The Rape of Europa is a remarkable achievement, telling the entire story of World War II in Europe through the masterworks which were stolen, plundered and destroyed. Scrupulously researched, jaw-droppingly vast in scope and incredibly detailed, it is a mesmeric piecing together of countless news stories over the past 50 years, refreshed with new insights gleaned from scores of interviews and incisive research.

The eternal question of which is more important, saving art or saving lives, comes to the fore here. Again and again, various representatives of different countries assert that monuments like the Louvre, the Kremlin and entire Italian cities represent not only the history but the very soul of their peoples. This was never more true than in the case of the Allied entrance into Italy, with a vital part of combat taking place at Monte Cassino, which was virtually destroyed in the attempt to root out Nazi occupation. The bombing turned out to be a futile gesture, as the Nazis had sequestered themselves elsewhere, and this misjudgment was then used by them in propaganda touting American savagery and cultural insensitivity.

We learn of the heroic, harried, undermanned elite American corps, the Monuments Men, whose mission was to safeguard and track down immortal, imperiled artworks. A bunch of regular Joes, albeit highly educated ones, they are the first to admit that it was American soldiers, as well as Axis forces, who bear some responsibility for the mistreatment of priceless artifacts, and we see photos of enlisted men, lounging carelessly on antique furniture, surrounded by treasures, which might be so many spittoons. But, for the most part, these archivists achieved an unbelievable amount of success, as in the restoration of the completely ruined frescos of a medieval masterpiece of a monastery in Pisa. There is also inspiriting footage of the French and Russians, who were particularly prepared after centuries of war to ferret away in secret masterpieces of the Louvre and the Kremlin. Certain works we are able to thankfully enjoy today achieve a kind of star status with the recollections of their wartime experiences. Your heart stops at the recounting of the oh-so-careful removal of the Winged Victory of Samothrace from its lofty perch in the Louvre, as the slightest drop could have resulted in it being shattered into a million fragments. The Mona Lisa was secreted away in its own private vehicle, so airtight that the curator attending it passed out.

Italy features again as a victim in the descriptions of Florence, particularly in a thrilling account of American bomber squadrons flying overhead, bent on destroying a railway station which was dangerously close to ancient monuments. The bombs were dropped with nerve-wracking precision, not harming a single thing of value, and the recreation of the mission has a nail-biting intensity in the recounting by the pilots involved. With an almost amusing pith, the Germans are described as “sore losers,” for, as they were losing the war, they vindictively destroyed much that, originally, even they were bound to safeguard, as was the horrifying case with a beloved Michelangelo-designed bridge and some ancient nearby towers.

The plunder of artworks began shortly after the first Nazi invasion of Poland, stemming from Hitler’s master plan to install everything in a museum he was designing to glorify his own humble hometown. As Slavic work was considered as racially reprehensible as anything Jewish, countless national masterpieces were cruelly demolished. In France, his efforts targeted a small group of the top Jewish art dealers in Paris, and their surviving relatives are interviewed at eloquent length.

Detective work continues to be conducted by curators in museums throughout Europe who are, to this day, still trying to track down missing pieces. One Boucher painting was discovered in a Utah museum and, happily, returned to the family who originally owned it, but there is still ongoing controversy about the golden Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, left by its Jewish owner to the Museum of Vienna in a bequest which did not anticipate a Nazi takeover of Austria. Although the painting recently sold for $135 million, the family still thinks it should be returned to them and the problem is ongoing, along with other ramifications of this particular rape of Europe, which will extend for decades to come.