General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Protection of Cultural Property

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher and Dr. Sylvia Naylor.


The movie The Monuments Men has generated great interest in the subject of the protection of cultural property during World War II and raised the issue of how far commanders should go in protecting cultural property in instances of risk to the lives of their troops.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, first as the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces Headquarters, in 1943, and then as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in 1944, weighed in on the subject in orders that were issued under his name.

From early November to late December 1943, the American forces fought to overcome the German defenses of the Bernhardt/Reinhard Line.  During that time, the Fifth U.S. Army sustained 16,000 casualties, and the Italian town of San Pietro was completely destroyed.  By late December the Fifth Army paused to regroup before it took on the formidable Gustav Line defenses.  It was at this time Eisenhower issued his letter order (below) regarding the protection of cultural property.

Eisenhower_December 1943
Letter, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief, AFH to All Commanders, Subject: Historic Monuments, December 29, 1943, File: CAD 000.4 (3-25-43) (1), Sec. 2, Security Classified General Correspondence, 1943-July 1949, General Records, Civil Affairs Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165.

Then Eisenhower left the Theater to go to England to command the Overlord operations, namely, the landings on the French coast.  By the end of May 1944 most of the planning for D-Day had been accomplished.  Before the landings took place, however, Eisenhower issued another instruction regarding the protection of cultural property on May 26, 1944:

Eisenhower-May 1944
Memorandum, Dwight D. Eisenhower, General, U.S. Army to G.O.C. in Chief, 21 Army Group; Commanding General, 1st U.S. Army Group; Allied Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force; and Air C-in-C, Allied Expeditionary Force, Subject: Preservation of Historical Monuments, May 26, 1944, File: 751,Numeric File Aug 1943-July 1945, Records of the Secretariat, Records of the G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331.

In this document Eisenhower referenced Cassino.  This was the German position on the Gustav Line at Monte Cassino, topped by a medieval abbey. In January 1944 the U.S. Fifth Army attacked this position and was thrown back. Convinced that the German were using the abbey as an observation point, in February the Allies sent 200 bombers to destroy the abbey.  Indian troops then unsuccessfully attacked the German position. So British General Harold Alexander in March had some 500 bombers lay waste to Cassino itself. A follow-up attack failed.  It was not until May that a massive Allied ground attack was able to break through the Gustav Line.  Polish forces on May 18 reached the summit of Monte Cassino and seized what was left of the abbey.

On both documents, General Eisenhower stresses the importance of the cultural heritage to the entire civilization.  The historical buildings and monuments symbolize the growth and development of our civilization.  They are not more important than human life; however, they are something worth fighting to protect.

One thought on “General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Protection of Cultural Property

  1. This blog entry actually shows that General Eisenhower went against his own rule to destroy a building that was part of our cultural heritige. very well written.

Comments are closed.