The Culture of War: Saving history


Emma Cunliffe

Emma Cunliffe

Emma Cunliffe recently completed her PhD at Durham University using satellite imagery to examine threats to archaeological sites in Syria in peacetime. She researches the effects of the conflict on Syria's cultural heritage sites, where she volunteered with the Global Heritage Fund to produce the report “Damage to the Soul: Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Conflict”, and also volunteered as a member of the UK Committee of the Blue Shield, due to launch officially later this year, and for the NGO Heritage for Peace.
Emma Cunliffe

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Cultural heritage is intrinsically linked to conflict: hundreds of thousands of buildings, manuscripts and objects have perished this way – burned in fires, melted down for scrap or simply lost. For thousands of years it was the right of the victor to loot the defeated.  The Colosseum in Rome, for example, was built using the spoils from the sack of the Temple of Jerusalem in AD 70[1].  Fortunes across Europe were founded on the looting which occurred during wars such as the Crusades.  However, as the Renaissance spread across Europe, it brought with it new ideas about the intellectual and scientific interest of objects.  Many Enlightened gentlemen amassed large private collections of art and ‘curiosities’.  During the 18th century, creation of the major national public museums of Europe began[2].  The British government felt a responsibility to maintain collections “not only for the inspection and entertainment of the learned and the curious, but for the general use and benefit of the public” and so the British Museum was founded.  Shortly after, the Louvre opened in Paris, declaring their intention to make the royal collections seized during the revolution available to the public.

A link between early collections and war

Despite these apparently enlightened sensibilities, however, war remained close to the acquisition of these early collections.  The French National Convention instructed Napoleon to appropriate works of art during his European campaigns; many important collections were transported to be shown at what became known as the Musée Napoléon, and the Louvre’s holdings grew rapidly.  This was by no means an isolated policy.  Although the British fought Napoleon in Egypt to prevent a French Egyptian Empire (and this a French route to the British Empire in India), antiquities still featured in the Treaty of Capitulation in 1801.  Article XVI stated that the collections acquired by the French Institute in Egypt were forfeit to the British.  The scientists of the Institute argued it would be a crime to separate the creators from their collections: eventually a compromise was reached and the collections were split.  Included in the British allocation was the Rosetta stone.  A seemingly innocuous acquisition, this tablet –which remains on display in the British Museum today – would provide the key to the decipherment of the hieroglyphic script and unlock the texts of a lost civilisation.

Rosetta Stone.  Image: Benjamin Busche (Flickr, used under a <a href=''>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>)<br> <img width="88" height="31" alt="" src="">

Rosetta Stone. Image: Benjamin Busche (Flickr, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0)

Collection policies remained linked to military might – in 1883, Wallis Budge, an agent for the British Museum, was told “the occupation of Egypt by the British ought not to be made an excuse for filching antiquities from the county”.  Undeterred, Budge went to the illegal antiquities dealers, who were only too keen to supply him. Budge remains notorious amongst early collectors for his dubious collecting policies and lack of scruples.  More rarely remembered is the man who told him “no” – Sir Evelyn Baring, British Agent and Consul General of Egypt, who was trying to protect the interests of the Egyptians.

Sir Evelyn Baring, British Agent and Consul General of Egypt.

Sir Evelyn Baring, British Agent and Consul General of Egypt. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The idea of collecting old objects has been known for more than 2, 500 years.  Excavations at the Babylonian city of Ur suggested the 6th century BC kings Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus collected antiquities, and were interested in the activities of their forebears[3]. By the 18th century AD the idea that such objects could – and should – be preserved and used for public edification was well-developed in Europe, but the idea of preventing the extensive damage which could be caused during conflict was not.

It would not be until World War II that this idea would finally take hold – that if heritage was worth preserving, it should be preserved not only under ideal conditions, but also under the worst that it could face.  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 for a new museum he designed.  The Führermuseum was to be the most spectacular art museum ever built, culled from the cultural riches of the entire world. Those which did not meet his aesthetic standards were declared ‘degenerate’ and destroyed.  Museums across the Europe took note of the emptied public and private collections, and began to move their collections into safe storage.  Staff at the Hermitage in Leningrad, for example, sent a million treasures to Siberia, and lived in the cellars of the building for a year while the city was besieged, preparing to defend whatever they had not been able to send to safety.

The fight to preserve and protect

For the first time, those in command of the Allied Forces also understood the importance of the loss of history.  It was an opportunity to demonstrate that the war was not just about winning, but about retaining the principles and morals that represented all that was good about civilisation, and not sacrificing the one in the pursuit of the other.  Declaring his support for the concept, Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, said

“Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize 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…” (May 1944).

Monuments-Men-PosterAs the Allied Forces planned their invasion to retake Europe, in 1943 the formation of a new unit was approved – the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Commission (MFAA).  For the first time in history, the military went into the field with men and women dedicated to protecting art and monuments from the terrible effects of the war.  It was going to be a tough job – buildings that had stood for a thousand years were being reduced to rubble in days, entire historic quarters were demolished, and the artistic treasures of Europe were vanishing.   Some buildings were collateral damage in bombing raids; others were deliberately targeted. Church spires and tall towers were often used as military vantage points; fine buildings were often requisitioned by military commanders; and buildings with strong walls served as fortified emplacements for troops and artillery.  Most museums, libraries and archives had no evacuation plans, and no planned storage where environmental conditions could be controlled to protect their objects.

The MFAA were understaffed, and had no dedicated resources, not even radios. Only 345 men and women from 13 nations were expected to protect every historic building, monument and cultural treasure across the whole of Europe and North Africa.  Most were museum directors, curators and art historians, scholars and university professors.  Given their lack of experience of military service and its bureaucracy, and the conditions they worked in, their success was incredible.

Between 1943 and 1951, the MFAA found and returned more than 5 million stolen objects and artworks, and conserved numerous buildings, often using no more than their own ingenuity.  They fixed up cars deemed too damaged to be used by the main body of the army to visit sites.  To keep troops out of fragile sites, some were marked with white tape and signs reading “DANGER: MINES”.  They took on commanders with far higher rank and authority than theirs, and argued for the importance of their cause.  The great accomplishments of some of these men and women were described by Lynn H. Nicholas in her 1995 book the Rape of Europa, and by Robert M. Edsel in his 2010 book Monuments Men, now the subject of a new Hollywood movie directed by George Clooney, and due for release in February 2014.  The books and films were unable to cover every story of these heroes, but the importance of their work resonates today. To ensure we never forget, Edsel founded the Monuments Men Foundation[4], which is dedicated to honouring all the men and women in the MFAA by telling all their stories and their great achievements, as well as continuing to work to repatriate the stolen objects, and raising awareness of “art and cultural heritage as an essential part of understanding humankind” and so promoting work to safeguard them in the event of armed conflict.

Left: The Royal Castle in Warsaw, destroyed during World War II. Original image by Zamek Królewski. Image: Guillaume Baviere  (Flickr, used under a <a href=''>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>)<br> <img width="88" height="31" alt="" src="">

Left: The Royal Castle in Warsaw, destroyed during World War II. Original image by Zamek Królewski. Image: Guillaume Baviere (Flickr, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0). Right: The Royal Palace today (2012). Although reconstructed, it is now part of a World Heritage site. Image: E Cunliffe

Convention and Protocols

After World War II, a new convention was drawn up intended to protect cultural property in conflict, to try and ensure the catastrophic destruction never occurred again.  It is known as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.  It was swiftly followed by the First Protocol (also 1954), and the Second Protocol in 1999, both of which extended and clarified the original tenets.

The Convention and Protocols are designed to protect cultural property – monuments, sites, works of art, books and any other property of a religious or secular nature “of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people” – during conflict.  It calls on those who sign to “plan emergency measures to protect their heritage in the event of conflict, to designate suitable authorities to protect it, to respect cultural property – both their own and that of other states – and to refrain from using it or its immediate surroundings for purposes likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict, and by refraining from any act of hostility directed against such property”.  There should be establishment of special units within the military forces to be responsible for the protection of cultural property and sanctions for breaches of the Convention (the MFAA ceased to exist shortly after WWII).  The Convention dictates the principles of military necessity, and separates them from military convenience.  Sadly, the stories of the Monuments Men, their achievements, and the lessons we could have learned have been almost forgotten – the Convention is not widely followed.

In 2003 – sixty years after WWII – America and Britain once more allied, this time to invade Iraq.  Neither country had ratified the Hague Convention, and protection of cultural property was a low priority.  The National Museum of Iraq was shelled in the fighting and later looted.  More than 15,000 objects were stolen, most of which have never been recovered.  Today, only seven of the museum’s 23 wings are open, and only to those with special permits.  It is hoped that it might fully reopen this year – 11 years after it was destroyed[5].

The museum was not the only casualty.  Numerous ancient sites, including World Heritage sites, were damaged by Coalition forces during the occupation, and others were left unprotected.  An airbase was deliberately built on Babylon; troops climbed on Ur, a city which was built a thousand years before we built Stonehenge, and which reached its heyday more than 4000 years ago.  In the ensuing months and years, an unknown number of other sites were bulldozed and looted by armed gangs until all that remained were craters.  Without the oversight of government officials, others were illegally built on.  In stark contrast to his predecessor, Eisenhower, the (then) Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said “Stuff happens”.

Today’s Monument’s Men

Today’s Monument’s Men are often 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 the monuments and buildings there during the current conflict.  In 2006, America formed a Committee of the Blue Shield, a group of individuals committed to the protection of cultural property worldwide during armed conflict.  The UK Committee was established last year, and other committees are located across the world. The Blue Shield network is frequently referred to as the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross – a group of non-governmental organisations working to protect monuments, sites, museums and archives during and after conflict and natural disasters.  Although the creation of Blue Shield Committees is mandated in the Hague Convention, most are run by unfunded volunteers.  Members are drawn from Universities, museums, and (in the UK) organisations like English Heritage, with advisors from the Red Cross, UNESCO, the military and others.  Their objectives are to facilitate national and international responses to threats or emergencies threatening cultural property; to encourage safeguarding and respect for cultural property, especially by promoting risk preparedness; to train experts at national and regional level to prevent, control and recover from disasters; to act in an advisory capacity for the protection of endangered heritage; to consult and co-operate with other relevant bodies.  Although it is also set in the Hague Convention, in many countries military personnel who engage with cultural heritage protection in the field do so as volunteers, although America, Austria and Holland stand as notable exceptions.  There are also some staff archaeologists who work to protect sites in their home countries if military property is located on or by archaeological sites: some are now expanding their remits to offer advice and training on cultural property protection in conflict.

Aleppo Grand Mosque: by Lens Syrien Revolution.  2013. The photo shows only a small part of the damage sustained to the World Heritage Umayyad mosque in Aleppo , but in the foreground is the sundial, walled up and protected by the volunteer organisation, the Syrian Association for Preserving Heritage and Ancient Landmarks, together with the Free Council for Aleppo.  One man was shot by a sniper whilst carrying out these protective works.

Aleppo Grand Mosque: by Lens Syrien Revolution. 2013. The photo shows only a small part of the damage sustained to the World Heritage Umayyad mosque in Aleppo , but in the foreground is the sundial, walled up and protected by the volunteer organisation, the Syrian Association for Preserving Heritage and Ancient Landmarks, together with the Free Council for Aleppo. One man was shot by a sniper whilst carrying out these protective works.

Hague Convention

The dissolution of the MFAA was meant to be followed by the ratification of the Hague Convention, which would require all State Parties who signed it to agree to protect cultural property during their operations.  To date, 126 parties have ratified the Convention and enacted it with legislation in their own countries.  Even for those who have not ratified it, the Convention should be regarded as customary international law, requiring countries to respect the tenets.  Sadly, this is rarely adhered to.  After the cultural disaster in Iraq, America finally ratified most of the Convention in 2008 (albeit not the Second Protocol).  Although the UK and Ireland signed the original document in 1954, they have never ratified it: it is not mandatory in state law.  In August 2013, chemical weapons were used in Syria, and there was international consideration of intervention.  Had we done so, we are under no obligation from our own legal framework to protect any of Syria’s six World Heritage Sites, or the hundreds of sites, museums and archives of national importance, or the thousands of archaeological sites which cover the country, and customary law is often conveniently forgotten.  Syria is also home to some of the most important Jewish, Christian and Muslim sites in the world. All could be lost, and the situation is not unique.

We face a choice.  Should our heritage be sacrificed to military victories with no consideration? Or should we acknowledge that – as the Hague Convention states – military convenience is not the same as military necessity. Heritage represents what we are fighting for – it represents the achievements of men and women and the civilisations they built.  It represents our past and is the inspiration for our future. To fight to protect it is to fight not only to win, but to fight for the principles our civilisation promotes.  We cannot save every site – cultural heritage will always be in the front line of conflict – but it should not be lost without a fight.







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Emma Cuniffe. The Culture of War: Saving history. Past Horizons. February 18, 2014, from

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