When we talk about protection of cultural property these days, we usually see it in a global perspective. Cultural heritage – tangible or intangible – is worthy of protection as the heritage of all humanity, regardless of who it belongs to. But how did they see it at the end of the Second World War?
The Hague Regulations provides to spare cultural property in case of armed conflict, regardless of ownership. With this attitude the Monuments Men, the art protection officers in World War II, went to war. They wanted to ensure that the bombs destroy historically and culturally significant buildings as little as possible, that as little as possible works of art and cultural objects be irretrievably lost. But also to make sure that as little as possible art looting takes places – if only as a souvenir of the individual soldier. Hitler’s Nero order, which included the destruction of the Community Features and valuables of Germany, lest they fall into enemy hands, was an obvious example of the Nazi cultural barbarism for the Americans. They wanted to demonstrate that their nation values European culture, regardless of what country the cultural goods belonged to. This included especially the protection of German cultural heritage: churches, castles, archives and works of art were not despised because they belong to a nation that had done incredible atrocities against humanity. On the contrary, the Monuments Men saw the preservation of the cultural heritage as significant for the successful reconstruction: If Germany remembers its traditional values, especially in the field of culture, there would still be hope of overcoming Nazism. But above all, they saw the protected cultural goods as worth of preserving because they were created by humans for centuries, because traditions and values are passed along with them, values that had validity not only in Europe but also in the USA. World Heritage – albeit still with a very Western orientation.
World Heritage or National Treasures?
When Walter Farmer with his art protection colleagues wrote the Wiesbaden Manifesto in November 1945, he went strictly speaking a step back. Together with his team they collected works of art in the Wiesbaden Collecting Point, which he now checked regarding their ownership. As it turned out, these works of art were to a large extent not pillaged and looted art, but came from the German museum collections, mostly from the Berlin properties. When the U.S. government ordered to select 200 works of art and to bring them to secure accommodation in the USA, Farmer assumed the intention for looting and fought together with the other art protection officers against this removal. In his eyes it was not permissible to bring German cultural heritage to the U.S. – it must necessarily be available for the German population. It is – in the opinion of the Monuments Men – a valuable contribution to the cultural reconstruction of Germany. In their opinion „no historical grievance will rankle so long or be the cause of so much justified bitterness as the removal for any reason of a part of the heritage of any nation even if that heritage may be interpreted as a prize of war“ (wording of the Wiesbaden Manifesto). Whether accommodation in Germany was in fact not sufficiently ensured – as it was officially stated in the command from Washington – is debatable. But in the Wiesbaden Manifesto the Monuments Men did not postulate the idea of a world cultural heritage, but a national cultural heritage. When it comes to preserve cultural heritage for all humanity and to bring them from improper storage in security, the shipment to the United States would not have been wrong. However, Farmer and his colleagues argued with the need to keep the cultural heritage in its country of origin. Above all, Farmer had the art looting raids by the Nazis in mind, with whom he did not want to be brought in conjunction with, when he protested against the deportation. He feared damage to the image of the Monuments Men and saw the further cooperation with its local German team at the Museum Wiesbaden, but also with the other allies at risk, if the United States would loot art works as well.
Whose Cultural Heritage is it?
In addition, you can of course discuss whom the art objects really belong. One of the works that was in Farmers custody in the CCP Wiesbaden was the bust of Nefertiti, which came from Egypt to Berlin at the beginning of the 20th century, and is a subject of debate between governments to this day. When is a cultural object a „German heritage“? If it was produced in Germany? If the producer was a German? Or is it sufficient if it was bought by German museums? A majority of the 200 artworks shipped to Washington came from artists from France, Italy or the Netherlands. Is it therefore German, because it had been in a German museum for long years?
Farmer had good intentions when he fought for the preservation of the German museum collections and fought against the order that they are transported to the United States. He wanted the art works to be preserved not necessarily for all of humanity, but fought that it is given back to the nation to which it belonged before the war. A leap of faith in the survivability of the German nation, which would manage to overcome the Nazi terror and again to be a nation of culture.