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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Morgan

Monumental Loss

Why tyrants fear art

In August of 1944, governance of occupied Paris was handed to a Nazi general, Dietrich von Choltitz, with one particular and direct order from Hitler: Paris “must not fall into the enemy’s hand except lying in complete rubble”. Choltitz was ordered, in the case of Allied forces regaining the city, to utterly destroy all of its religious and historic monuments, from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame.

Hitler had faith that Paris would immolate if he lost it for himself. He had placed a man in charge who had unhesitatingly played a part in the levelling of other cities, from the bombardment of Rotterdam to the siege of Sevastopol, and in the “liquidation” of the Jews. Hitler told Choltitz, “You will receive from me all the support you need,” which German high command manifested in artillery reinforcements and enough demolition units to blow up the city’s forty-five bridges and demolish its landmarks.

Late in August, however, Hitler’s confidence collapsed when he was informed that Allied forces had reached the centre of Paris and with relative ease. According to the diary of one general present at that day’s strategic conference, “Hitler immediately exploded in one of those bursts of anger which become more and more frequent.” He hollered about having made every preparation for the city to be destroyed. Then he turned to his Chief of Staff and screamed, “Brennt Paris?” – Is Paris burning? The answer was a defiant no. Rather than execute his order, Choltitz had surrendered Paris to Free French Forces, the resistance group and government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle.

We are confronted with an obvious question: Why was the order ignored? Choltitz himself gave three reasons for his subterfuge, which were that he saw the blatant military futility of the action (no doubt a form of sacrilege to the general), that he believed Hitler to be insane, and that he loved the French capital’s culture and history. No doubt this final explanation would be enough reason for any of us – gazing on Notre Dame, or the pyramids, or a collection of art from antiquity, and handed the detonator – to defy authority. Perhaps we can grant that even a Nazi might be susceptible to the influence of awe and transcendence. This question of why the order was defied, though resolvable, leads us to a greater mystery: Why was the order given?

Of course, the easy answer is that Hitler’s mind was as sound as German currency after the First World War and his ego equally inflated, but let’s expand our view from the specific to the general. Hitler was not alone in a desire to destroy cultural artefacts of “the enemy”. To the shame of humanity, many of the others succeeded where he failed.

“Who are we to drink up the sea?”

~ Nietzsche

In central Syria, the city of Palmyra – mentioned in historical documents from as early as 2nd century BC – has seen its way through the changing of hands many times, including the now two occasions since 2015 that it was occupied by ISIS. Like sightseers determined to take in every landmark of a new city, the ISIS thugs sought every chance to wreak as much damage as possible. ISIS claim they find representational art offensive (“claim” because the moment a thing becomes expedient for them you can be sure it will cease to be offensive). After pledging to destroy statues and monuments it deemed polytheistic or otherwise idolatrous, ISIS placed explosives in the Temple of Baalshamin, which dates back to the 2nd century AD and was considered one of the most complete ancient structures in Palmyra, and blew it up. This has been the tactic employed in every location they have occupied, taking up hammers, axes, bulldozers, bombs, and ignorant minds against works of art, museums, mosques, and churches.

The Lion of Al-Lat is an impressive creature: Carved in stone more than 2,000 years ago and standing twice as tall as a mere human, he was placed as guard in front of the Temple of Al-Lat. On his left paw is a Palmyrene inscription: “May Al-Lat bless whoever does not spill blood on this sanctuary.” The deity’s blessing was disregarded by the 4th century Christian fundamentalists who, persecuting pagans in the late Roman Empire, sacked the temple by destroying its altar and desecrating the cult statue, decapitating her, gouging her eyes and smashing her nose, before engraving a cross into the stone of her forehead. After this, the lion slept for over a century beneath the sands, until it was discovered in pieces during the seventies. Reconstructed, it stood again as a proud emblem of the city, this time guarding the Palmyra Museum. When ISIS moved in, they attempted to destroy the statue (it has since been restored) and succeeded in looting and smashing to pieces what remained inside the museum, in the name of suppressing sin and disseminating their own primitive values.

It would be wrong – ungrateful and another act of cultural loss – not to note Khaled al-Asaad, whom anyone with a love of culture ought to regard as a hero. Al-Asaad was a Syrian archaeologist and head of antiquities for Palmyra until 2015, when ISIS militants captured and tortured him for almost a month in a vain attempt to force him to reveal the whereabouts of hidden artefacts. He never gave them up. He was then publicly beheaded, his body eventually strung up by the wrists to a Roman column, a monument of the ancient world to which al-Asaad had devoted his life. A sign strapped around his waist accused him of apostasy and serving as the “director of idolatry”. Khaled al-Asaad was 83. His life and its end defy the barbarism of ISIS by showing that we love culture and history and art and humanity more than they love death.


To the nihilism of ISIS can be added many figures and movements throughout history who, through the totalitarian impulse to censor the other and impose one’s own system, attempted to assert dominance through cultural destruction. Francoist Catalonia suffered attempts to control the region through the White Terror, the repression of Catalan culture used as a “cleansing of society” so that Franco’s ultranationalist doctrine could take hold. The Nazis tried to purge their society of “degenerate art” and replace it with the state-endorsed propaganda that came out of chambers, organisations of individual arts from film to literature. Goebbels made clear that “only those who are members of a chamber are allowed to be productive in our cultural life”. The French Revolution – that manically productive period that gave France political upheaval, intense bloodshed, and culmination in Napoleonic dictatorship – systematically destroyed monuments to the past and stripped churches of their artwork and grandeur.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, had a tougher time of it – blow up Notre Dame and that’s that, but god knows how many copies of a given book may have been printed, and there is nothing so frightening to the totalitarian strain in religious thought as the written word. There is a perverse logic to this phobia, given the holy prominence afforded to scripture in many faiths. But it is easy for a single Evangelical household to ban Harry Potter from its bookshelves or even for a whole congregation to burn the Qur'an to make clear its point (“We are ignorant and intend to remain so,” or something like that). How should a growing, multinational religious organisation handle the cultural artefacts of worldviews that don’t toe the theological line? In lieu of a good old book burning, with printing presses churning out texts in large numbers, the church turned from confiscation to condemnation. As Ray Bradbury put it, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) first appeared in 1529 in primitive form (perhaps “early form” is more apt, given that the thing by its nature was always primitive). The Index grew in tandem with the flourishing of publications as a result of Gutenberg’s refinements to the printing press. The Index was a growing list of texts deemed heretical or contrary to Catholic sensibilities about morality and which no good believer was permitted to read. This list could only work provided the church had, as it did, control over the minds of the faithful. With that authority in place, it did not have to actually burn any books or destroy any monuments; they simply instructed every devoted follower to look away.

Among the writers and works that devout Catholics were forbidden to read were Ovid, Milton, and Martin Luther (who show us the development of myth and its place in our culture), Copernicus (our place in the cosmos), Descartes, Spinoza, Diderot, and Voltaire (who we are and who we might be), as well as Flaubert, Zola, Balzac, and Victor Hugo. If you read your way through the list, you would receive a thorough education in humanism and Western civilisation. The Index was abolished in 1966, most likely in defeat at the sheer number of contemporary books being published each week. The devil’s work is never done, but happily this work of the church is now finished.

“Totalitarian Truth excludes relativity, doubt, questioning; it can never accommodate what I would call the spirit of the novel.”

~ Milan Kundera

Francoise Rabelais created amongst his many neologisms the term “agelast”, meaning a humourless person who never laughs. It was the calumny of such types that almost drove Rabelais to give up writing. This category of character was revived perceptively by Milan Kundera in application to the apparatchiks of Communist Czechoslovakia, and in doing so he pointed out that the agelast and the novelist (and by extension all artists) are forever in conflict. “One of the beginnings of human emancipation,” Christopher Hitchens once said, “is the ability to laugh at authority.” Comedy begins with truth; jokes fall flat when they do not resonate with some honest experience but instead ring out with hollow insincerity.

The agelast is more than merely a person who cannot laugh, they also cannot tolerate the laughter of others. The agelast is a tyrant. Insisting that if they cannot make sense of the joke, the joke cannot be told, they seek to impose order where it is the very lack of order that is the point. The difference between the sermon and the novel, the pamphlet and short story, propaganda and art (notwithstanding Orwell) is the divide between the known and the felt. When the intellect has gone as far as it can, art takes you further with feeling. This is the ineffable, the numinous, the transcendent quality that makes art so valuable – and so dangerous to those who seek control. Those forces that attempt to annihilate other cultures only create through destruction, perversely seeking order (excessive, totalitarian order) through chaos. This is as far as such tyrants go with paradox and irony, which for them are forms of chaos so confusing and challenging that they reject them as dangers to their authority. And they are not wrong – the creative chaos of irony and art is fundamentally opposed to tyrannical order.

Just as there is a perpetual struggle and required balance between chaos and order, there is a constant conflict between the literal and the ironic minds. This is perhaps as profound and foundational a feature of both individual and community life as can be found. We each engage in this struggle between the need to seek ordered knowing of our external and internal worlds and the need to yield to chaotic experience. This has been expressed as the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian (by Nietzsche) and as the conflict between the artist and the tyrant (by Kundera). Totalitarianism is the expression of order with no ballasting chaos. It seeks to perpetuate itself, as order is a totalising phenomenon: the closer it approaches Platonic perfection, the less it can tolerate its antithesis. So the tyrant seeks to make the world in his image.

Such totalitarians exist in our personal and our public lives. Many of us have known the person who, outraged that the world is not as they want it to be and incapable of modifying themselves to fit, insist that the world change to suit them. These are the people whom we regard as “high maintenance”. At the larger, public level, these are the social groups who ban books and impose legislation based on their personal whims. These whims are often of a religious nature but are motivated by personality and then justified by a dogma made to measure. At the most macro of levels, we see these inflexible tyrants in movements such as Fascism and Nazism. When they try to change the world to fit them, culture is often the primary target.

“Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”

~ Susan Orlean

In Schindler’s List, Commandant Goeth tells his soldiers, as they prepare for the “liquidation” of the Jewish ghetto, that for six hundred years here in Poland the Jews “prospered in business, science, education, the arts ... For six centuries there has been a Jewish Krakow”. With a decisive note that articulates the greater Nazi program of cultural purging, he says, “By this evening, those six centuries are a rumour. They never happened. Today is history.” There is a kind of victory in which what matters is the scale of one’s success, as seen in tales of the fish that was “this big”. The defeated is praised for their valour, strength, or intellect, as part of a humble-brag suggesting that if they were that good, the victor must be this good. Then there is the victory that is a total defeat of the other, in which nothing can be conceded, no compliment proffered. In this case, there is no victory and no defeat, because the result is the retroactive annihilation of the vanquished. The reason for this, if you’ll forgive another quotation from cinema, is expressed well by Frank Stokes in The Monuments Men:

“You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they will still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That is what Hitler wants and that is exactly what we are fighting for.”

The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program – members of which were colloquially known as Monuments Men – was an initiative begun in 1943 in an effort to preserve and retrieve art from the Nazis. Museum director Paul Sachs, who was instrumental in setting this initiative in motion, made an eloquent case for why such a project had not only validity but urgency even in the midst of horrific bloodshed:

“If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall away and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we… must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future. Art is the imperishable and dynamic expression of these aims.”

In this inheritance and potential we find a plurality of ways to live, of approaches to the universe and to the deepest questions of existence. The enemies of culture do not require that plurality as they already have, or so they claim, the answer to everything. The Nazis and their racial solutions, the Catholic Church and its dogma, every political and religious fundamentalist with a one-size-fits-all answer, they all fear defiance to their authority. Art and culture are the most potent challenges to such tyranny.

Paul Sachs added to his defence of culture, “[Art] is, and always has been, the visible evidence of the activity of free minds.” This is what the struggle between those who would build and those who would destroy comes down to: nothing less than freedom itself. The freedom to think, to live, to flourish, to create, and quite simply to be. Art is a form of and commit to resistance against injustice and ignorance. This is why tyrants fear art; more importantly, it is why we should do everything we can to preserve it.


• Dominque Lapierre, Is Paris Burning? (1965)

• Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883)

• Milan Kundera, The Art of The Novel (1986)

• Christopher Hitchens, BBC Newsnight Special (2010)

• Susan Orlean, The Library Book (2018)

Schindler’s List, dir. Steven Spielberg (1994)

The Monuments Men, dir. George Clooney (2014)

• Robert M Edsel, The Monuments Men (2009)

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