I very seldom delve into the deep and meaningful on this blog, but seeing The Monuments Men a few weeks ago has moved me to go a little further into the philosophical than I would normally. But before we get to that, here’s some history of my own. When I was a kid, my parents would often talk with great nostalgia and admiration about a series of books they referred to as Vanished Pomps. As the years went by, I wondered who this mysterious Vanished Pomps might be. I always assumed the title was the stupid nom-de-plume of some sort of old-school detective and man of mystery, akin to the Scarlet Pimpernel or, well, Batman.
But no, as it turns out, The Days Before Yesterday; Here There, and Everywhere; and Vanished Pomps of Yesteryear were actually a series of books by Lord Frederick Spencer Hamilton, a former British diplomat and later MP. In the books, he tells of his experiences in the diplomatic service during the mid-to-late 19th century, as well as discussing what was at the time new and interesting information about other cultures and nations. The ‘pomps’ to which he refers are the lost splendours and excitement of 19th century imperial Europe, before it was wracked and changed forever by the First World War. As a source of information about pre-war Europe this series is absolutely a must-read – we don’t learn this stuff at school for one thing, but it’s also fascinating to read it from the pages of someone who was there. As for Mum and Dad – they found this series to be so enjoyable and so historically significant that over the last 20 years or so, they collected enough sets of the books to give one to each of their five children when we leave home.
Efforts like this are seen everywhere, on large and small scales. Museums and art galleries exhibit art and artefacts both modern and ancient, authors write down fact and fiction to see it preserved and available for generations to come, and the internet has become a repository for the banal but also the fascinating. And so, when a film like The Monuments Men comes along, I rejoice, because it celebrates people who were willing to sacrifice rather a lot to see history and culture preserved, and bluntly states why that preservation is so important.
The eponymous men of that film were out to preserve hundreds of years of European cultural history – that is, the very history of the Western world – that was, at that time, not nearly as well documented and accessible as it is now. The argument for this preservation is stated by George Clooney as Lieutenant Frank Stokes – “If you destroy an entire generation of people’s culture, it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants, and it’s the one thing we can’t allow.” So, the film’s argument is that culture is more than just people and unwritten memories. It’s the things people value – their art, their history, the very evidence and documentation of their existence, even their language – that creates a culture.
I was somewhat frustrated to encounter a discussion about whether the preservation of art and history was actually important. I say, of course it is. That’s our history. In the context of the Second World War, Hitler wanted everything destroyed if he couldn’t steal it, and so I’d have said it was plainly obvious that he had to be stopped. Much of what was stolen by the Nazis came from private Jewish collections as another angle of the Holocaust. Steal the Jews’ stuff and even if they escape, they have nothing to come back to. Destroy the evidence of their existence and they become nobody.
This destruction of culture is not alone in history. One of the tragedies of indigenous Australia was the complete disregard by many early Australian settlers for indigenous culture and history. The destruction of sites of significance, the tragic separation of children from their families, and the compulsory use of English over other languages caused a cultural vacuum for indigenous people in Australia that is still now in evidence. Fortunately, successive policymakers have recognised that there were huge injustices done throughout this nation’s history, and there are now efforts to restore what was lost during the colonial era and at least half of the 20th century in Australia. The people who consider Western history less than worthy of preservation should be mindful of these belated moves towards restoration of indigenous culture and heritage to its rightful owners.
When I was still at school, we studied a play called Translations, by respected Irish playwright, Brian Friel. The play concerns the clash of Irish and English cultures and the barriers put up by the unwillingness of the English to learn Irish, and vice versa, in 1833 during the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. The romantic and idealistic Lieutenant Yolland despairs at the Anglicisation of Irish placenames, arguing that doing so serves to take away the culture of the Irish who have lived there for generations. Throughout the play, it is made obvious that the culture of the Irish is being lost through the shift towards English as a first language; the imposition of English standards of mapping and education also contribute to this.
Ironically, it is through history that we find evidence of a desire for historical preservation. To use an example from Vanished Pomps himself, Lord Frederick Spencer Hamilton – he notes a certain sadness about the demolition of old buildings in Berlin to be replaced with much more modern frontages. As an aside, it’s worth bearing in mind ‘modern’ here means mid-19th century, so the buildings we now consider to be classic and beautiful were once considered to be garish and ugly. Funny how this repeats itself every time new architectural styles become fashionable. But there’s a truth to his reminiscences – the Western Australian nickel boom of the 1960s led to the Victorian era buildings of Perth’s St George’s Terrace being demolished in favour of 1960s modernist monstrosities. Tragic, really. But I do digress.
I would argue that it is extremely short sighted to suggest that the preservation of history and culture in a time of war is unimportant. It’s all well and good to liberate people from oppression, but if you don’t save their history then a significant part of their culture is lost. The Monuments Men may not have been a great film (though I rather enjoyed it), but its heart is in the right place, and it’s a story that is worth being told. Personally, I applaud George Clooney for making it heard.