Lost libraries and broken Buddhas: war, iconoclasm and social media

The history of cultural destruction as a propaganda tool


The German Reich had already lost the First World War by the end of August 1914—in moral if not in military terms. The deliberate destruction of the (neutral) Belgian university town of Leuven between 22 and 25 August outraged the public. The burning of Leuven’s library was an unmitigated propaganda defeat the Germans could not in any way redeem during the next four years of the war. From now on Germans were the “Huns”, the term used in Allied propaganda; a vilification that, seen in retrospect, was to prove outstandingly successful.

German academics and artists launched a counter-appeal, which became known as the “Manifesto of the 93”, named after the number of signatories. In it they, all highly respected figures, defended themselves against the charge of barbarism. “Every German greatly regrets if, in the course of this terrible war, any works of art have been destroyed or will be destroyed at some future time,” says the manifesto, “but, although our great love for art cannot be surpassed by any other nation, we refuse to buy a German defeat at the cost of saving a work of art”. In other words, in cases of doubt military considerations should take precedence and the preservation of cultural treasures should be accorded only modest importance.

The manifesto is a textbook example of a public relations disaster, establishing in the eyes of those it addressed precisely that coupling of militarism and cultural production in the German Reich that made the war into something far exceeding mere military ambition: into a clash of civilisations.

Historical range of destruction

It was M, the Museum Leuven, appropriately, in the centenary year of the outbreak of war, that last year hosted “Ravaged”, an exhibition on the subject of cultural destruction. The accompanying catalogue, Ravaged: Art and Culture in Times of Conflict, is a veritable compendium of cultural devastation, drawing a historic arc that extends from Troy to the Taliban. On the one hand, it demonstrates that the destruction of cultural treasures dates back as far as humans have been waging wars. On the other, it shows evidence of wartime destruction as an omnipresent drive that selects cultural productions as the most sensitive of targets, the annihilation of which inflicts the most pain. The prime example here is the destruction of the huge Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001. They were destroyed purely for the global media impact; the event was not capable of bringing about any change of behaviour in the people affected locally, nor was it intended to do so; any Buddhists who might have been dissuaded from their belief had long departed from the Bamiyan valley.

It was different in the great movements of iconoclasm experienced by Europe and Christianity in the Early Modern period when the aim was to stop the traditional practice of “worshipping” images as sources or mediators of divine power, so that worshippers could focus on the abstract message of a textually transmitted faith. Parallels with present-day conflicts within the Muslim faith are clear; as is the fact that no unequivocal pronouncements about the depiction of the divine are to be found in either case. It is the radicals who fight for “purification”, generally without being able to explain its theological justification or even its necessity.

In most cases, the destruction of culture (as at the Leuven library) means the destruction of books. For as long as texts have been produced, books have been burned. Towards the end of the fourth century, the Christian patriarch of Alexandria let the magnificently adorned Serapeum temple go up in flames along with the writings preserved there. The practice of book burning, ubiquitous across Christian lands, was most effective before printed texts were produced. Yet even after the invention and the rapid spread of printing in Europe there were devastating campaigns of burning that disrupted or even entirely prevented the survival of particular texts. “The history of the book is the history of immense losses,” notes Tom Verschaffel.

Three types of destruction

The destruction of cultural treasures can be divided into three categories: attacks on believers of other faiths and heretics, motivated by religion; destruction in wartime, mainly to be understood as collateral damage of warfare; and, third, deliberate destruction as a demonstration of power—in the present day often constituted as a media event. The boundaries between these categories are undoubtedly fluid, yet the categories aid the understanding and assessment of specific events. It is relatively unhelpful, therefore, when Jo Tollebeek moves directly from the library burning of 1914 to the destruction of the library in Timbuktu by Islamist terrorists in 2013 and from there back to the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, at the same time drawing in the lootings in Syria’s on-going civil war and finally the looting perpetrated by the Nazis. This does not tell us any more than that cultural treasures are and have always been at especially high risk across the ages. Yet the destruction of the Leuven library is evidence of the new and different character of total war, accompanied by mass-media propaganda. “The burning of the precious, centuries-old library (Leuven) aroused even greater outrage than the civilian victims and the devastated homes,” writes Tollebeek, highlighting the fact that cultural barbarism receives more attention than the standard atrocities of war. In the 20th century, cultural destruction became more frequent, indeed more normalised than ever before.

Overwhelming examples

The examples presented in this book are overwhelming. The burning of the Leuven library is like a beacon signalling the start of a century of barbarism. After the First World War every possible effort was made to undo the devastation wrought in Belgium, leading to the paradox that towns like Ypres have been comprehensively reconstructed and now have no places showing war damage. This book contains valuable essays on our ambivalent relationship to the destruction of historic buildings in the modern age, by Dominiek Dendooven, for example (“War Tourism with and without Rubble”), and by Steven Jacobs (“The Sublime Ruin of the City”). At the same time, however, the core theme of cultural destruction is somewhat lost from sight as the focus shifts towards destruction in general, as depicted allegorically in the paintings of the Flemish Baroque, including those from the workshop of Peter Paul Rubens (The Horrors of War, 1638). Ascribing a particular value—perhaps an excessive value—to culture and cultural products, is a 19th-century phenomenon, a reaction to the disturbing experiences of the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic campaigns. Culture was shown no particular respect during the Revolution and under Napoleon, unless it could be used for purposes of self-glorification, as with Napoleon’s creation of a world museum in the Louvre.

Symbolic acts

In line with its function as a companion publication to an exhibition, this book returns again and again to Leuven and the beginnings of war propaganda in 1914. At the same time it signals the significance of the bombing of Rheims for France shortly after the destruction of Leuven. In his essay “The Bombarded Cathedral”, for example, Mark Derez writes: “Leuven could not really compete with Rheims, which functioned as a key lieu de mémoire for the French nation state.” It is precisely this freight of national significance that makes historic buildings and cultural treasures so vulnerable. That Germany’s war leaders had no sensitivity for such heightened importance in 1914 and throughout the war made them vulnerable to the propaganda of the Entente Powers. More than ever, warfare in the modern age relies on symbolic acts — the destruction or the protection—of cultural sites to legitimise its actions. War has become a war of images, now instantly disseminated via the media. By illustrating this development, Ravaged reaches beyond last year’s exhibition and makes for exciting, if also depressing, reading.


Ravaged: Art and Culture in Times of Conflict

Jo Tollebeek and Eline van Assche, eds

Yale University Press, 306pp, £55, $80 (hb)