everything to save what is the very best of us."
Go behind the scenes of 'The Monuments Men' with George Clooney:
While the threats posed to the priceless art was real, ultimately the Nero Decree was never actually implemented. The order was given to Minister of Armaments Albert Speer, who by that point in the war had become disillusioned with Hitler. Speer persuaded the Nazi generals to not follow the directive, which he kept secret from Hitler. Forty-two days after issuing the Nero Decree, Hitler killed himself, and a week later Germany surrendered.
Also starring Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Cate Blanchett, "The Monuments Men" opens on Feb. 7.