This week, PMP Arts explores the Nazis looting of Western Art during World War II, the Monuments Men that recovered it and the parallels between the Nazis, the Taliban and Islamic State, in regards to their treatment of the arts.
While Hitler was out on his rampage with his fellow Nazis during the Second World War, his armies truly let all hell break loose on a number of historical monuments and artefacts, in an attempt to weaken their opponents. It is a fact that throughout their pompous marches, the Nazis violated and looted other nations’ cultural heritage. Under US initiative, the Allies attempted to prevent the further destruction and looting.
In the film The Monuments Men, seven museum directors, curators, and art historians during World War II are assembled by the US in order to guide the Allies to locate and return all stolen Western art to its rightful owners. In reality, a joint effort by approximately 400 experts led to the formation of the “Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program”, aimed at putting a stop to Hitler’s irrational vision of a Führermuseum. The mission was heavily supported by the then General Eisenhower, who received distinctions in recognition of his important contributions and efforts against the Axis forces’ machine of destruction.
The systematic and organised looting of European countries by Nazi Germany is known as “Nazi plunder”. From 1933 until the end of World War II, various organisations, including the military units of Kunstschutz (art protection) plundered cultural heritage and treasures. Despite the nature of the Kunstschutz’s name and work during World War I, where they actually did preserve enemy artworks and cultural heritage, the Nazis used this in order to steal away works from countries like France, under the claim of preserving those nations’ cultural heritage.
Historically speaking, the Monuments Men served as a special unit, seeking to safeguard Europe’s cultural treasures during the Third Reich. Indeed, this has also been portrayed in the film, with a great emphasis on how and why should this unit make efforts in order to prevent the European cultural treasures from being lost. Today, the organisation exists as The Monuments Men Foundation, in an attempt to tackle all existing looting and destruction of the arts in conflict regions in the world.
PMP has previously reported how the self-proclaimed caliphate of the “Islamic State” has recently destroyed invaluable artefacts and a cultural heritage of thousands of years in the Middle East. From 1996 to 2001, another self-proclaimed regime promoted the same cultural terrorism in Afghanistan: the Taliban.
Sadly, there is limited or no respect for artworks during war. During the Third Reich, the Nazis attacked all modern art, labelling it as “degenerate” and assumed that it was forbidden and had to be destroyed. Even books (especially Jewish) of writers which did not fit in the Nazi criteria were destroyed. The Taliban in Afghanistan, and the “Islamic State” in various parts of the Middle East, both focused on exterminating religious monuments and artefacts which do not represent their own faith. The notion they have over these artworks and treasures and the methods they have used are no different than what the Nazis employed during the Second World War.
All actions involving cultural looting and destruction should be seen as war crimes, says the Wall Street Journal. History repeats itself. Action must be taken in order to preserve cultural heritage. Perhaps we should learn from the Monuments of Men in order to tackle today’s issues and preserve these important works of art in the world.
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PMP’s Arts is a series of articles exploring the relationship between the arts and politics. If you would like to contribute to Arts, please email email@example.com.