Timbuktu and the Nazis By Eileen F. Toplansky
The calculated destruction of libraries and cultural artifacts has a long history. Reading about the recent and deliberate destruction in Timbuktu, Mali by al Qaeda-backed terrorists who had governed Timbuktu reminds one of the relentless zeal of dictators to annihilate artistic and religious expressions of creativity. It is, as Hector Feliciano has written in The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art, much more than mere theft. Thus, “[i]t is ‘stealing the soul, meaning, and cultural standards’ of collectors. Besides physical obliteration of their enemies, the victor’s ‘plundering’… rests in part on the looting and destruction of the cultural possessions of the enemy” (5-6).
According to the February 1, 2013 Wall Street Journal article entitled “Historic Timbuktu Texts Saved From Burning” by Drew Hinshaw, the al-Qaeda “broke into one of the world’s most valuable libraries, ripping centuries-old manuscripts from shelves. Then they torched these priceless artifacts, in a scene of destruction that horrified scholars around the world.” Some scholars have compared the texts to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Yet, an “estimated 28,000 of the library’s artifacts were smuggled out of town by donkey cart” explains Prof. Abdoulaye Cisse, acting director for Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute for Higher Studies and Islamic Research.
This rescue mission is eerily reminiscent of that undertaken when the Nazis rose to power and it became eminently clear that they were planning on destroying and/or confiscating works of art. In fact, “the Nazis instituted a systematic, official policy to encourage [pillaging of art work].” Their “purpose was two-fold: to repatriate German art and put that ‘worthy’ European art in a museum in Adolph [sic] Hitler’s hometown of Linz, Austria as well as use ‘degenerate works’ as bargaining pieces to trade for art deemed worthy of possession.”
Under Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering’s control, the “largest confiscations of works of art were stolen from the most renowned Jewish collections” (Feliciano 5). In fact, “Goering’s motive was egotistical. He planned for his collection to become a museum, probably housed in his estate at Carinhall, on the occasion of his 60th birthday.” Hitler’s plan was to “create the world’s largest museum to glorify the German people.” (Nancy H. Yeide. “The Plunder of Art as a War Crime: The Art Looting Investigation Unit Reports and the Hermann Goering Art Collection. Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion. Volume 8.2, Spring 2007, p. 3.)
Kenneth D. Alford in his book Nazi Plunder explains that “between September 1939 and May 1945, German armed forces roamed from Dunkirk to Stalingrad, and from Spitzbergen to Athens, plundering gold, silver, currency, paintings and other works of art, coins, religious artifacts, and millions of books and other documents. The value of these items, many of which were one-of-a-kind priceless pieces can be estimated in billions of dollars” (iii).
In 1937 Goebbels organized a committee that was ordered to seize “degenerate” artwork from the State Museums. More than 16,000 works of modern art — including masterpieces of the highest quality — were removed from these institutions’ walls and stored in Berlin. Erich Heckel’s Seated Man, for example, was shown at the “Degenerate Art” Exhibition in Munich in 1937 and has not been seen since. (Robert M. Edsel, Rescuing Da Vinci. Dallas: Laurel Publishing, p. 11.)
As Hitler acquired more power, it became clear to museum curators that they had to act quickly to protect their collections. Rose Valland, Louvre Curator and French Museum heroine wrote
[i]t was in the face of this appalling prospect that we had been charged, for the first time in our history, with the securing of the national artistic inheritance. Whatever the threats which weighed on its inhabitants, France was above all to save the spiritual values which it held as an integral part of its heart and culture. To put at shelter its works of art, its archives, [and] its libraries, was indeed one of the first reflexes of defense of our country.
Winston Churchill in a telegram to Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery in London, pugnaciously asserted “[b]ury them in caves or cellars, but not a picture shall leave these islands.” Likewise, in the current conflict in Mali, “locals … [have] long stashed ancient documents under the brick floors of their houses, or under furniture, out of an enduring fear of invading armies.” In 2010, Abdoul Wahim Abdarahim Tahar’s family, for example “ha[d] about 2,700 manuscripts passed down from his grandfather, a calligrapher. They [were] stuffed inside trunks alongside pots and pans.” But in 2011 Islamist extremists decimated tourism when European tourists were taken hostage. In 2012, Islamists banned “music, insisted women cover themselves, and began carrying out public executions and amputations.”
In fact, European museum directors and curators seemed to grasp the danger of Hitler sooner than many government leaders. Earlier during the Spanish Civil War, in late October 1936, bombing “commenced about 25 miles northwest of Madrid at El Escorial, the palace of King Philip II where a treasure trove of great works could be found.” Subsequent bombing near the Prado resulted in 300 paintings loaded onto an armored train destined for Valencia. The paintings had to be moved again to a castle near Barcelona. After additional moves, it was in September of 1939 that they were finally exhibited at the Museum of Art and History in Geneva. Those art luminaries who visited the exhibition “believed that it would be the last major art exhibition to be held in Europe for a very long time” and the ensuing developments “convinced museum authorities in neighboring countries of the need to protect their valued objects and monuments.” (Edsel)
In 1946 Western Allied Forces discovered more than 1,000 repositories in which art treasures had been stored, stashed, and buried by the Nazis. These hiding places and hundreds of others contained art stolen from churches, museums, and individuals throughout Europe. Hamburg alone held more than 5,000 bells that had been stolen from churches throughout Europe. In Austria, Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, stolen from the Notre Dame Cathedral and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, stolen from St. Bravo Cathedral were discovered in the Alt Aussee salt mines. (Edsel) In fact, “no theft was more prominent than that of the altarpiece by Veit Stoss which Polish officials had removed from the Church of Our Lady in Cracow in an unsuccessful attempt to hide it from the Nazis.”
Sadly in 2010 al Qaeda destroyed many of the 15th century Timbuktu shrines. The centuries-old mosques and tombs which were placed on the World Heritage danger list by the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO were shattered by members of the al Qaeda allied Islamist group Ansar Dine who claimed that the relics represented idol worship which is a violation of Islam. At least seven relics, including the Sidi Yahya, considered one of Timbuktu’s three great mosques, were destroyed. UNESCO chief Irina Bokova called the destruction “an attack against humanity” and this “attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage is an attack against this history and the values it carries.”
This “cultural vandalism” could, in fact, “constitute a war crime” according to the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court. This echoes what happened after the WW II when the argument was “made at Nuremberg that Nazi confiscation of artistic and cultural property in occupied countries… was an officially sanctioned and implemented policy of plunder, and thus a war crime under both the Charter of the International Military Tribunal and the Hague Convention.” In fact, the legal brief Plunder of Art Treasures prepared by Walter Brudno served as “the impetus to prosecute as war criminals those engaged in the plunder of cultural property.” (Yiede)
This is not the first time that Islamic jihadists have destroyed global artifacts. In 2001, the Taliban blew up ancient Buddhist shrines in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan which was also a World Heritage Site. Clearly, “extreme Islamist movements across the world have developed a reputation for the destruction of historic artifacts, monuments and buildings.”
It is clear that one of the manifestations of evil is in the looting and destruction of items of historical and cultural value. Religious iconic works are often targeted in this urge to obliterate. For example, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin is still missing. (Lynn H. Nicholas. The Rape of Europa, New York: Vintage Books, 1995) Such cultural vandalism marks the difference between civilization and barbarism. It is not surprising that there are so many points of agreement with Islamic jihadists and Naziism. They both represent death of the spirit of a society. Be it the “suicidal racial fanaticism of Hitler and Himmler,” or the savage hatred of jihadists, one thing is certain — “museums, scientific institutes, libraries, churches, and universities are to be exploited and stripped” as the “desecration to humanity” never ends.
Sadly, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ — the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Eileen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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- UNESCO to rebuild 11 mausoleums in Timbuktu (worldbulletin.net)