‘The Destruction of Memory’

Gillian Darley

In the words of Irina Bokova, the director-general of Unesco, the fate of World Heritage Sites – from the bridge at Mostar to the temples of Palmyra – ‘is not about just bricks and stones’ but ‘the way we see human civilisation developing’. Tim Slade’s new documentary film The Destruction of Memory, based on Robert Bevan’s book of the same name, is a measured indictment of the failure of international bodies to find the words for the crime of cultural vandalism, and so offer legal protection to important buildings in war zones.

In 1919 the Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on Enforcement of Penalties cited 32 criminal acts of war but ducked the one described as ‘wanton destruction of cultural property’. In 1933 the young Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, a Jew born in the Russian empire, proposed that the legal council of the League of Nations should add two new categories to the long list of existing international crimes. They were ‘acts of barbarity’ (to which he later gave the name of genocide) and ‘acts of vandalism’ (the destruction of cultural heritage). Lemkin’s proposals failed and he soon lost his job as a public prosecutor in Warsaw. On Kristallnacht in 1938, the Nazis’ physical desecration of Jewish buildings ratcheted up the intensity and menace of their racist campaign in Germany.

Lemkin believed that legislation was necessary because it is ‘not the job of the survivors to bring the perpetrators to justice’. In Bosnia and Kosovo, András Riedlmayer – a bibliographer at Harvard, and one of several heroes in Slade’s film – single-handedly covered the ground recording the loss of mosques and catholic churches, all deliberately targeted, it seemed, rather than having sustained collateral damage. Riedlmayer delivered his evidence to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague in 2002 and 2003. Yet on appeal, in April 2015, a panel of judges concluded that the ‘targeted destruction of mosques’ in Srebrenica ‘was not considered evidence or even intent of genocide’.

There isn’t a lot of good cheer in Slade’s film. Educating the military has had some success (the Smithsonian's Corine Wegener is another of the documentary's heroes); the recording and high tech documentation of vulnerable sites is ever more sophisticated; the traffic in antiquities that helped fund hostilities in the Middle East is now much curtailed. But the wrangles over the wording of legislation have left international law toothless in the face of innumerable acts of cultural vandalism. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict includes an enormous loophole which exempts cultural property from protection if its loss is ‘demanded by the necessities of war’.

In March this year, however, the International Criminal Court charged Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi with ‘intentionally delivering attack’ on ten buildings in Timbuktu. It’s a start.


  • 21 July 2016 at 6:39am
    cufflink says:
    There is no arguing with this vital blog but times change and our regard for the vestiges of cultural history is now under 'Data' siege. In a poplocracy almost everything of cultural significance is emotively possessed by some group or other; even a North London Zebra crossing.
    Walter Benjamin gives a protective warning of this in his essay 'The Destructive Character' - of such a personage I am somewhat fond.
    Let'a make room: Lets clear it away and start again: Give us more time and scope, shut the museum doors on Mondays.
    Heaven help me at aged 83.