Bombs not only destroy cities and people, but also culture and history. While new ones are written to the shame of humanity, peoples and their histories are also erased with the destruction of cultural heritage.
However, societies exist with their histories. Every cultural heritage is important in terms of carrying the history of societies to the present and the future. Therefore, the destruction of cultural property in the event of armed conflict is considered a violation of international law.
Despite this, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also discussed with the destruction of cultural assets.
In Chernihiv, a city on the brink of humanitarian disaster with no electricity or safe escape routes for the local population, Russian missiles destroyed the Vasyl Tarnovskyi Museum; The whereabouts of the museum’s collection is not yet known.
In Mariupol, Russian soldiers, destroyed the mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roksolana, where more than 80 people, 34 of them children in, and the Donetsk Drama Theater, which also sheltered more than a thousand women and children (despite the word ‘children’ written in Russian outside the building and visible from the sky) by bombing it.
With seven Unesco World Heritage-listed sites, monuments and countless other cultural treasures, there is much in Ukraine that is at risk of destruction.
The loss of cultural heritage and objects is one of the numerous atrocities of war.
Of course, this is not the first war in which the world that cultural heritage has been damaged. In recent years we have witnessed the tragic destruction of six Unesco World Heritage-listed sites in Syria. Our recent history is full of similar tragedies for humanity.
The Great Nazi Loot
Adolf Hitler was an unsuccessful artist who was not accepted into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. However, he considered himself a connoisseur of art. When he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he set about applying his aesthetic ideal to the nation.
He called modern art ‘degenerate art’ and decided to sell or destroy such works in Germany’s state museums. In turn, he began collecting (looting) works of art from other countries.
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called Germany’s corrupt artists “garbage” in a radio broadcast he attended.
Even before the Second World War began, Hitler embarked on the world’s largest art loot to open his own museum of classical art in Linz, Austria.
Hitler, whose passion for power also affected his attitude towards art and science, wanted to steal their cultural heritage to prove his superiority over the other countries he occupied. He thought that owning valuable works of art showing the traditions, history and cultural accumulation of their societies would strengthen him as a manager of these societies.
England, for example, decided to store the country’s artworks in a mine in North Wales, with Churchill’s decision, even though it was discussing sending the country’s artworks to Canada in case of Hitler’s possible invasion.
In response to the same threat, in Turkey, with the secret order of President İsmet İnönü, the sacred relics and works of art, especially in the Topkapı Palace, were sent to Niğde to be protected with 391 ballot boxes. This unique cultural heritage was secretly hidden here until the end of the war.
In response to the Nazi plunder, World War II, an international group was formed to help preserve cultural assets during and after the war.
Under the organization of American and British operations, this group of museum curators, art historians, architects, and even artists from fourteen nations was active in identifying and locating artworks, archives, and other cultural resources destroyed by German forces.
When this group, known (and also filmed) as the Monuments Men, left Europe in 1951, they found and repatriated nearly four million stolen objects.
Art is the unfinished business of World War II.
Although the Allies recovered a large number of stolen paintings in the salt mines near Salzburg and in a castle south of Munich, an unknown number of them were also destroyed.
Although decades have passed, there are still hundreds of thousands of works of art that were lost at that time.
In 2021, a raid on a house in Munich on suspicion of tax evasion found 1,406 paintings and drawings. These works found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment were the works kept by his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was selling art looted by the Nazis.
Five years ago, Austria announced the existence of 10,000 paintings and sculptures hidden in a monastery on the banks of the Danube and in some government institutions since 1945.
History keeps repeating!
Tragedies in world history are not lessons for humanity. The same dramas happen over and over again.
Russia, whose cultural heritage was plundered by the Germans years ago, is doing the same to Ukraine today. In Ukraine, there is a war to protect life and cultural heritage on the other.
Across Ukraine, artists, gallerists, curators, museum directors and local people are desperately but carefully trying to wrap, hide and protect their country’s cultural heritage.
Statues, stained glass windows and monuments are covered with shrapnel-proof materials. Paintings and all portable artifacts are lowered into basements and bunkers.
Along with their lives, the people are also fighting a relentless struggle to protect the cultural and artistic heritage of their society.
The world, on the other hand, still seems to have not learned from the past, in the face of one-man tragedies created by psychopaths who seized power.