In the Second World War the Monuments Men and Women – a ragtag group of around 350 museum curators, art historians, artists and teachers from 13 different countries – scurried their way across Europe, saving cultural artefacts from the ravages of war. Their motto was a simple one: save as much of the culture as possible during combat.
Britain was well-represented in the group, with 63 men and women from military and non-military backgrounds helping save five million precious items from being destroyed or secreted away at the hands of the Nazis. When the war ended, the British contingent disbanded, and faded away.
In the 70-plus years since the end of the Second World War, many conflicts have torn across the globe. Today, a collection of nations are engaged in a battle with the so-called Islamic State, a group that has destroyed more cultural heritage in a few short years than any other.
Soon, crimes of cultural destruction may become less frequent. A group of 15 to 20 reserve officers will be recruited by the British Army this year to populate a specialist cultural protection unit – the modern-day successors to the Monument Men – MPs were told in parliament last year. Like the old band of brothers and sisters, the unit would be populated by archaeologists and artists to work alongside frontline soldiers, advising them using their specialist cultural expertise on how best to protect monuments against the ravages of war, and how best to take away portable items for safekeeping. And it’s thanks, in large part, to a professor in Newcastle.
‘It’s not quite my life’s work, but I’ve been involved heavily in it since 2003,’ explains Professor Peter Stone, UNESCO Chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace at Newcastle University. He has been battling for years for the return of Monuments Men to tackle the destruction to property, but the situation has become particularly problematic lately. ‘The rise of ISIS has drawn people’s attention to destruction far more than it had before,’ says Peter.
Islamic State has its own unit, the Kata’ib Taswiyya, which demolishes buildings and monuments as part of a ‘cultural and historical cleansing’ campaign. At one point the terrorist group controlled a parcel of land in the Middle East the size of England, which included 20 percent of Iraq’s 10,000 UNESCO World Heritage sites. More than 40 significant sites of cultural heritage across the Middle East have been destroyed by the group, or looted. (Archaeologists estimate around $300m-worth of antiques taken by Islamic State are currently floating about on the black market.)
There’s no better place to see the havoc wreaked by war with Islamic State than Palmyra, the Syrian city that was once a cultural hub within the country but now lies in ruins. The terrorist faction was chased out of the city, but returned in early December, raising fears of further damage.
Although the need to set up a Monuments unit has become more pressing because of the cultural destruction wrought by ISIS, experts argues there has been a need for it for a long time.
‘The destruction of cultural property has happened for many centuries,’ says Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick of the Ministry of Defence. ‘For as long as man has created art, other men have stolen and destroyed it.’ The United Nations is making the destruction and looting of cultural property akin to war crimes against humanity, and Ahmad Al-Faqi Al Mahdi, the leader of an Islamist cult in Mali, was recently sentenced at the International Criminal Court for crimes against cultural property.
Perceived crimes against cultural property also happen closer to home, argues Peter – which is how he came to argue for the need for the army unit. In 2003, six weeks before the British invasion of Iraq, as the government prepared for military action, one person in Whitehall asked about how to ensure archaeological sites of interest in the country were kept safe throughout the incursion. ‘The response from was: “Yes, I know a bloke, I’ll ask them at the weekend,”’ recalls Peter. He was that bloke they knew. From that moment he became the archaeological adviser to the Ministry of Defence.
Of course, the allied action in Iraq did not go as planned, and many sites of cultural interest in Iraq were damaged or destroyed by British and American forces. It wasn’t a happy time for Peter.
‘Things went so badly wrong in Iraq that I had a choice,’ he recalls. ‘I could say: “Bloody hell, that was so appalling I don’t want anything to do with it again”, or “Bloody hell, that was so appalling: surely we should be doing something better in the future.” For some daft reason I chose the latter and I’ve been banging my head against a brick wall ever since.’
His goal was simple: to have Britain ratify the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, drawn up in 1954, which requires countries to establish a unit of Monuments Men to help protect culturally interesting monuments, documents and archives. (The UK, the Ministry of Defence argues, does adhere to most, if not all, of the articles of the Hague Convention, even if it hasn’t formally ratified it.)
Such protections are important because of what culture represents to society. Research has been carried out showing that peaks in violence follow the destruction of cultural property. ‘Every time you get major damage or destruction to cultural property, there are spikes in the numbers of civilian casualties,’ says Peter. Finding out this statistic, and being faced by daily briefings of destruction in the Middle East, made the government and the Ministry of Defence sit up and listen to Peter’s calls for action. Late last year, the government announced it would set up the unit. After banging his head against the wall for years, Peter had broken through.
‘Politicians have – because of ISIS – started taking this very seriously,’ he explains. ‘If politicians take it seriously, the military’s legal guys have got to take it seriously, which means the military as a whole do too.’
When those three groups take things seriously, wheels turn quickly. Some time this year the Hague Convention will be ratified, and Britain’s Monuments Men will return to the front line for the first time in more than 70 years. With some luck and plenty of effort, the tidal wave of destruction that has blighted global culture will be stemmed.
The decision is a long time coming: the result of one man’s decision not to repeat the mistakes of the past, and his unerring dedication to ensuring the world’s culture will remain standing for generations to come. But to hear Peter’s reaction, you wouldn’t think a man had near-singlehandedly managed to upend decades of inaction. He’s typically British about the achievement, echoing the spirit of the original Monuments Men who simply did their job without much fanfare. ‘It’s an enormous relief,’ he says – ‘and a massive step forward.’