April 7, 2014
The film Monuments Men has drawn attention to one small episode in the dishonourable history of looting artefacts. the reality is of course, that it is something that has gone on for thousands of years & still continues today, albeit more covertly than at some points in the past.
Its great that a film highlights a topic like this, but we shouldn’t see it as an isolated incident – a one off aberration that relates to a different time & place.
Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, April 5, 2014
‘Monuments Men’ highlights WWII looting, but stealing culture has been around for ages
By Melissa K. Byrnes
Special to the American-Statesman
George Clooney’s latest movie, “The Monuments Men,” takes viewers on a beautifully filmed journey through Europe in the last years of the Second World War. The plot follows a group of western Allied soldiers charged with saving the masterworks of European civilization from the retreating Nazis — and the advancing Soviets. Where, though, did this fascination with cultural heritage begin?
Cultural artifacts have long been seized as prizes for military victory. This tradition can be traced back to the myth of the Golden Fleece, stolen by Jason and his Argonauts. The celebratory stone tablet of Naram-Sim was seized by the Elamites around 1250 B.C., later claimed by 19th-century French excavators and now sits in the Louvre. Homer recounts the Greek sacking of Troy, while the Bible tells of Nebuchadnezzar raiding the Temple of Solomon.
The Romans had a voracious appetite for cultural acquisition. Victory parades marched artworks through Rome along with prisoners as signs of military and political triumph. The Romans captured massive amounts of Greek art, sacked Jerusalem, and were some of the first to abscond with Egyptian artifacts. Entire obelisks were shipped back to Rome, symbolizing both the Roman fascination with Egypt as a great civilization and Roman imperial dominance over their Egyptian province.
Centuries later, the Crusades offered new access to fabulous riches. The infamous Fourth Crusade never reached the Holy Land. Instead, crusaders plundered the Christian capital of Constantinople in their desire to claim the wealth and artistic heritage of Byzantium. The most famous theft from this period was that of four bronze horses, which the Venetians brought back to install in the façade of San Marco’s Basilica.
But the man who truly made an art out of art theft was Napoleon Bonaparte, who enlisted archaeologists and other scholars to join his campaigns across Europe, down the Italian peninsula, and especially into Egypt.
Like the Romans before him, Napoleon saw the spoils of conquest as symbols of imperial power. He was particularly invested in claiming works from the Greco-Roman and Egyptian traditions, to establish an illustrious lineage for the new French Empire, heir to the greatest of human civilizations. To this end, he acquired tremendous numbers of Greco-Roman statuary and Italian masterpieces. He even briefly possessed Venice’s Byzantine bronze horses. Napoleon seized thousands of artifacts in his Egyptian campaigns, including obelisks that he (like the Romans) erected in his capital as proof of France’s grand status and global possessions.
Napoleon claimed the plunder not for his own personal glory, but as a symbol of French national grandeur. In keeping with this idea, he founded what would become the Louvre museum and filled it with these new treasures.
Napoleon’s tactics were not exactly popular. His raiding of Italian art in particular met with outrage, and so we see the first stirrings of a movement to ban art looting in war. When the Napoleonic Wars ended at Waterloo, a new framework was established for the repatriation of stolen artworks.
This did not prevent European powers from plundering cultures overseas. The 19 century saw the rapid growth of Egyptology and the removal of tremendous numbers of antiquities from the Nile regions. At the same time that Napoleon was raiding Egypt, the British had struck a deal with the Ottoman sultan to acquire a collection of marble statues from the Parthenon. These so-called Elgin Marbles, still housed in the British Museum, remain the subject of controversy.
The Brits also made off with countless antiquities from India, Persia and Africa, including hundreds of bronzes from Benin. Germans and Americans gleefully joined the game, as evidenced by today’s collections in Berlin, Boston, Chicago and New York.
By the end of the 19th century, perhaps concerned that soon everyone would run out of art worth looting, diplomats tried to protect cultural property in wartime. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 specifically prohibited pillaging. The accords also required warring parties to “take all necessary steps … to spare as far as possible edifices devoted to religion, art, science and charity” and to protect artistic and historic monuments.
Unfortunately, Germany, which had signed the treaties, paid them little heed during World War I. The Kaiser’s armies raided churches and libraries across the territories they controlled. These thefts were recognized by the Treaty of Versailles, which required the return of stolen objects or, in cases of destruction, the transfer from German collections of artifacts in similar number and value.
Hitler, then, was drawing on a long and storied tradition when he used the expansion of the Nazi Third Reich as an opportunity to accumulate cultural wealth. What began as a policy of “reclaiming” German works that had been lost or sold during the Napoleonic Wars quickly became a massive campaign to seize all cultural works deemed worthy of the German race.
While most of the art was squirreled away in salt mines and other hiding places — which, incidentally, were well-suited to art preservation — many Nazi officials also began to horde art for themselves. Recovering these stashes became the goal of the Monuments Men, whose basic story is well-recounted in the film.
There were many works, however, that the Monuments Men could not save. In line with Hitler’s notions of racial hierarchy and national purity, the Nazis had classed entire artistic movements and cultures as “degenerate.” Nazi policy worked to “cleanse” Germany, and then the areas they invaded, of works by Kandinsky, Klee, Munch and even Picasso.
The worst affected, of course, were masterpieces created by Jewish or Slavic artists. Synagogues and other cultural centers were ruthlessly pillaged, vandalized or burned to the ground as a crucial piece of Hitler’s project to deny these groups their humanity and to erase all traces of their achievements from the world. The Nazi pillage of artistic and cultural works featured in the post-war Nuremberg trials as part of the charge of “crimes against peace.”
The Allied record in World War II was not spotless either — although looting was not systematic. Many works also fell to the ravages of the war itself. Irreplaceable masterpieces were destroyed with the city of Dresden and in the bombing of Berlin.
Still, it was remarkable that President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower supported the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program. Soldiers and civilians — men and women — collaborated effectively to find, save and return countless works of art.
The wars of the 21st century have ushered in a new generation of Monuments Men. Though initially criticized for failing to prevent destructive looting in the Iraq National Museum in April 2003, the United States quickly set up a new task force to protect the country’s cultural heritage.
The past year has brought more stories of artistic pillaging from Syria and even Egypt. The global black market in antiquities is estimated to run in the hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Clearly, we still need the services of men and women inspired to save and restore the global artistic tradition.
The question remains as to why any of us should care enough about art to put our lives on the line to protect works — however masterful. Indeed, this very query is voiced in the last scenes of the film — though not answered directly.
We recently held an open forum about the movie at Southwestern University and we all struggled to satisfactorily explain this instinct to defend cultural heritage, often at great cost. In the end, this may be something we cannot answer. What is most important, perhaps, is that “The Monuments Men” gets us to ask the question in the first place.
Melissa K. Byrnes is an assistant professor of history at Southwestern University in Georgetown.
- Museum in Britain returns 454 Egyptian artefacts : May 1, 2009
- Should Russia return seized German artefacts? : March 15, 2007
- Monuments Men – the people who saved the world’s artefacts from Hitler? : November 7, 2012
- Egypt receives stolen artefacts returned from UK : February 21, 2012
- Iraq & Afghanistan’s looted culture : June 27, 2006
- George Clooney’s new film highlights the issue of looted Nazi art : March 28, 2012
- Once wars are over, shouldn’t the spoils of war be returned as an act of reconciliation? : December 6, 2013
- The Koh-i-Noor – Whose history is it a part of & who should own it? : February 24, 2013