The real story behind 'The Monuments Men' movie

Rick Klein, Olivier Knox, Richard Coolidge, and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Top Line

World War II is perhaps one of the most documented time periods in history – preserved in countless books and movies – but the new film “The Monuments Men” tells a story of a group of men and women whose remarkable wartime mission has gone largely unrecognized in popular culture until now.

During World War II, the Nazis stole millions of works of art and cultural artifacts from across Europe. And a group of approximately 350 men and women from 13 allied countries, known as the “Monuments Men,” set out on a massive hunt to reclaim the stolen cultural treasures.

“A new kind of soldier, one charged with saving rather than destroying,” said author Robert Edsel of the “Monuments Men,” whose efforts led to the recovery of more than 5 million pieces from the Nazis. Edsel’s book, “Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” is the basis for the new film released today starring George Clooney and Matt Damon.

“Millions of works and cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis, and we have this group of men and women who risk their lives, two of whom were killed during combat, to go and save the great cultural treasures of Europe,” he said. “It's an uplifting story we don't know about.”

Rep. Kay Granger, a Republican of Texas, is leading an effort in Congress to recognize the “Monuments Men” and joined Edsel for an interview with “Top Line” on Capitol Hill.

“World War II has just influenced so many of us, and we'd just honored the Native American code talkers and I said, ‘Here's another story that we haven't honored and don't know about,’” Granger said of why she first became involved in efforts to recognize the group back in 2006.

Granger led the passage of a resolution to honor the “Monuments Men” in 2007 and is now pushing a bill that would award them the Congressional Gold Medal. With only five of the men still alive today, she describes the effort as “urgent.”

The work that the Monuments Men did, Edsel said, was about more than saving paintings and sculptures; it was about respecting diverse cultures.

“If you're really going to win the hearts and minds of people, you have to show respect for their cultural treasures,” Edsel said. “You don't necessarily have to understand them, you don't even have to like them, but you've got to show respect.”

While the legacy of the “Monuments Men” lives on in museums across Europe that have benefitted from the art they recovered, Edsel said the importance of their accomplishments has been undervalued in modern wars, such as Iraq, where the preservation of cultural works has not been sufficiently prioritized.

“Our country paid a horrible price in the court of public opinion in the aftermath of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad and the other cultural treasures there,” he said of the looting in 2003. “There wasn't that priority that President Roosevelt and Gen. Eisenhower really changed the face of war by trying to fight a war and mitigate damage to cultural treasures.”

To read an excerpt of Edsel’s book on, click HERE.

To learn more about “The Monuments Men,” and to hear Edsel’s story of working with the famous actors in the new film, check out this episode of “Top Line.”

ABC News’ Betsy Klein, Tom Thornton, Wayne Boyd, and Gale Marcus contributed to this episode.