The destruction and looting of cultural heritage has been intertwined with conflict for thousands of years. To steal an enemies’ treasures, defile their sacred places and burn their cities has been part of war throughout history. And sadly, in the modern battlefields of the ancient world, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and elsewhere, it continues to this day.
The Colosseum in Rome, for example, was built using spoils from the sack of the Temple of Jerusalem in AD 70. Many of the Louvre’s collections were “acquired” by Napoleon while rampaging through Europe (albeit later returned). In fact, much of Napoleon’s collection of war booty – acquired during his failed campaign in Egypt – was declared forfeit by the British victors and given to the British Museum under the Treaty of Capitulation of 1801. The Rosetta Stone, which famously enabled the deciphering of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script, was acquired through this treaty and is still on display there today.
Although antiquities gained widespread public interest throughout the 19th and early 20th century, it was not until the Second World War that the idea of preserving them in conflict finally took hold. As Hitler’s armies advanced across Europe, he saw an opportunity to conquer not only the land and the people, but the cultures of defeated nations. Millions of artistic works and important cultural objects were seized and sent back to Germany, where Hitler took a personal interest in selecting the very best. His new Führermuseum was to be the most spectacular art museum ever built, culled from the cultural riches of the western world.
Those in command of the Allied forces were faced with a historical and cultural loss of unprecedented scale. Declaring his support for the protection of the past, the supreme Allied commander, Dwight Eisenhower, said:
Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centres which symbolise to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols wherever possible.
Enter the Monuments Men
In 1943, the Allied forces approved the formation of a new unit: the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Commission (MFAA). For the first time in history, armies went into the field with officers dedicated to protecting art and monuments during the conflict. It was going to be a tough job. Entire historic quarters in cities such as Warsaw were demolished in days and the artistic treasures of Europe were vanishing.
Just 345 men and women, with no dedicated resources, were tasked with protecting historic buildings, monuments, libraries and archives across the whole of Europe and North Africa. Most were museum staff, art historians, scholars and university professors, yet their success was incredible. They found and returned more than five million stolen objects and artworks and ensured the protection of numerous buildings, often using no more than their own ingenuity.
A part of their story is told in the new film, Monuments Men, based on author Robert Edsel’s book of the same name, by the Monuments Men Foundation, and also in the book and ensuing film The Rape of Europa. In 1951, the MFAA was disbanded as politicians drafted the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, followed by the First Protocol in 1954 and the Second Protocol in 1999 (which extended and clarified the original tenets).
The convention protects places and objects “of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people” during conflict. It argues the heritage of all sides should be protected and that warring sides should not use it or its immediate surroundings, nor direct assaults against it. It also granted suitable authority and units for its protection. Crucially, it separates the principles of military necessity from military convenience. Unfortunately, it is not widely adhered to and many of the lessons learned by the MFAA have been forgotten.
The monumental battle today
The Monument Men of today are almost all volunteers. Some are local people, such as the Syrian Association for Preserving Heritage and Ancient Landmarks, who work in Aleppo (a UNESCO World Heritage city) to try and save its monuments and buildings. Individual organisations monitor the situation. Some countries have formed voluntary national Committees of the Blue Shield.
The Blue Shield network was suggested in the Hague Convention and is the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross. It is a group of non-governmental organisations working to protect monuments, sites, museums and archives during and after conflict and natural disasters. Members are drawn from universities, museums and heritage organisations, with advisors from the Red Cross, UNESCO, the military and others.
Their objectives are to formulate and lead national and international responses to emergencies that threaten cultural property. They encourage respect for, and protection of, cultural heritage, providing training and advice. Despite the Hague Convention’s mandates, often the only military personnel who engage with cultural heritage protection do so voluntarily.
Today, 126 countries have ratified the Hague Convention, although the necessary work is rarely funded and not all the tenets are enforced. The UK has not ratified it, despite the destruction caused by the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003. In August 2013, chemical weapons were used in Syria and intervention was discussed. Had it happened, the British military is under no obligation to protect, or even consider, any of the thousands of significant sites throughout the country, many of which date back to the earliest achievements of mankind.
Protecting cultural property is about more than old books, buildings and fine paintings. Our cultural heritage stands as the symbol of everything humanity has achieved: our finest moments and even our worst atrocities. It is the physical reminder of our past and inspiration for our future. While not every site can be saved, its loss should be a matter of necessity and never convenience. As Eisenhower stated 70 years ago, to fight without even considering it is to sacrifice everything for which we are fighting.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.