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  • Robert M. Edsel

When Museums Ignore the Ideals for Which the War was Fought

For any American museum to ignore its responsibilities under the Washington Principles, which govern their duty to victims of Hitler and the Nazis, is more than just shameful. It ignores the moral arc of history—what Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower referred to as the “ideals” for which the war was fought.

On April 12, 1945, Eisenhower, alongside Generals Patton and Bradley, walked through Ohrdruf, a Nazi forced labor subcamp to the Buchenwald system, in utter disbelief. No strangers to the horrors of war, what they witnessed sickened them. General Patton vomited against the side of a building. The sight and smell of smoldering remains of prisoners atop a burned-out pyre filled Eisenhower with rage and contempt. “We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for,” Eisenhower would say after his visit. “Now, at least, we know what he is fighting against.”

Hitler and the Nazis’ systematic murder of six millions Jews during World War II was only the final act of hate. It started with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, pointing a finger at Jews and others saying, ‘It’s all THEIR fault.’ The efforts to ostracize Jews, and later Poles, Soviet civilians, gays, the disabled—anyone who Hitler chose to characterize as subhuman —was then codified through passage of the Nuremberg Laws, which formally stripped Jews of the most basic of human rights including the ownership of property. In time, this led to the greatest displacement of art the world has ever known.

At war’s end, in a break with thousands of years of civilization, the Western Allies announced to the world: To the victors do NOT belong the spoils of war. All stolen objects should be returned to the country from which they were taken and restituted to the rightful owner. The Monuments Men and Women were responsible for implementing that policy, work that continues to this day through the Monuments Men Foundation, and other organizations.

Regrettably, the black and white of right and wrong that guided Eisenhower and other Western Allied leaders in the aftermath of World War II is today too often driven by financial considerations. When a museum or private collector turns the Washington Principles into a “catch me if you can” endeavor rather than living up to the “ideals” of which Eisenhower spoke, it desecrates the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. More so, it is an affront to every American combat soldier, airman, and sailor who risked their life, or died, to preserve the human rights and dignity we enjoy today.

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