When Books Burn: Libraries, Looting, And The Destruction Of Culture In Conflict

“Throughout Bosnia, libraries, archives, museums and cultural institutions have been targeted for destruction, in an attempt to eliminate the material evidence – books, documents and works of art – that could remind future generations that people of different ethnic and religious traditions once shared a common heritage in Bosnia.” (Andras Riedlmayer)

In 1992, Bosnia’s National and University Library was destroyed. It was the victim of targeted shelling, its staff members subject to relentless sniper fire as they attempted to rescue volumes from the burning institution. Prior to its destruction, the library had been one of Bosnia’s most culturally significant buildings. It “…held 1.5 million volumes, including over 155,000 rare books and manuscripts; the country’s national archives; deposit copies of newspapers, periodicals and books published in Bosnia; and the collections of the university of Sarajevo,” (Riedlmayer, p.7). The library was targeted as part of a larger conflict, with a view to eliminating Bosnia’s unique cultural heritage.

The destruction of cultural institutions as a weapon of war has a history almost as long as the history of conflict itself. Spanning back into the BCs, libraries and archives have been the victim of targeted elimination by invaders, coup leaders, and monarchical usurpers. Destroying libraries is one of the easiest and quickest means of sending a message of terror and communicating entry into a new religious, ethnic, or cultural era. This targeted cultural destruction has also defied almost all attempts at international regulation.

Book Burning

I first became interested in the destruction of libraries and archives whilst working toward a PhD in human rights. Although my specialisations were international criminal law and transitional justice, I hadn’t really touched the cultural aspects of warfare – that is until the International Criminal Court (ICC) started the prosecution of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi was a militant for the group Ansar Dine, a Tuareg Islamist group operating in Mali. He was the first person to be prosecuted by the ICC specifically for the targeted destruction of cultural heritage in conflict. Although al-Mahdi was found guilty for the destruction of ten religious and historical monuments, the campaign in Timbuktu also witnessed the decimation of the city’s Ahmed Baba Institute (Timbuktu Library). The building was burnt and over 20,000 manuscripts destroyed. Al-Mahdi’s prosecution in 2016 was, therefore, an incredibly important development for the way in which sites of cultural significance are viewed and protected. Under Article 8(2) of the Rome Statute (the ICC’s founding document and the Statute that controls its operations), the destruction of sites of cultural significance – including notable libraries and archives – is a war crime. Upon sentencing al-Mahdi to nine years in prison – in addition to a €2.7 million reparations order – the ICC offered its rationale:

“…because of their purpose and symbolism, most cultural property and cultural heritage are unique and of sentimental value. Their destruction thus carries a message of terror and helplessness; destroys part of humanity’s shared memory and collective consciousness, and renders humanity unable to transmit it value and knowledge to future generations.” (ICC)

Taking this view of cultural heritage – as the physical embodiment of humanity’s capacity to transmit cultural knowledge – the significance of libraries in conflict becomes all the more apparent. Although the destruction of libraries and archives far predates the 20th century – the destruction of monastic libraries in England at the time of Henry VIII’s reformation is one well-known example – attempts to outlaw the use of this destruction as a tool of conflict were largely the result of World War II. For most of us familiar with book burning in war, the pyres of Nazi Germany are an image almost universally recallable. History textbooks abound with images of SS soldiers and Hitler Youth stood next to flaming piles of books, extracted from libraries, institutions, and homes. Yet Nazi Germany’s systematic attack against its national libraries and the collections of occupied countries was more than an effort in censorship. In large part, confiscated works were retrieved to further the government’s anti-Semitic research. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) was a group assigned to the task of appropriating cultural property – including books written by Jewish authors – for the ‘Institute for Research into the Jewish Question’. Hundreds of thousands of books and pieces of archival material were extracted across Europe for this purpose, in a mass looting of unimaginable scale. It was an organised effort, the consequences of which are still felt today, as institutions work to retrieve and return stolen material.

For all of the books and documents that they retrieved, however, the Nazis destroyed far more than they saved. Not only did soldiers work to extract ‘offending’ works from public libraries and institutions for burning, the destruction of libraries was part of a conflict strategy aimed at levelling entire cities and forcing the dissemination of Nazi ideology. The complete destruction of Warsaw’s Zaluski Library in 1944 is one of the most egregious examples of this design. Yet, from the Nazi’s destruction emerged an international effort to protect sites of cultural significance from future destruction. Established in parallel to the human rights framework that recognised individual and collective rights – albeit without any real capacity to enforce a government’s recognition of these rights – both the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1977 Geneva Convention acknowledge the importance of protecting cultural property. As the international community worked to understand the gravity of what had occurred during the Holocaust, the connections between cultural heritage and genocide were also given emphasis. Although our popular understanding of genocide typically emphasises the concept as an act in which a group is physically destroyed (or their destruction attempted), the erasure of culture is a significant component of the crime. Genocide has everything to do with group identity. The way that we distinguish it from a war crime or a crime against humanity (the other categories of international crime that the ICC can prosecute) is through the fact that genocide is targeted against a group specifically on the grounds of their shared identity – whether this be religious, ethnic, cultural, or otherwise. As the Holocaust revealed, genocide can mean more than the targeted killing of a group of people. The Nazis actively sought to destroy all remnants of Jewish culture – Jewish-run businesses, places of worship, and any literary documentation pertaining to Judaism. It was a systematic campaign against an entire group of people.

Despite the global tremors created by Nazism and the international community’s efforts to protect libraries in conflict, the destruction of libraries and archives has continued to be a favourite tool of warfare. In the Khmer Rouge’s ascendancy to power in Cambodia (1976-1979), the eradication of intellectualism was a priority. This meant not only the deaths of thousands of people viewed as ‘too educated’, but the destruction of almost all literary and archival material that existed in the country. The National Library of Cambodia was completely destroyed as part of the Khmer Rouge’s campaign, burning all but 20% of its material. Even today – and despite the ICC’s efforts in Mali – the destruction of libraries remains a reliable component of on-the-ground warfare. When ISIS took Mosul in 2014, the destruction of the University of Mosul’s central library became a virtual guarantee. The library was levelled within a year. More than 100,000 books and documents were destroyed when the library was burned, with UNESCO deeming it “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.”

“One of the instructors said to an Isis member appointed to the university: ‘What do we do with Shakespeare’s books? We need them to teach students English’. The Isis member replied: ‘And what would Shakespeare offer to Muslims?'” (The Independent)

The struggle with protecting libraries and their contents will always lie in the efficacy of their destruction. With the burning of a single building, it is possible to eradicate almost all documentation pertaining to a country’s history and culture. Almost 75 years later, Poland is still struggling to retrieve books and documents stolen from its national library, universities, and archives – although much of what was taken was destroyed as part of the Reich’s campaign of property appropriation and large-scale destruction. There is almost no easier way to pursue the erasure of a culture and its replacement with the invader’s preferred cultural, religious, or ethnic framework. In Bosnia, the targeted destruction of libraries was a tool designed to eradicate all evidence of pre-existing culture. In World War II, it was part of an effort to impose the Reich’s own cultural ideology and erase minority identities. During Henry VIII’s reign, libraries and literary collections were destroyed to make way for a new religious norm. The same anti-heretical rationale is playing out today with ISIS’ campaign of Islamic extremism. The targeted destruction of libraries as a weapon of war is a strategy that remains as effective today as it was centuries ago. Where conflict seeks explicitly to replace one culture or religion with another, the eradication of cultural material is a necessity.

With the internet, however, there is some hope that we are moving toward a period of posterity. Libraries across the globe are engaged in efforts to digitise material – particularly that of significant historical value – in order to preserve it. Conflict is, after all, not the only threat to our most important cultural artefacts – natural disasters are a far more regular means for destroying libraries and their contents. While I would like to feel confident in international efforts to criminalise the destruction of culturally significant sites, the reach of the ICC is limited. With no military force to procure suspects – and a dependency on United Nations approval or court membership to even investigate a situation of interest – international criminal law remains in its infancy. As conflicts continue to wreak significant – and, in many cases, irreparable – damage on global culture and its legacy, efforts to preserve our most valued works of literature and history must be a continued priority.


References and Further Reading

‘Erasing the Past: The Destruction of Libraries and Archives in Bosnia-Herzegovina’, Andras Riedlmayer, Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 29(1): July 1995, pp.7-11

‘How Mosul’s last librarian is preparing for when his city is free from Isis’, Chloe Farand, The Independent: 20 March 2017

‘Al Mahdi case: ICC Trial Chamber VIII issues reparations order’, International Criminal Court Press Release: 17 August 2017


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