Good ideas never die. The cultural heritage in the Middle East is under such a serious risk of destruction by the Islamic State that the British Government has returned to life the ‘Monuments Men’, the elite group who saved thousands of art masterpieces from the Nazi flames.
For the national-socialist regime, the massive murder of Jewish, Communists, homosexuals and other enemy communities was not enough. Their cultural and art traces had to be erased too. The Nazis stole thousands of pieces from both museums and private collections and planned to destroy them. The Allied countries gathered a group of experts including scientists, museum curators and art historians to find them before the Germans could destroy the pieces. They were called ‘The Monuments Men‘ and were responsible for the protection of invaluable artistic treasures.
After 70 years, world heritage sites in Syria and Libya have been targeted by ISIS as part of their war campaign. Extremists have recently taken the old city of Palmyra, in Syria, and in summer 2015 they already destroyed ancient statues, mosaics and objects.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Council say they will spend £2.5m to create a 15 to 20 people military group as part of the £30m program announced last year to protect overseas cultural heritage. The areas covered will be the Middle East and north Africa, with special focus on Syria, Iraq and Libya. The first zone to be safeguarded will be Kabul’s Murad Khane, a maze of 18th-century streets and bazaar located in the old city of the Afghan capital.
In the 1940’s, the 40-membered original ‘Monuments Men’ recovered paintings from Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Picasso, among other jewels. Two of them died during the operation. The 21st century version of the team will work in situ in cities like Nineveh and Mosul, where they might find themselves under crossfire due to the unstable war situation. In Syria, for instance, armies from the United States, the Islamic State, Al Assad’s Syrian regime, Syrian rebels, Russian and British troops are fighting simultaneously.
Apart from protecting and restoring the remaining architectural heritage, the ‘Monuments Men’ are also meant to fight art contraband and black market, which play a key role in the funding of extremist troops. They will work in the frontline close to the soldiers to provide them with their knowledge and expertise to minimize the damage of cultural sites and artworks in war zones.
According to Peter Stone, from the University of Newcastle, “for the first time since World War Two, the United Kingdom will set a specialised unit to preserve cultural heritage”. The new members will be recruited by the British Army and will be coordinated by the British Intelligence Services. The creation of this unit follows the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which states that armed forces may recur to art specialists to preserve cultural property in times of war.