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The Good War! or: The Things We Lost in the Fires

(All week, we’re dedicating On Violence to Dresden, the most famous city destroyed in Germany. Michael C promised, in Wednesday’s post, that we would respond to the question: is bombing civilians in war time ethical? I don’t think war is ethical, so obviously killing people who aren’t a part of the conflict isn’t either. I will, however, discuss an issue that’s bugged me ever since I studied Dresden in high school.

To read all our posts on A Week of Human Tragedy: The Firebombing of Dresden, please click here.)

It is safe to say that American loves “The Good War”.

During Word War II, according to the traditional, grossly over-simplified narrative, American soldiers saved Europe from death and destruction. Between Captain America: The First Avenger and Inglorious Basterds, between every History or Military channel documentary and every comic book, film and video game that uses Nazis as stock villains who only exist to be killed, we’ve disregarded a basic truth:

World War II was a war, and war is always awful.

Though I could, I don’t want to write about the people who died in Dresden or World War II. I want to write about the things we destroyed. This may seem odd. Death trumps destruction every time. How could you compare people dying to buildings or artworks being destroyed. I’m not. The unspeakable evil that was Dresden was the murder of innocent civilians that Michael C covered on Tuesday.


Still, World War II destroyed art. We--and by “we”, I mean humanity--destroyed priceless things. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” miraculously survived a bomb blast that cratered all four walls of its building except the one that “The Last Supper” was on.

But that was one of the only victories, for art, during the war. We lost countless pieces of art to Hitler’s pillaging armies. One of Hitler’s goals was to create the greatest collection of art in the world, which meant stealing them from the rest of the world, even “degenerate” works of art. The allies even created the Monument Men organization to protect art. We lost Van Gogh’s "The Lovers: The Poet’s Garden IV" to Nazi plundering, and it hasn’t been found since.

Firebombing destroyed countless more works of art than the Nazis though:

- Courbet’s “The Stone Breakers” was stolen by the Nazis along with 154 other paintings. In February 1945, the Allies bombed the Nazi stronghold where the Germans kept it.

- Nazi bombings in 1944 destroyed "The Destruction of Niobe’s Children" by Richard Wilson.

- Three more Van Gogh paintings were lost to fire. "Vase With Five Sunflowers" was destroyed during the firebombing of Tokyo. "The Painter on his Way to Work" and "The Park at Arles with the Entrance Seen Through the Trees" were destroyed by fires in Berlin in 1945.

- 3,000 year old Syrian statues were destroyed by an Ally bombing in 1943.

- "St. James Led to His Execution" by Andrea Mantegna was destroyed in 1944 after the Allies bombed an Italian chapel.

For me, none of these were the biggest losses. As I was researching this post, I came across this link to the Clark Photography and Clipping Archive of Masterpieces destroyed during World War II “...that represent the only remaining documentation of important works of art---art that was destroyed before high quality color photography became the standard for documenting art.”

As I was flipping through the photos researching this post, I saw them, fifth and sixth from the left, top row on the third page. Those who know him and love him know exactly who uses that signature patterned collage technique: Gustav Klimt. In total, we lost 12 Klimt paintings during World War II, destroyed by fires set by retreating German troops.

All of which pales in comparison to losing the artistic value of entire cities. Because of the German Blitz, we lost the city of Coventry. Nazi bombings destroyed most of that city’s interior and the glorious Coventry cathedral.

In response, the Allies destroyed, “The city [that] was known as the Jewel Box, because of its baroque and rococo city centre.” We lost dozens of the most beautiful building ever built in Europe’s grand architectural history, including “the beautiful Kreuzkirche (Church of the Holy Cross)” and its library of sheet music.

As I wrote earlier, World War II was a war. And in war, art suffers. From the barbarian armies defacing Greek and Roman statues to the looting of the Baghdad National Museum during the invasion of Iraq to Islamic extremists destroying ancient Buddhist statues, war means the destruction of great art. It is just another one of the many costs we never think about.

two comments

I think this goes with Eric C’s theme that war is the opposite of civilization. As war goes, the work of civilizations is destroyed. So much is lost, in addition to life, infrastructure and culture. This is still a reality in Iraq, which is still recovering, unfortunately.

It’s amazing. I tend to consider the loss of life as the cost of war, but never really considered the cultural cost or the cost to our collective history. I remember the cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine when I visited. Only one of the original spires is still standing; the rest destroyed by artillery during WWII. It’s been rebuilt and renovated, but it’s not the same.