Silent Casualties of War: Art, History, and Public Memory

By Amanda Tewes, Ph.D. student, Department of History

“If you destroy an entire generation of peoples’ culture, it’s as if they never existed.” –Monuments Men

“Which is of more value: a work of art or a human life?” –The Rape of Europa

In 2004, I was one of hundreds of students taking an introductory course on art history and early Western civilization at UC Santa Barbara. Each week I spent the duration of the class engrossed in images of art and architecture that spoke not only to the origins of Western civilization, but also to the commonalities among all civilizations: life, death, religion, war, and memorialization. I was therefore understandably crushed when the instructor informed the class that many of the pieces we were studying had since vanished in the days after the American invasion of Iraq, silent casualties of war. As the Iraq War was still in its infancy, I harbored hope that these artifacts would be recovered and history preserved for future generations. This was not to be.

In March of this year, The Art Newspaper reported that in addition to the human cost of the Iraq War, “Major archaeological sites have been looted or left neglected and a generation has been denied access to museums, nearly all of which have been closed. At a time when Iraq is in desperate need of unity, its illustrious past is being forgotten.”

During the Arab Spring in 2011, history repeated itself and I watched the events unfold on television with bated breath. Protestors swarmed into Tahrir Square, skirting the edges of the Cairo Museum, home of 5,000 years of Egyptian history. Later reports of looting at the museum—including objects found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb—did not get the media coverage they deserved, as they took place in the midst of an ongoing revolution. Egyptian Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass asked, “Where were the security forces, where were the police? Why was no one protecting the museum?” Indeed, why was history that was important enough to preserve not important enough to protect?

And just this week, news broke of the discovery of art stolen during World War II, found hidden in a Munich apartment. Authorities believe the cache to be worth more than $1 billion. Unlike art destroyed or looted during the Iraq War or Egypt’s recent revolution, this story has received plenty of media attention. Is this response due to a preference for European culture among Americans or a greater fascination with World War II history?

Yet, seventy-plus years after this particular conflict, there is a reason why we still care, why we should care. Continued revelations about art stolen during wartime opens up larger questions about collecting and preservation. Who owns this art now? Does it belong to the families and collectors from whom it was forcefully taken so many years ago, or should it now be relegated to public institutions to be appreciated by visitors after so many years locked behind closed doors? Who are the people who continue to trade in illicit art? How can we stop this trade? Most importantly, why? What do we have to lose if our art and culture disappears?

In February 2014, Monuments Men, a film with an all-star cast including the likes of George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, and Matt Damon will hit the silver screen. A story of a platoon sent into the midst of World War II battles to protect art and architecture in the path of destruction, as well as return pieces to their rightful owners, the trailer makes clear that the mission of these soldiers was not solely the preservation of art, but of culture, history, and a way of life.

The release of the movie seems all the timelier thanks to the renewed discussion of World War II-era art thefts. But will a new film about the importance of preserving culture through art sway the public to this cause, or will it serve to underscore the belief that wartime art theft is a relic of a bygone era? Perhaps American audiences will not see art heists as an ongoing and preventable problem until a major studio releases a picture about the looting of museums and cultural institutions during the Iraq War.

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