Works of Art Losses and Survival – cultural legacies of conflict

Alice Bennett explores a series of publications at the Minster Library that catalogue the losses and damage to art and architecture as a result of the Second World War.


As we mark the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, it can be easy to forget the battles that continued to be fought after this landmark. These continued to the East, before Victory in the Pacific was declared on August 15th, as well as in the struggle to rebuild lives and countries ravaged by war. Commemorating the end of hostilities marks the beginning of peacetime efforts to restore normality. As part of this work to restore Europe in the wake of the war, questions were raised about the preservation of heritage that had been damaged and in some cases, all but lost.

 
Image 1: The east end of the Parthenon.


From late 1945 and throughout 1946 a series of publications were produced cataloguing the losses and damage to art and architecture in occupied areas of Europe. These were issued by the snappily named British Committee on the Preservation and Restitution of Works of Art, Archives and Other Material in Enemy Hands and represent a surprisingly swift response to the destruction of cultural heritage across Europe. The guides were produced for different theatres of war – two volumes for Italy, one each for the British zones in Germany and Austria, for Greece and for Malta. Although the celebration of Victory in Europe on 8th May 1945 saw an end to fighting in Europe, it opened a new chapter of challenges in rebuilding countries shattered by conflict. The production of these guides shows a surprisingly pan-European approach. These works are concerned with the losses of countries which had only months before been regarded as the enemy. Despite major cultural losses across Britain, these guides widen the scope past a national view of war damage.  By illustrating concern for losses across Europe, these guides acknowledge the universal importance of cultural survival.

Occupied territories are at risk to greater destruction of cultural heritage. Works can be destroyed for ideological reasons, regimes seize artworks, collections are looted by occupying forces and whole sites can be demolished. This creates convoluted trails to follow in establishing the survival and whereabouts of artworks. For example, the art collection of August and Serena Lederer was seized by the Nazis in 1943. Various paintings were moved to the Schloss Immendorf in Austria, which was
Image 2: Works of Art in Austria. Vienna, Inner City.  
then burned by retreating SS officers in 1945 – destroying not only the building but the collection of Klimt paintings it housed. The Works of Art in Austria guide, notes that the Lederer collection comprised 'early Flemish and Italian Masters, also works by the Austrian nineteenth-century painter Klimt' but at the time of publication in 1946, the fate of the collection was unclear – 'Part of the collection is thought to have been sequestered under the Nazi regime, but some of the paintings may have been taken to Hungary'. This reflects the confusion in the immediate aftermath of the war- these guides represent initial assessments of the situation before any extensive research could be done. Despite the end of hostilities, displaced people and damaged infrastructure meant that gathering accurate information was still difficult.

Image 3: Münster, the Cathedral.
The scope of these guides is impressive. Ranging across war-torn Europe, each area lists what was known to have happened to architecturally significant buildings of the area alongside art, museum and library collections. There is a recognition of the potential loss of tangible heritage through the destruction of documents, buildings, artefacts and artworks. The photographs alongside these
catalogues of loss and survival are moving – some showing pre-war images of buildings now destroyed, others showing the devastation of bombing or shelling. The summaries for each site or collection are brief and business-like, condensing theft, damage or destruction into concise sentences. In discussing the Munster museums, the guide to British occupied Germany dispassionately notes that the 'Diozesan Museum is not extensively damaged, though some of its contents have disappeared. The Geological Museum, much of whose collection was evacuated, is a total loss'. Perhaps such brevity was necessary given the scale of the damage and losses.

Some entries give insights into the efforts made to protect and preserve heritage, even during times of war. At the gothic Convent Church of Walsrode, the 'more valuable contents and the fifteenth-century stained glass were removed for greater safety', whilst the former convent church at Wennigsen was used 'as a repository, suffered some minor damage, and is now being repaired'. Various entries record early attempts at repair, even in the immediate aftermath of the war, illustrating the importance of these sites to communities. However the speed with which repairs were carried out could in itself be a problem, raising questions about quality and authenticity. For example, the guide cataloguing the losses and damage in Malta describes the heavy damage suffered to the Auberge de Castille in Valletta. Already having been modified for use by the Navy during the war, much of the building was destroyed when hit with what the guide terms a 'heavy-calibre bomb'. It goes on to record the rushed rebuilding of the site: 'Neither architect nor contractor is being employed; the work is being carried out by the Royal Engineers, employing military labour. That this fine palace is not being carefully restored, under skilled supervision, to its original design is to be greatly deplored.' This highlights the need for careful consideration in conservation and reconstruction, describing a distressing forerunner of many of the rushed restorations or total demolition of badly damaged buildings in the immediate post-war era.

Image 4: Rhodes. Damage to a medieval home.
Whilst it is important to remember these preservation efforts that followed in the wake of VE day, issues of cultural loss are still current. Many significant works have been lost in more recent conflicts. The destruction of historic texts and artworks held at the University of Sarajevo accompanied the conflict surrounding the former state of Yugoslavia, whilst the US bombardment of Baghdad destroyed ancient books and manuscripts. The destruction of cultural artefacts can play a part in war – erasing the past of groups and removing the roots of cultural identity. In the former Yugoslavia, there were deliberate efforts to destroy artefacts of Jewish or Islamic origin, as a cultural counterpart to the genocides. Cultural vandalism has contemporary resonance, with the ongoing destruction of archaeological sites across militant territories of the Middle East, as IS work to obliterate traces of pre-Islamic civilisation in the region. These guides represent attempts to restore cultural heritage in the aftermath of war, recognising its power and importance as part of the rebuilding process.

Image references:

  1. British Committee On The Preservation And Restitution Of Works Of Art, Archives (And) Other Materials In Enemy Hands, War Office. (1946) Works of art in Greece, the Greek islands and the Dodecanese: losses and survivals in the war. London: HMSO.
  2. British Committee On The Preservation And Restitution Of Works Of Art, Archives (And) Other Materials In Enemy Hands, War Office. (1946) Works of art in Austria, British zone of occupation, losses and survivals in war. London: HMSO.
  3. British Committee On The Preservation And Restitution Of Works Of Art, Archives (And) Other Materials In Enemy Hands, War Office. (1946) Works of art in Germany, British zone of occupation, losses and survivals in war. London: HMSO.
  4. British Committee On The Preservation And Restitution Of Works Of Art, Archives (And) Other Materials In Enemy Hands, War Office. (1946) Works of art in Greece, the Greek islands and the Dodecanese: losses and survivals in the war. London: HMSO.
The collection of pamphlets referred to in this post can be consulted at York Minster Library

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