History is a battleground
How the world struggles to protect its heritage
Perched astride a donkey, the Englishman ascended the mountain. The heat of the day caused him to sweat, matting locks of his hair and glueing his shirt to his chest. Hidden under a vast straw hat, his guide urged the animal along, kicking up dust clouds. They followed a battered track, zig-zagging up to the peak. Panoramas of the valleys below, with their silvery rivers snaking across billiard-table flat terrain, grew ever more impressive the higher they rose. The only sound was the creaking of the leather saddle, crickets, bees and the guide, humming a peasant song.
Eventually they reached their destination. Looking up, the traveller was unprepared for the vastness of the abbey. It dominated the landscape. Constructed from massive cubes of light grey limestone, the walls were 20 feet thick and studded with rows of tiny windows. They resembled gunports. Which was it, he thought, monastery or fortress? A raven, perched high on the gateway, announced his arrival. He drank in the cool courtyards and the letters “P A X” above the entrance — peace.
Originally an ancient tribe called the Volsci ruled from a fortified village up here. Then the Romans erected their shrine to Apollo by the mountaintop spring. In AD 529, Benedict of Subiaco moved in, building a small retreat in the shrine’s ruins, craftily reusing the Volscian stone and Roman brick he found lying around. There, perched in the clouds, he devised his regula monachorum, the rules for monastic life, later mirrored around the world by his Benedictine Order.
Generations of monks subsequently raised a succession of abbeys, each more ornate than its predecessor, which became home to the most important art of the known world: ornate robes of past abbots, paintings, sculptures, jewellery, etchings and thousands of texts, including works by many of Rome’s earliest historians and philosophers. The carvings and music in the basilica were unsurpassed. In the 8th century, Abbot Desiderius, later Pope Victor III, presided over more than 200 monks who established a genre of manuscript illumination. A later pope, Urban V, underwrote the cost of rebuilding after the devastating earthquake of 1349.
The opulence and lofty atmosphere of this outpost of the Papacy sat uncomfortably with the shockingly impoverished villages below. The Englishman noted, “There was not a single pane of glass to be seen, nor food to be had in any of the wretched hovels that passed for houses.” This was a journey of contrasts he would never forget. He devoted a few more pages to his diary, then signed with an inky flourish: “Charles Dickens, Monte Cassino, January 1845.”
Arguments of military necessity versus world culture rumble on
It lasted another 99 years. Then, during the latter months of the Second World War, a fleet of Allied bombers wiped both the abbey and town of Cassino from the map. By 8.30am on the morning of Wednesday, 15 March 1944, the launch of Operation Dickens, there was little left of the noble structure and its contents. The only art treasures to survive had been moved to the Vatican in Rome weeks earlier. Outcry around the world was immediate, from friends and enemies alike. Roosevelt and Churchill were forced to take to the airwaves personally to justify their policy. Arguments of military necessity versus world culture rumble on to this day.
Operation Dickens begat a curious legacy. Uneasy at the global opprobrium, Eisenhower was mindful that some cultural “best practice” was needed. He summoned into uniform a group of American and British art historians, archaeologists and museum curators. Officially the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) Commission, they were soon dubbed “Monuments Men”. Their job was to protect and retrieve cultural property from German looting and destruction. Libraries, paintings, sculptures, other fine art and the buildings themselves came under their remit. It was a bid to halt repetition of the destruction at Cassino.
The wartime activities of this specialist unit were described by Robert M. Edsel in his 2012 book Monuments Men, later portrayed by George Clooney, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville and Matt Damon in the 2014 movie of the same name. Eventually they comprised 345 personnel, serving between 1943 and 1951. Their Russian counterparts were the brigades of the Soviet Trophy Commission, whose mission was very different. The comrades confiscated all German war loot and removed anything else of financial worth, including whole factories, and shipped them eastwards as war reparations. By contrast, the MFAA Commission and its successors have tried to return artwork looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners or surviving descendants. The Soviets, succeeded by the Russians, blocked all such attempts.
Post-1945, the United Nations pondered the aftermath of wartime damage, destruction and theft to the world’s stock of cultural artefacts. Pre-existing international humanitarian law had proven inadequate. The result was the Hague Convention, which devoted its two Protocols of 1954 and 1999 to their protection. The subject began to interest academics and aid agencies as history repeated itself in August 1992. That month saw the irreplaceable loss of Bosnian heritage in the destruction of Sarajevo’s main library, deliberately targeted during the break-up of Yugoslavia. It led Lynn H. Nicholas to write her influential Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War.
With armed NATO interventions in Bosnia, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, advice was needed on sites to preserve from military strikes. Cultural property protection was back on the international agenda. In Britain, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, after consulting a wide range of academics, lawyers and military educators, formed the Cultural Property Protection Unit (CPPU) in 2019. This was not a light-hearted exercise in Western goodwill. Substantial sums of money were being generated through the illegal sale of artefacts and artwork to fund terrorist groups.
“The destruction of the ancient Nimrud palace in Iraq, mosques in Mosul and Roman ruins in Palmyra were all part of a deliberate campaign against historic sites by Islamic extremists. Other gangs have been smuggling antiquities out of Mali. Many smaller items are looted or stolen to order. All directly finance international terrorism,” Purbrick, a Gulf War tank commander-turned-arts dealer and reservist, told me back in 2019. His unit works alongside Europol, America’s civilian Cultural Antiquities Task Force (CATF), US Army Cultural Heritage Preservation Officers (CHPOs) and specialist French personnel. They are today’s Monument Men, trained to combat the trafficking of antiquities.
In the wake of the 2010–12 Arab Spring, which saw the destruction of artistic patrimony throughout the former cradle of civilization, the bad guys began to see these thefts as an infinite resource. Their cultural racketeering, illicitly converting heritage into cash for weapons on an industrial scale, has prolonged instability and weakened peace for future generations. Publication of the Panama Papers in 2016 hinted just how much of the world’s GDP was being laundered. It amounted then to an estimated $2 trillion, partly generated by high-value illicitly traded artworks and antiquities. Some of this turnover stems from organised crime, which in turn funds terrorist groups. One million dollars can buy 12,000 assault rifles plus 2.5 million bullets, 1,250 rocket launchers or 5,000 mortars
Emerging from a decade of armed conflict in the Balkans, it is often one of the 15 Albanian family gangs who crop up as key suspects. Initially proteges of the Turkish mafia, they are now the pre-eminent criminal network in the global underworld, with interests in arms-dealing, drugs, prostitution, fraud, racketeering and cultural theft. In addition to a presence in Turkey, using their role as heroin middlemen, they have links to crime families in Italy, across Europe and into North America.
An artefact looted in Syria may be traded to a Turkish contact for weapons. It might be passed on to a gang in Greece or the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria in exchange for narcotics. People smugglers might be paid with the same item, which could again move to a band moving East European “singers” and “dancers” (in reality, prostitutes) around the West. Traditionally, these are Russian-run networks, passing young girls between states as far apart as Israel, Turkey, Athens, Paris and London.
UNESCO has verified damage by Russia to 282 cultural locations
Forgers of passports and money-launderers may handle the same collectable. By this time, its provenance has usually been modified, making it “clean”. Removing the taint of theft, obscuring evidence of plunder and providing false documentation is a profession in itself, dominated by organised crime. Perhaps swapped between cyber criminals on the dark web, paid for with bitcoin, the artwork eventually enters a network of legitimate dealers, where it will end up with an honest collector or museum, thousands of miles from its origin. There may be as many as 12 layers of transnational corruption from first discovery to final sale.
Objects d’art have also “leaked” from countries such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, Yemen — and Ukraine, where state-sponsored looting or destruction of artefacts is happening all over again. By August this year, UNESCO had verified damage by Russia to 282 cultural locations since the invasion of 24 February 2022. These include 119 sacred sites, 27 museums, 103 buildings of historical or artistic interest, 19 monuments, 13 libraries and one archive. On the Black Sea coast, for example, the Odessa Fine Arts Museum, Archaeological Museum, Maritime Museum, Literary Museum, its Opera House, St. Nicholas Church and the Transfiguration Cathedral have all been severely damaged. Around the capital Kyiv, 38 major cultural sites have suffered, including 16 churches and convents and 22 museums, monuments, libraries and universities.
The initial thefts occurred in 2014, when the Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimean regions were invaded. I was one of the last Westerners to leave Crimea before the Russians rolled in. My final cultural visit had been to inspect an important archaeological collection of gold coins and ornaments uncovered around Kerch. They belonged to Ancient Greek and Scythian colonists who had settled the area from the 7th century BC.
I remember Kerch, now the site of the infamous bridge linking Crimea to Russia, as a beleaguered, windswept port, full of rusting cranes and cracked concrete buildings. Time seemed to have passed it by, for the square still contained a statue of Lenin. Eye witnesses reported that within days, Russian special forces had broken their way into the museum, smashed display cases and removed every single exhibit. “These weren’t ordinary soldiers. It wasn’t random violence. They knew exactly what they were looking for,” I was told.
Last summer at Mariupol, the industrial city and port hammered into submission by Russian forces, Kremlin “experts” broke into an art museum and stole masterpiece paintings, a famous sculpture and several highly valued Christian icons. In Kherson oblast (province), before retreating back across the Dnieper, Putin’s troops looted to order 10,000 art pieces from the city’s museums, out of a collection of 13,000. From the city museum of Melitopol, a southern city in Russian-occupied territory, locals reported, “A man in a white lab coat wearing gloves carefully removed a special collection of Scythian artefacts hidden in the basement. He and his armed escorts and the gold have not been since.”
This was no Kelly’s Heroes-type private bank heist, because beforehand other Russian Spetsnaz troops had burst into the private home of the museum’s director in a carefully coordinated raid. At gunpoint they demanded to know the whereabouts of the treasures. Later, Melitopol’s mayor, Ivan Fyodorov, lamented, “The orcs have taken our Scythian gold. It was the largest and most important collection in Ukraine, and we don’t know where it’s gone.”
These cultural attacks have been likened to air raids on the British Library, Albert Hall, Tate Modern, Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Palace, the National Archives in Kew and Westminster Abbey, with hundreds of innocent passers-by killed or mutilated. The suffering of the city-dwellers is far beyond anything Charles Dickens could have imagined.
The sheer scale and range of targets indicates that this is not random or “collateral” damage, but a Kremlin-directed initiative. UNESCO has labelled it a deliberate attempt to destroy Ukrainian culture — in fact, a war crime. Russia’s looting spree in Ukraine today amounts to the most extensive art robbery since the Nazis pillaged Europe in World War II. It will cease only with Putin’s defeat, and it is another reason why we must ensure Ukraine emerges triumphant.
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