Cloth Hall at Ypres, ca. 1916-1918, unknown British war photographer, National Library of Scotland, CC BY

Humans have always been at war. It is our instinct to protect ourselves, to neutralise perceived threats. We often harm those we think of as enemies by destroying the symbols they hold dear; a church or monument devastated by explosives is a blow straight to the heart of the community that has grown around it. It isn’t just stone, mortar and glass that are being destroyed; centuries of stories, tradition and security are lost. Crushing spirits, instilling fear, splintering communities - these are military tactics. But the amazing thing about the human spirit is that even when badly damaged, it grows again.

Europe - a continent brutalised by two world wars

In the first half of the 20th century, as well as suffering an immense human toll, Europe’s cultural heritage sites were ravaged by two world wars. Here are just a few examples.

In World War I, Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral in France was severely damaged. It had no military significance but a great cultural one, having hosted the coronations of many French monarchs. The bombing damaged French morale as well as the building but both were soon reconstructed. It was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1991 and remains a major tourist destination.

The town of Ypres in Belgium, including its churches, Town Hall and Cloth Hall, was almost entirely destroyed in World War I as it held a strategic position in the path the Germans wanted to take into Belgium and then France.

Over five days in August 1915, German troops burned and looted the town of Leuven in Belgium, executing 248 civilians and destroying many buildings, including the university and medieval library.

Work on rebuilding the library started in 1921 and took seven years, funded largely by Americans, including Herbert Hoover (who later became president of the United States). Tragically, the new library was burnt down again in World War II. It was rebuilt and opened again in 1951. 

Use the slider below to compare images of the library after the bombardment and after its restoration.

(left) Leuven. The library, unknown author, Ghent University Library, CC BY-SA | (right) The University of Leuven Library. Watercolor evoking the future aspect of the building, designed by architects Whitney Warren and Charles D. Wetmore, Ghent University Library, CC BY-SA

Following the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, an operation to liberate Warsaw from German occupation led by the Polish underground resistance and the Home Army, about 85% of Poland’s capital Warsaw was destroyed by the Nazis.

Ruins of Warsaw, 1939, unknown photographer, The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, CC BY-NC-ND
Ruins of Warsaw, 1939, unknown photographer, The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, CC BY-NC-ND

In 2011 the Warsaw animation firm Platige were commissioned by the Warsaw Rising Museum to created the world’s first digital stereoscopic reconstruction of a city destroyed during World War II. The film depicts an aerial flyover of the razed city after the 1944 Uprising. The visualisation was created using aerial imagery and photographs found in museum collections as references, and took over a year to complete. Click the link below the image to watch the trailer:

In an astounding endeavour, the Old Town, including its market, city walls, Royal Castle and religious buildings, has since been restored. UNESCO calls it ‘an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.’

Old Town Market Square in Warsaw, 2012, Adrian Grycuk, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
Old Town Market Square in Warsaw, 2012, Adrian Grycuk, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The Parthenon - the near collapse of an ancient icon

The Parthenon in Greece is among the most iconic buildings in the world and an enduring symbol of Classical design and Ancient Greece. Conflict and war are built into its every stone.

It was constructed between 447-432 BCE as a temple to the goddess Athena and a symbol of Hellenic victory over the Persians, as it replaced an earlier building destroyed by Persian invasion in 480 BCE.

Over the centuries, the Parthenon acted not just as a temple, but as Athens’ treasury, then as a Christian church (from 590 CE), then 800 years later following the Ottoman conquest, as a mosque.

During the Great Turkish War (1683-1699), the Ottoman Turks used the Parthenon as a gunpowder store. In November 1687, ignited by a mortar round fired by Venetians, the gunpowder stores exploded, 300 people were killed and the building, with its sculptures, friezes and columns, suffered the enormous damage that is still visible today.

But there was a positive to this, albeit around a century later. As people began to travel further around Europe in the 18th century, the ruins of the Parthenon drew artists and archaeologists whose works, including the first measured drawings of the Parthenon, inspired a rise in the love of Greek culture and so helped encourage sympathy for Greek independence.

Stari Most - a symbol of unity destroyed and rebuilt

Built in 1566 and destroyed on 9 November 1993, the hump-backed Stari Most (Old Bridge), bridges the river Neretva in the city of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unusually, it was the bridge that gave the city its name, not the other way around.

Mostar, 1924, Frank Brangwyn, KIK-IRPA, Brussels, CC BY-NC-SA
Mostar, 1924, Frank Brangwyn, KIK-IRPA, Brussels, CC BY-NC-SA

The bridge designed by architect Mimar Sinan was considered a jewel of Islamic heritage and was destroyed by around 60 Croat shells during the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Likely to have been targeted because of its strategic importance, its destruction was also a deliberate cultural attack, as the bridge connected the Muslim and Christian communities on either side of the river.

The bridge was reconstructed using local limestone and Ottoman techniques and completed in July 2004. People from both sides of the conflict worked side by side to piece it back together. UNESCO says, ‘The Old Bridge area, with its pre-Ottoman, eastern Ottoman, Mediterranean and western European architectural features, is an outstanding example of a multicultural urban settlement. The reconstructed Old Bridge and Old City of Mostar is a symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities.’

Four Courts, Dublin - 400 years of lost history

The Four Courts are a Dublin landmark. Built in the late 18th century, the building houses four courts and occupies a prominent position on the River Liffey.

From 1867 onwards, administrative, court and probate records were collected and archived by the Public Records Office of Ireland, housed in the building’s west wing. These records were an irreplaceable cultural resource highlighting centuries of Irish social and cultural history and genealogy. Sadly, nearly all were lost during the Irish Civil War.

On 30 June 1922, at the beginning of the war, the National Army attacked an anti-Treaty force which had occupied the Four Courts since April of that year. After days of fighting, the force surrendered, but not before an explosion (the cause of which is still debated) occurred that caused the buildings to be destroyed by fire.

The interior of the Four Courts was seriously damaged and the central dome collapsed. Seven centuries of Ireland’s recorded history, including census returns, original wills dating to the 16th century, and parish registers filled with baptism, marriage and burial records were lost.

A gentleman standing in the ruins of part of the Four Courts, 1922, W.D. Hogan, UCD School of History and Archives, CC BY-NC-SA
A gentleman standing in the ruins of part of the Four Courts, 1922, W.D. Hogan, UCD School of History and Archives, CC BY-NC-SA