Cultural Casualties of War
The forces that tore Europe apart during World War II also coveted its artistic heritage.
On April 24, amid the heavy fighting of the Syrian civil war, Aleppo’s thousand-year-old minaret—a graceful rectilinear tower without parallel in Islamic architecture—was destroyed. Such cultural obliteration is far from unusual on the modern battlefield. As long ago as the Franco-Prussian war, Strasbourg’s Museum of Fine Arts, a building housing important medieval manuscripts and Roman artifacts, burned down after indiscriminate Prussian shelling. More recently, the Mostar Bridge, that unique work of Ottoman engineering that had stood since the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, was intentionally blown apart by Croatian tank fire.
It was in World War II, however, that threats to cultural heritage became a central fact of war. Even before the conflict began, the Nazis had destroyed hundreds of historic synagogues with brutal abandon. The Allies, with their reliance on air power, ended up reducing to rubble numerous medieval buildings and churches in Italy, France and Germany. Above all were the art-looting operations by which the Germans and the Soviets methodically plundered hundreds of masterpieces from the territories they conquered. Among the enduring ironies of these totalitarian dictatorships was the extent to which the most destructive forces on the continent also coveted its artistic heritage.
Robert M. Edsel, a businessman turned art sleuth, has spent much of the past 15 years studying the fate of artworks displaced during World War II. His 2009 book, “The Monuments Men,” focused on the special Allied units that were deployed late in the war to protect and recover art. (It is soon to be a movie directed by and starring George Clooney.) “Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures From the Nazis” is his detailed retelling of the Allied re-conquest of Italy (1943-45) from the vantage point of the Monuments Men and their efforts to “minimize damage to Europe’s single greatest concentration of art, architecture, and history from the ravages of a world war.”