A set of photographs from U.S. military archives serves notice on 30 years of revisionist art history, with one photo especially illuminating: Armed and attentive, a U.S. soldier guards a recently liberated World War II captive – one made of canvas, but missing its leafy, gold frame.
“Venus and Adonis” was part of a constellation of fabulous art objects plundered by Nazis across Europe to augment the personal collection of Hermann Göring or Hitler’s envisioned “Fühermuseum.” This painting was stashed in a musty cave awaiting its redemption while the Allies battled furiously for the liberation of Europe and less publicly, her treasures. Both figures are nude and voluptuous, reflecting Greek mythology.
Paradoxically, it’s an American soldier, Pu Garrison, who reverently keeps watch over the hardly Puritanical scene.
How more than 5 million works of art, furnishings and even crown jewels were returned to their owners after the war’s end is a wonderful story and uniquely Western in concept.
Soon the tale of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program will be common knowledge. George Clooney’s latest film, “The Monuments Men,” chronicles the unlikely martial crusaders against cultural injustice and looting and is set to be released this December.
Composed of a special cadre of U.S. and Allied artists and art specialists, the back story of the monuments men can be traced to at least the American Civil War. In 1863 the “Leiber Code” was commissioned by President Lincoln as part of General Orders 100. Crafted when military leaders became concerned over the destruction of our fledgling culture, the Code reached far beyond later Hague Convention limits and even current military ordinances anywhere in the world. World culture is indebted to Abraham Lincoln.
Union armies were ordered to avoid attacks that would damage classical works of art, libraries, scientific collections and hospitals, even when it could endanger our own troops. This included cultural sites while they were held by the enemy and actively used in “besiegement and bombardment.” Orders to actively “acknowledge and protect” cultural objects and buildings in occupied territories are the direct, legal ancestors of the exploits of the monuments men, truly American in concept.
Echoing Christian values, the safely of “women and religion” came first on the protected status list before even arts and sciences. Chivalry was part of the Code, if not always the reality in occupied territories. Although Southerners may beg to differ, especially on its effectiveness, the Code also prohibited looting by civilian or soldiers.
Remorse-filled art thieves returning their loot were granted immunity – another concept never before codified in war, although practiced occasionally (most notably when the Duke of Wellington repatriated piles of Napoleon’s plunder from the Louvre back home to Italy). From the seeded wisdom of America’s Leiber Code grew all international treaties and settlements on art repatriation now inching their way through courts and United Nations offices.
Strikingly ignorant of America’s past, many art students and instructors know little about our pioneering role as protectors of cultural property during war. The left accuses U.S. soldiers of aesthetic atrocities, which they generally can’t prove. Failing that, we’re held responsible for the bad behavior of virtually the entire world – as in Iraq, when Iraqis looted and pillaged their own art and antiquities museums, destroying their own heritage. Admittedly with a little foresight we could have done more to protect the museums, but who would have thought?
While examining America with a zoom lens, the swathe of destruction Soviets left in the wake of their 1979-1992 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan gets only a side note. Thousands of works of art and antiquities were looted or destroyed and art creation was restricted. Why the double standard, world?
Ironically we’re looking extremely good compared to most nations. U.S. officials have returned confiscated items to Iraq and Afghanistan and continue to search for stolen treasure.
Last June Angela Merkle demanded the return of pillaged German art from Russia in a frosty diplomatic interchange with Vladimir Putin. Putin blithely refused, noting that (to him) it didn’t matter if art is displayed in Berlin, St Petersburg or Turkey. Some of the art in question happens to be in St. Petersburg in an exhibit at the moment, but it represents only a tiny fraction of plundered German art that looked good to Soviet troops as they passed by.
Looted art from European castles and museums referred to the Bible and religion first, with a fair portion of Western mythology and historical references. Alone they establish a solid, visual proof of Europe’s religious background as almost entirely Christian since about the 8th century
A line from the trailer for “The Monuments Men” warns, “If you can destroy an entire generation of a people’s culture, it’s as if they never existed.”
Perhaps the writers were paraphrasing Eisenhower’s statement as he prepared for the Allied Invasion in 1944:
Shortly we will be fighting our way across the continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.
Would Eisenhower or Roosevelt find enough supporters in contemporary art communities to pull this off today? They’d be hard pressed. The culture Eisenhower called to preserve is (or was) unabashedly and openly Judeo-Christian.
Note the terms Eisenhower used that are virtually verboten to utter today. Using the words “our civilization” (particularly by indigenous Europeans) makes them “racist,” especially if they are referring to their own national culture and beliefs. The phrase “all that we are fighting to preserve” is also problematic, seeing that it follows “our civilization ” and the two are related.
I couldn’t’ imagine President Obama, any liberal or even many conservatives daring to repeat Eisenhower’s speech at this time. It requires three presuppositions that were the norm in 1944 but have become notoriously outré by 2013:
- There is a unique Western/European culture.
- It is-or was until recently-openly Judeo-Christian in spirit, philosophy and culture
- European/Western culture is worth “fighting to preserve.”
Two photographs from the archives say it all. In a 1945 photo from deep beneath a German salt mine, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Omar N. Bradley and Lt. General George S. Patton Jr. check out art we sacrificed men to find and return. In the other photo, Hitler and his officers arrogantly inspect art they committed genocide to gain but only for their private pleasure and self-aggrandizement. The difference in values is so clear.
Would it be too much to hope that Clooney’s film could leave American and European audiences with a glimpse of a history and worth they may not even know existed? We’ll soon know.
Thanks to Noah Charney, TheDailyBeast; Matthew D. Thurlow, Yale Law Journals; James Nye, TheDailyMail.com; Archeology.org; AP; Avalon Project, Yale