Our reporter looks to the lessons of art preservation efforts of World War II to understand what might be possible for Ukraine's treasures.
Systematic destruction of cultural heritage is an established weapon of war. As Theodore Rousseau, one of the World War II Monuments Men, so eloquently stated in a postwar lecture, “Looting is as old as war and just as constant a form of human activity.” The recent invasion of Ukraine is no exception. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared on May 7, 2022, that the Russian army had destroyed or damaged nearly 200 cultural heritage sites. While sharing the news that a missile strike destroyed the Hryhorii Skovoroda Museum in the Kharkiv region, Zelenskyy said, “it seems that this is a terrible danger for modern Russia—museums, the Christian attitude to life, and people’s self-knowledge.” Taras Voznayak, director of the Lviv National Art Gallery in Ukraine, said, “Putin knows that without art, without our history, Ukraine will have a weaker identity. That is the whole point of his war—to erase us.”
The systematic looting that occurred during World War II provided the impetus to create international protocols specifically written to address cultural property and its handling in war.
For those like me involved in the study of looted art, early reports evoked an undeniable parallel to World War II. Yet few have compared the protection of artistic heritage and looting between the two conflicts. Furthermore, while the looting of artwork during World War II has been well covered in the mainstream press, far less has been written about the efforts that were made to protect art in advance of the German invasion.
By comparing cultural heritage protection and looting between the two wars, we can identify a potential road map to the future as the war in Ukraine persists, and offer a framework for when the conflict concludes and the fallout is addressed, regardless of which side prevails.
Laws Against Looting
In the 17th and 18th centuries, many European nations, finding themselves perpetually at war, developed military codes, which set forth the rules of warfare and behavior of soldiers. Looting and violence against civilians, including rape, were subject to the harshest punishment: the death penalty by hanging, firing squad, bludgeoning, or beheading.
The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 were the first modern multilateral agreements on the rules of warfare and included the issues of pillaging and civilian property. But the widespread, systematic looting that occurred during World War II provided the impetus to create international protocols specifically written to address cultural property and its handling in war. The 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict at the Hague argued for the “universal protection” of cultural heritage, stating that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind.” The convention empowered the United Nations and its entities to enforce it with arms. In response to the Balkan wars, a subsequent protocol concerning damage to cultural property was passed by the Hague in 1999, which narrowed the scope of what actions could be considered “military necessity” and expanded the definition of what constituted protected cultural heritage.
Despite its invasion of Ukraine, Russia continues to serve as the current chair of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, a designation that Zelenskyy has decried. Russia is also a signatory to the International Council of Museums’ Code of Ethics. None of the international agreements, whether binding or nonbinding, seem to have influenced the country’s tactics in the current conflict.
Cultural Heritage Protection during World War II
In 1939, Jacques Jaujard, who was director of the French national museums, director of the Louvre, and a member of the French Resistance, coordinated the secret removal of the French national art collections to protect them from enemy fire. The Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and sculptures by Michelangelo, among others, were moved to the Loire Valley and stored in the Château de Chambord and dozens of other castles. The evacuation occurred by any means necessary, which included transporting artworks by truck, ambulance, taxis, delivery vans, and private automobiles.
Jaujard was already experienced in this type of cultural protection. Earlier that year, Jaujard helped safeguard the artworks from the Museo Nacional del Prado and other Spanish museums during the Spanish Civil War, working with the already-beleaguered Republic of Spain and its foreign minister, Julio Álvarez del Vayo. In total, 1,842 crates, which held 364 paintings and 180 drawings—with works by Titian, Ruben, El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, and more—were moved to the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva.
A far slower war timeline gave France a clear advantage in World War II compared with Ukraine in 2022. France had watched from afar as Germany annexed Austria, ceded Sudetenland, and invaded Czechoslovakia. While the packing of art in the French national museums took only three days and nights in August 1939—with the Louvre ostensibly closed for repair work—the action was months in the making. The museums used the period of inaction after the meeting of the Heads of State in Bavaria in 1938 to plan for an eventual escalation of war:
During this time, the evacuation plans established for each museum were carefully reviewed and finalized. Packing materials were accumulated in basements and storerooms.
In Lyiv, local volunteers worked rapidly to protect historical monuments in the old town, one of seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ukraine.
France had already instituted wartime art evacuation plans, put in place starting in 1932. Museum curators made priority lists of important artworks and identified potential hiding places. During World War I, the country’s museum leaders were given a tough lesson, when art evacuation started only after the German invasion of France began in 1914. At the Louvre, steel-wall rooms were constructed, sandbags were installed, and underground bunkers were used to protect the art. Important works that could be moved were shipped by truck to Toulouse. By World War II, France had know-how from both World War I and the War of 1870, and eagerly planned as much as possible in advance of war.
France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, but no action took place for nearly a year within the country. This period was known as the drôle de guerre, the “funny war” or the “phony war.” As the Germans advanced further into France in 1940, Jaujard instituted a secondary wave of art evacuation to hiding places that were further south. The last art convoys crossed the Loire River only half a day before the bridges were closed to traffic or blown up by the Germans. The French were also communicating with London, and coded phrases were transmitted over BBC radio to let the Resistance know that its messages about the hidden locations of the art were received, with the radio announcer saying “The Mona Lisa has a smile,” “Van Dyck thanks Fragonard,” and similar communications.
Cultural Heritage Protection in Ukraine
In contrast, efforts to safeguard cultural sites—and the digital heritage relevant today—in Ukraine began predominantly after the Russian invasion commenced. The military buildup along the Russo-Ukrainian border began in March 2021, but Russia repeatedly denied that it planned to attack Ukraine. As late as February 21, 2022, Putin was using euphemisms, calling the Russian troops deployed to the Donbas as a “peacekeeping mission.” Ihor Poshyvailo, the founder of the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative and the director of the Maidan Museum in Kyiv, said that urging museums to protect their works in advance of a Russian assault could have caused “panic, and the general political message was we should prepare only on a military level.” On February 24, Putin officially announced a “special military action” against Ukraine in a surprise televised speech, “with reports of explosions and flares coming minutes afterward in Ukraine—including in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital,” leaving only minutes between the official declaration of war and the first strike against Ukraine.
There has been a deliberate policy decision to keep art inside Ukraine instead of shipping it to safe countries.
TheWashington Post reported that the effort to remove and hide the country’s art collections was done “desperately but carefully” by museum directors, gallerists, curators, and artists. Works of art were evacuated to museum bunkers, while artists and gallery directors were using whatever places they could for storage sites, including an underground café in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine. “Statues, stained-glass windows, and monuments are being covered with shrapnel-proof material. Basement bunkers are crammed with paintings,” the article’s writers described. In Odesa, a crew of volunteers stacked hundreds of sandbags around the Duke of Richelieu statue. Razor wire was put around the Odesa Fine Arts Museum.
In Lyiv, local volunteers worked rapidly to protect historical monuments in the old town, one of seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ukraine. The effort, according to Lilia Onyshchenko, who serves as the head of historical preservation for the city and spoke to the Los Angeles Times, involved using “whatever materials they could find—ideally fireproof.” She told them, “They built scaffolding around iconic structures, hoisted cranes to affix plywood to protect delicate stained-glass windows, stowed away gold-lacquered panels from the churches in basements and hallways and cached foam-wrapped artwork in bunkers.”
Marc Young, an experienced disaster relief operator, who assisted in bringing in vehicles for rescue efforts in Ukraine says, "Almost all cultural heritage sites, churches, and government buildings had some level of protection initially. Obviously it took some time after the bombing started to fortify them [with] sandbagging around foundations and boarding or corrugated metal covering of windows. This lasted for a short term at some sites in the West and Kyiv, as some had been removed during my three months. The 'protection' for the most part would have been from incidental contact. In my opinion a missile strike in close proximity would have rendered most of the efforts worthless. In Bucha and Irpin I did see indiscriminate damage that included churches and sites of historical importance."
Cities in eastern Ukraine did not have as much time as the ones further west. Kyiv and Kharkiv were hard hit, and artworks there could not be moved in time. The Washington Post reported that “the windows of Kharkiv’s main art museum have been blown out, subjecting the 25,000 artworks inside to freezing temperatures and snow for weeks. . . . Twenty-five works by one of Ukraine’s most celebrated painters, Maria Prymachenko, famed for her colorful representation of Ukrainian folklore and rural life, were burned when Russians bombed the museum housing them in a town outside Kyiv. Other museums in the capital are boarded up, their works still inside because those who would have evacuated them have fled.”
A new challenge in this conflict is the need to protect digital culture.
There has been a deliberate policy decision to keep art inside Ukraine instead of shipping it to safe countries. Tom Seymour, museums and heritage editor for The Art Newspaper who accompanied the International Council of Museums on a supply mission to the border of Poland and Ukraine says that the Ukrainian government “made the very conscious decision at the start of the war, and actually in the lead up to the war, that they were going to attempt to keep artifacts in Ukraine and even protect them in museums or if needs be, hide them in different parts of Ukraine, but not to evacuate them from the country as a whole.” Sophie Dellepiere, the head of heritage protection at the International Council of Museums, which is based in France, reiterated this in an Art Newspaper podcast, saying that her colleagues in Ukraine “were very, very, clear. Such evacuation, if there is one, will be the decision of the Ukraine Ministry of Culture.”
Nonetheless, organizations around the world have rallied to support Ukraine’s cultural organizations. At first, support came in the form of teaching materials and know-how. For example, conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recorded smartphone videos teaching Ukraine’s museum workers how to pack artworks or protect them in place. Museums outside Ukraine offered museum-quality storage locations if Ukraine decides to move its collections outside the country in the future. The International Council of Museums is assisting with transporting materials for the packing and protection of artworks—such as bubble wrap, wood crates, and casing—collected by museums in France, Spain, Italy, and other countries.
Corine Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, says that they are about to launch an on-the-ground effort to get equipment and supplies to cultural heritage organizations in Ukraine. It is a key area of need, says Wegener, “especially with the collections that have been evacuated and are being stored in areas more in the center of the country, and even as far west as Lviv. They need special treatment because they’re being stored in conditions that are not the normal.” The Cultural Rescue Initiative, with support from the US State Department, has also brokered a deal with the ride-sharing company Uber to provide vehicles for art conservators to travel between the different storage facilities around the country.
Ukraine’s decision to keep its artwork within the country is likely more than a matter of national pride. Time was certainly a factor, which includes the ability to assess who to trust. Sebastian Majstorovic, one of the founders of Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online, or SUCHO, spoke of “weird inquiries” the organization has received from people at the border volunteering to protect artworks. “You really don’t know who the bad actors are,” he says. But more important was likely the optics of such a move. Ian Brzezinski, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration says, that Ukraine “wouldn't want to signal to their own people or to the Russians, or for that matter to the international community, if they were unsure of their ability to defend themselves, or send a message that would undercut their effort to demonstrate commitment to defend themselves.”
New Challenges: Digital Preservation
A new challenge in this conflict is the need to protect digital culture. Majstorovic says, “in the last 20 years or so, an amazing amount of materials has been digitized” and backing them up is essential. But the landscape of online materials is complex—a website with a Ukrainian domain may not be hosted in Ukraine, whereas another one with a .org or .com address might be, and therefore more at risk. Majstorovic says, “Websites are run by people. And if people cannot take care of them, or the institutions where people work are destroyed, this is the danger.”
Brendan Ciecko, who runs a digital engagement company for museums and who has been volunteering for SUCHO, contends that “culture exists in many forms: tangible and intangible, and along with the threat of losing irreplaceable cultural heritage in its physical form, the same risk exists for digital culture: libraries, archives, online collections, manuscripts. If the original is destroyed and so is the digital reproduction, that cultural creation is lost forever.”
A truly multinational effort has emerged to preserve Ukraine’s digital culture, involving ordinary citizens from around the world. Four hundred people signed up to volunteer on the first day SUCHO announced its efforts in early March. Now, it has more than 1,300 volunteers backing up Ukraine’s online cultural presence using tools like Browsertrix, which archives a full site, and WebRecorder, which archives while a website is being navigated. So far, they have captured more than 50TB of data from 4,500+ websites, and have created duplicate backups. Volunteers are also uploading links to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.
SUCHO has also been organizing deliveries of digitization equipment to organizations in Ukraine and working with partners that are uploading cultural organizations’ hard drives full of “terabytes worth of art, cultural data, images, and digital exhibits” onto the secure cloud, acquiring cloud storage and support from Amazon Web Services, Wasabi, and others.
Ciecko says there is a need to update international policies and protocols. “There is an opportunity to appeal and contribute to the refinement of NATO’s Tallinn Manual (2.0), Rule 142, which pertains to digital cultural property, which in some way picks up where the 1954 Hague Cultural Property Convention left off, as digital, as we know it today, didn’t really exist in the 50s. Especially based on Russia’s deliberate attempts to attack and destroy Ukrainian cultural heritage both physically and digitally.”
Quinn Dombrowski, another cofounder of SUCHO, says additional time would have been useful and that a more concerted global effort to preserve digital culture is necessary. “We’ve certainly thought sometimes about how much easier this work would have been if we had started in January and could have been in touch with the people on the ground there. One of our ongoing challenges is staying in touch with people in Ukraine. Doing this reactively is a terrible model but also inspiring, . . . heartwarming,” she said about the outpouring of crowdsourced assistance. “And it also suggests a massive failure of infrastructure.” To that end, SUCHO has been talking with UNESCO and “pretty much anyone else who will listen” about setting up a global network to proactively archive websites in case of natural disasters and wars.
Looting in Ukraine
It is impossible to fully assess the extent of the looting taking place in Ukraine, but it is clear that systematic pillage is under way by Russian forces, along with deliberate attacks on cultural sites like museums, churches, and theaters. An investigation into Russian cross-border shipping by the independent Russian news site M’ediazona from May 26, 2022, has already concluded that 58 tons of looted goods have been sent from Ukraine to Russia by Russian soldiers since the beginning of the invasion. Concrete anecdotes are also available. On April 28, 2022, the Mariupol City Council posted on Telegram that the Russians had looted “more than 2,000 unique exhibits from the museums of Mariupol.” Among works the council said were taken include “original works by Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ivan Aivazovsky, ancient icons, and a unique handwritten Torah scroll made by the Venetian printing house for the Greeks of Mariupol, the Gospel of 1811, and more than 200 medals from the Museum of Medallion Art.”
Additional looting was reported in Melitopol, where an expert “in a white coat” arrived with Russian soldiers and intelligence officers to remove numerous gold artifacts from a museum, the beginning of what has become a clear pattern targeting Scythian gold. Curiously, art experts wearing white coats arrived on the first day when the Eisensztab Reichsleiter Rosenberg took over the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris. In both instances, the appearance of expertise was used to obscure the base nature of the looting activities.
The lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell, who specializes in claims concerning Nazi-looted works of art, says, “The Soviets and the Russians have always been quite candid that they view [looting] as a small token of what they’re entitled to for what they suffered, which is not in line with the international law on armed conflict or cultural property, but they don’t ask for anybody’s opinion.”
Although UNESCO condemned the attacks on Ukraine’s cultural heritage in a March 3, 2022 statement, expressing that the organization was “gravely concerned” with cultural and civilian damages incurred in the war thus far, it declined to cancel or relocate the World Heritage meeting scheduled for June in Russia even after criticism from its member nations. Russia itself finally proposed postponing the meeting indefinitely.
Documenting the Pillage
The German looting of art during World War II occurred in a very bureaucratic way, commencing from official directives and meticulously documented. All the art looted by the Eisensztab Reichsleiter Rosenberg was taken through the Jeu de Paume museum, where the works were inventoried. A photograph was taken of each artwork and a preformatted index card was filled out with the name of the artist, title of the work of art, when it was taken and from where, the size of the artwork, and other details. This documentation, later found by the Allied forces along with reports and eyewitness accounts of civil servants, served as evidence in military tribunals and for the restitution of artworks, which continues to this day.
Little to no progress has been made in Russia on restituting looted works of art from World War II.
Although it is unclear what documentation, if any, exists regarding art looting in Ukraine, some efforts are under way from a distance. The Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab, located inside the Virginia Museum of Natural History, is tracking cultural sites throughout Ukraine. The lab was founded in 2021 in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Cultural Rescue Initiative, and has been described as “the museum world’s version of a war room,” with computers, phones, and satellite feeds set up to monitor roughly 26,000 sites in Ukraine. Using the most cutting-edge technology, including infrared sensors, the lab is comparing military action against a map of the country’s cultural heritage inventory. Fortunately, these efforts began in 2021, long before the invasion began. Damian Koropeckyj, who is the team lead for Ukraine at the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab, said they’ve been focusing on eastern Ukraine and Crimea from the beginning, explaining that “we wanted to look there first to see if cultural heritage was being impacted during what I would describe as a warm conflict.”
Koropeckyj’s early research showed that monuments destroyed in military action were already being replaced by monuments in support of Russia. This discovery was the impetus to make an inventory of cultural heritage for the entire country, not just in eastern Ukraine, in anticipation of future escalation. When action appears to be close to a heritage site, the lab will either pull existing satellite images or direct a satellite to get new images. The lab alerts officials in Ukraine to damage as it happens, especially when action can be taken to protect the site from further destruction. The lab’s efforts also serve another purpose: documenting damage to Ukraine’s cultural sites can be used in the future to prove that war crimes were committed. Corine Wegener says, “the long-term goal is to keep a record of and documentation of this monitoring. So that 10 years from now, even, if there’s a determination that there will be a war crimes tribunal, that evidence is available to the prosecution. It’s available to all the parties to say here’s the evidence of what happened [and] it’s been kept with the strict chain of custody.”
Looking to the Future
It is believed that more than 100,000 pieces of Nazi-confiscated artworks have yet to be recovered. In the immediate post–World War II period, when asked to return works of art stolen from France, the official Russian response would invariably be that the works had been destroyed due to military activity. Little to no progress has been made in Russia on restituting looted works of art from World War II, despite policies created under Boris Yeltsin’s administration. Enforcement of legal judgments has generally failed. A 2009 report from the Holocaust Era Assets Conference concluded: “There are artworks that were looted from Jews and that remain in Russia’s museums, but there is no known case of restitution of such artwork.” Nicholas O’Donnell concurs, “I don’t know of anything since reunification, since the fall of the Soviet Union, that’s been returned to anybody. Quite the opposite, when it’s come up.”
Russia has actively fought restitution claims in US and European courts. It owes $180 million in a monetary judgment in New York for failing to return a library that belonged to the grand rabbi of the Chabad-Lubavitch organization. “The district court has been sanctioning and fining the Russian defendants for 10 years, fining Russia $50,000 a day until they complied. They haven’t. That order has been reduced to a monetary judgment, but there’s nowhere to collect it,” says O’Donnell.
A comparison from World War II to the present day suggests that despite numerous international agreements governing cultural property in war, Russia has not shown any intention to abide by them. Documentation of pillage and war crimes will be essential in any postwar tribunal or legal actions, but there are few recourses that can be leveraged to compel Russia to give back any loot. As history has shown, getting artwork back after it has been lost in war is a slow, bureaucratic process, even when the parties are willing—and Russia has already proven itself to be a most unwilling partner.
Michelle Young is an adjunct professor of architecture at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, where she received her master of science in urban planning. She is the author of a forthcoming book about art looted during World War II. Young is also a cum laude graduate of Harvard College with a degree in the history of art and architecture. She is the founder of the publication Untapped New York and the author of Secret Brooklyn, New York Hidden Bars & Restaurants, and Broadway.
Cover photo: Kyiv, Ukraine, March 29, 2022, volunteers cover the monument to Princess Olga, St. Andrew the Apostle, educators Cyril and Methodius with sandbags to protect it from Russian rocket shelling. Shutterstock/Mny-Jhee.
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