Citadel of Aleppo, 2007. Damaged by shelling, 2012. CREDIT: <a href="">Watchsmart</a>,  (<a href="">CC</a>)
Citadel of Aleppo, 2007. Damaged by shelling, 2012. CREDIT: Watchsmart, (CC)

The Fate of Cultural Property in Wartime: Why it Matters and What Should Be Done

Sep 17, 2013

"In a race against time, a crew of art historians and museum curators unite to recover renowned works of art stolen by Nazis before Hitler destroys them." This is the description of the latest George Clooney film, The Monuments Men, based on a book of the same name. Art historians dashing around Europe in the midst of World War II to save paintings sounds like an improbable work of imagination. But the Monuments Men actually did exist, and their battle to save the symbols of European Civilization should inspire reflection on the fate of cultural property1 in wartime, why it matters, and what should be done to provide protection in today's conflicts.

The Fate of Cultural Property in Wartime

While most people are familiar with the history of World War II, many are unaware of the fate of art in the European theater during the war. As part of Hitler's plans to construct a Fuhrermuseum, the Nazis systematically plundered Europe's art and are estimated to have transferred to the Third Reich more than five million cultural objects.2 In response to this extensive looting and the widespread battle damage to cultural landmarks such as Coventry Cathedral, the abbey at Monte Cassino (destroyed by the Allies), and the old town of Warsaw, the Allied armies created the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA).3 From 1943 to 1951, the MFAA was composed of 350 men and women from 13 nations, with 60 Monuments Men actively serving in Europe from a few months after D-Day until VE day.4 These 60 Monuments officers, all volunteer museum directors, artists, archivists, curators, and educators,5 were responsible first for mitigating battle damage, and then for locating the looted and missing art across the continent.6 Robert Edsel, author of Monuments Men, describes the mission of the group as "simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat."7 By 1950, the MFAA had secured and repatriated 2.5 million cultural objects, including legendary pieces such as the Ghent Altarpiece and the Madonna of Bruges.

Over 60 years later, despite legal instruments such as the Hague Convention of 1954 (designed to prevent the damage, destruction, and looting witnessed in World War II), the 1970 Convention on Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property, and the World Heritage Convention of 1972, the fate of cultural property in conflict remains much the same. While the looting is not as organized or far-reaching as the Nazi campaign, during our current troubled era, reports emerge frequently from Syria, Mali, and Egypt of looting and damage to cultural property. In addition to the destruction of the historic center of Aleppo, in February 2013, the Syrian government warned of an increase in antiquities trafficking from looted archaeological sites. Under the Islamist occupation of Timbuktu, Mali in 2012, FT Magazine reported that occupiers demolished shrines to which residents pray as part of their Sufi beliefs and the monument to the city's patron djin was destroyed by a bulldozer. Of the 24,000 ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute, 4,203 disappeared or were damaged during the conflict. Most recently, the archaeological museum in Mallawi, Egypt was robbed and vandalized, losing almost 1,050 of its 1,089 exhibit artifacts.

Cultural property, whether art, architecture, or antiquities, continues to be damaged, destroyed, or stolen during conflicts. It is often collateral damage in battles and bombings, the object of theft for those seeking to sell valuable objects, or the target of destruction in an attempt to destroy a people's culture or evidence of a culture's existence.

Cultural property, whether art, architecture, or antiquities, continues to be damaged, destroyed, or stolen during conflicts.

Why Protect Cultural Property?

Why, amongst the many horrors of war, most particularly the great suffering and loss of life, should humanity care about the fate of objects and buildings? In fact, the argument for protecting cultural property in wartime has both ethical and practical foundations. Museum conservator and Monument Man George Stout wrote in 1942:

"As soldiers of the United Nations fight their way into lands once conquered and held by the enemy, the governments of the United Nations will encounter manifold problems…In areas torn by bombardment and fire are monuments cherished by the people of those countrysides or towns: churches, shrines, statues, pictures, many kinds of works. …To safeguard these things will not affect the course of battles, but it will affect the relations of invading armies with those peoples and [their] governments….To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to a particular people but also to the heritage of mankind."8

Stout explains the ethical importance of respecting cultural property. We should not protect ancient manuscripts and statues simply because they are beautiful or historic buildings of worship because they serve as a gathering place for the faithful; we must understand them to be part of the culture and history of a people. In a time in which Hitler was attempting to destroy a people and conquer many cultures, to show respect for the cultures and the symbols of others was to fight for the liberation of Europe in another, meaningful way. What's more, these objects do not belong solely to the people who cherish them. Stout argues that they also belong to "the heritage of mankind." This recognition that the symbols of one civilization are also part of the history of all mankind is an idea that has been further embraced and recognized post-World War II and has become an integral part of the ethical argument for protecting culture in conflict. As Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, wrote in a 2012 article on the importance of preserving embattled states' cultural heritage, "this [the destruction in Syria] is a loss to all humanity. Some cultural sites have an outstanding universal value—they belong to all and must be protected by all. Let's be clear. We are not just talking about stones and building. This is about values, identities and belonging."

In addition to the ethical foundations for protecting cultural property, there are several very practical arguments for the benefits of doing so.

1. The loss of cultural property is not only a loss to the heritage of mankind, but also to the better understanding of that heritage. As Rodrigo Martin, a heritage expert monitoring the damage to Syria's sites, expressed it, "[t]he destruction of things that have not been studied is like burning pages in the book of history." Archaeologists can recover stolen artifacts, but as Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, leader of the U.S. investigation into the 2003 looting of the Iraq Museum, explains, without the context of the item, little can be learned about the civilizations that came before us. This limits our educational resources and collective knowledge of the past.

2. The destruction or looting of sites and objects of cultural significance, especially when intentional, can create lasting resentments and obstacles to peace. As Bokova writes, "[d]estroying culture hurts societies for the long term….Warlords know this. They target culture because it strikes to the heart and because it has powerful media value in an increasingly connected world. We saw this in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, where libraries were often burned first." When the deliberate destruction of cultural property is linked with genocide or ethnic cleansing, such as the intentional destruction of mosques in Kosovo, it is easy to understand why resentment would endure. To protect cultural property is a way to avoid one more obstacle to peace.

3. Even when cultural property losses are not linked to genocide, the issue of repatriating and restituting looted objects of cultural property remains expensive, contentious, and legally complex. For example, amongst the "trophies of war" removed by the Soviet Union in World War II were books of important cultural value to Hungary. The books were not returned until 2006, after years of negotiation. Similarly, reconstruction of cultural heritage sites, if even possible, is a long-term process that can be extremely controversial and expensive. Afghanistan's Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, are a case in point.

4. In certain circumstances, the theft of cultural property can fuel further conflict. As Bogdanos writes, "things have become even more troubling—when tracking down terrorists, we now find antiquities…" Bogdanos notes that antiquities trafficking provides a source of funding for insurgents in Iraq, and one must be concerned that this trend could continue in other conflict zones.

What Can be Done?

Since World War II, the world has seen modifications to military rules of engagement and the ratification of several legal instruments, all designed to protect cultural property, particularly in conflict. Cultural property destruction has even been recognized as a war crime and prosecuted as such. These are necessary and important steps, and yet destruction and looting continue. The time has come to consider additional courses of action and to learn from the lessons of the Monuments Men.

In a 2012 article, Bokova declared that in the 1954, 1970, and 1972 conventions the world has the legally binding international treaties it needs, but that "legal texts will never be as fast as a rocket." She argued that what is needed now is a strengthening of national capacities, training for soldiers, more resources, experts on the ground, and better coordination with armed forces, Interpol, and other actors. Bokova is right. Efforts must be made to actively prevent the destruction of cultural property and to track trafficked objects through better coordination with experts on the ground and better training and resources for soldiers in and entering conflict zones. What may be most important is the deployment of experts much like the Monuments Men who volunteer to assess, protect, and investigate cultural property destruction and looting. Unlike the MFAA, the experts should not be affiliated with one side of the conflict; the group must be apolitical. While specialized sections for arts and antiquities are rare in today's militaries, there are non-profit organizations working to fulfill this mission. The International Committee of the Blue Shield states that it "works to protect world cultural heritage threatened by natural and human-made disasters," and various national chapters, such as the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield work as "the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross, providing an emergency response to cultural property at risk from armed conflict." The efforts of these committees and other actors with similar goals should be promoted and heavily supported.

The world must work to protect cultural property during times of conflict, not only because it shows respect for all peoples and cultures, but because the heritage of one civilization is the heritage of the entire world. Cultural property protection in conflict is often neglected or brushed aside as people argue that the lives of individuals in warzones are far more important than old buildings, pots, and books. However, it is not a question of prioritizing. We must not dismiss cultural property protection in conflicts as secondary to humanitarian tragedy, but as part of the effort to save humanity. In an August 2013 speech, Bokova expressed this well, when speaking about the destruction, looting, and illicit trafficking of cultural property in Syria:

I am keenly aware that in the context of a tragic humanitarian crisis, the state of Syria's cultural heritage may seem secondary. However, I am convinced that each dimension of this crisis must be addressed on its own terms and in its own right. There is no choice between protecting human lives and safeguarding the dignity of a people through its culture. Both must be protected, as the one and same thing—there is no culture without people and no society without culture.


1. "Cultural Property" as defined by the 1954 Hague Convention: "the term 'cultural property' shall cover, irrespective of origin or ownership:

(a) movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above;

(b) buildings whose main and effective purpose is to preserve or exhibit the movable cultural property defined in sub-paragraph (a) such as museums, large libraries and depositories of archives, and refuges intended to shelter, in the event of armed conflict, the movable cultural property defined in sub-paragraph (a);

(c) centers containing a large amount of cultural property as defined in sub-paragraphs (a) and (b), to be known as 'centers containing monuments."

2. Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, (London: Arrow Books, the Random House Group, 2010), p. xiv.

3. Edsel, pp. 51-52.

4. Edsel, p.xiv.

5. Edsel, p.2

6. Edsel, p.xiv.

7. Edsel, p.2.

8. Edsel, p.23.

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