MFAA Officer James Rorimer supervises U.S. soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle.
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Following the Nazi plunder of works of art, seventeen nations and the French National Committee signed a joint declaration condemning the Nazi plunder of cultural property, which served as n partially successful impetus for attempts at restitution of art works pillaged by the Germans.
In 1942, the President of the Archaeological Institute of America, the President of the College Art Association, and the Directors of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Washington’s National Gallery of Art approached Harlan F. Stone, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, with a proposal to establish a government commission to protect and salvage European artistic and historical monuments. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Commission on June 23, 1943, with Associate Justice Owen J. Roberts as its chair. The Commission cooperated with the U.S. Military program known as Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) to protect cultural treasures, gather information about war damage to such treasures, and compile data on cultural property appropriated by the Axis Powers, encouraging its return. The commission assisted the War Department by providing maps of European cities and towns that highlighted significant monuments and religious sites in order to spare them from bombing. In Britain, Prime Minister Churchill approved a parallel committee in the spring of 1944. The Commission was abolished on 30 June 1946.
The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program was established under the Civil Affairs Division of the Army to protect cultural materials in war areas. Like all sections of the Allied military government, the MFAA was composed nearly equally of American and British officers whose backgrounds were not as military officers but as art historians, architects, artists, archaeologists and archivists. Derided by some in the military as “the Venus Fixers,” the MFAA’s mission to preserve historic buildings and cultural treasures was often questioned by officers such as General Mark Clark, who declared with frustration that fighting in Italy amounted to conducting war “in a goddamn museum.”
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.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
General U.S. Army,
Letter, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief, AFH to All Commanders, Subject: Historic Monuments, December 29, 1943, File: CAD 000.4 (3-25-43) (1), Sec. 2, Security Classified General Correspondence, 1943-July 1949, General Records, Civil Affairs Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165.
[Directive, Eisenhower to All Commanders]
SUBJECT: Preservation of Historical Monuments.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
General, U.S. Army
Memorandum, Dwight D. Eisenhower, General, U.S. Army to G.O.C. in Chief, 21 Army Group; Commanding General, 1st U.S. Army Group; Allied Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force; and Air C-in-C, Allied Expeditionary Force, Subject: Preservation of Historical Monuments, May 26, 1944, File: 751,Numeric File Aug 1943-July 1945, Records of the Secretariat, Records of the G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331.
The Agreement for the Prosecution and Punishment of the Major War Criminals of the European Axis, and Charter of the International Military Tribunal adopted in London on 8 August 1945, established the Nuremberg Tribunal. Article II.6 (b) makes it a principle of international humanitarian law that the “plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity” are to be considered war crimes and that those who participate in the formulation or execution of a plan to commit such crimes will be subject to trial and punishment by the International Military Tribunal.