General Dwight D. Eisenhower as protector of cultural heritage

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The cumulative weight and momentum of General Marshall’s mid-October admonition about the importance of protecting Italy’s cultural treasures, followed by successive warnings from McCloy and Woolley and the reports of Monuments officers themselves, finally produced a change.

On December 29, General Eisenhower Eisenhower issued a directive that placed the responsibility of protecting cultural property squarely upon the shoulders of every commander and, in turn, every officer and every soldier.

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It also, for the first time, introduced the Monuments officers (referenced as “A.M.G. officers”—Allied Military Government) to everyone in uniform.  Here is Eisdenhower’s directive:

To: All Commanders Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows. If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the building must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase “military necessity” is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference. It is a responsibility of higher commanders to determine through A.M.G. Officers the locations of historical monuments whether they be immediately ahead of our front lines or in areas occupied by us. This information passed to lower echelons through normal channels places the responsibility of all Commanders of complying with the spirit of this letter.

signed: DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER

Ike’s directive was bold; it was concise; and it was now official policy. His Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, issued an accompanying order that provided more specific details on how this new policy should be implemented.

Woolley remarked that Ike’s words “made it clear that the responsibility for the protection of monuments lay with the army as a whole and not with the [Monuments officer] specialist.”

Even Churchill weighed in on the matter: “The weakness of the Monuments and Fine Arts organization in the past was . . . due to the fact that it had . . . depended on an external civilian body not in touch with the Army. . . . The new arrangements which have been worked out in the light of experience are well calculated to promote, as far as military exigencies allow, a more effective effort to protect historical monuments of first importance in the future.”

Many problems lay ahead for implementing this new order. Mistakes would continue. The order would be put to the test in a major way within just six weeks.

But it marked the turning point for the Monuments officers and their work. For the first time since Mason Hammond had landed in Sicily, the Monuments Men had the backing of the Commander-in-Chief. Their work contributed greatly to the experience Eisenhower would take with him to England to plan the invasion of Western Europe as the newly appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force.

 

Edsel, Robert M.. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis (p. 68). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

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