When philosophers and other theorists reflect on the fate of cultural heritage in wartime, they tend to focus on the immediate temporal context: the rights and wrongs of targeting – or defending – heritage sites; the injustices of cultural expropriation; the harms involved in the violent erasure of 'intangible' heritage; and so on.
But the most distinctive thing about heritage as a system of values is the greatly extended time-frame within which it operates. Our commitment to intergenerationally valued and enduring cultural property makes essential reference to the concerns of our predecessors and successors, whose stake in these things is part of what gives them their apparent claim upon us. John Ruskin (1849), writing of the demolition of historic buildings (albeit in a peacetime context), expressed this view most famously and most stringently:
They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead still have their right in them… What other men gave their strength, and wealth, and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death; still less is the right to the use of what they have left vested in us only. It belongs to all their successors. It may hereafter be a subject of sorrow, or a cause of injury, to millions, that we have consulted our present convenience by casting down such buildings as we choose to dispense with. That sorrow, that loss we have no right to inflict.
In thinking about war’s destructive impact on cultural heritage, the contemporaneous perspective – that of the direct perpetrators and the immediate victims – is undeniably important. But it is not the only one that counts. We should also consider these events as they appear in more distant prospect and retrospect, from the standpoint of earlier and later generations. The loss of a monument of culture may, from the perspective of those who in the past were responsible for creating or sustaining it, represent the final disappointment of their most cherished hopes and projects; while their successors in the future may thereby be deprived of what would otherwise have formed a treasured and life-enriching inheritance.
The perspective of such historical 'third parties’ seems intuitively like it must have some ethical implications, some bearing upon our assessment of the rights and wrongs of heritage destruction and protection. To that extent, Ruskin is surely correct. For philosophers, however, the issue is complicated by certain puzzles, theorised by Derek Parfit (1984) and others, concerning what it might mean to ‘harm’ or infringe the ‘rights’ of people who are no longer alive, or whose existence is as yet merely potential and indeterminate. What do such impacts and claims actually amount to, and what happens to our moral calculus if we try to take account of them?
Rather than grapple directly with these deep problems in ethical theory and the philosophy of personal identity, I want instead to discuss some preliminary issues in (broadly speaking) the moral psychology of heritage loss. Before determining what weight to give to the responses of temporally distant parties, we should at least reflect on the normative grounds for the responses themselves. Suppose we adopt the third-party perspective, that of looking back upon destructive events that occurred long before our time, or that are expected to occur after we are gone. What reason do we have for caring about such losses – for feeling them, sorrowfully and in the first person, as losses? If we do find ourselves affected in this way, how far should we judge this to be an appropriate or a warranted response?
A personal anecdote
My reflections on this theme are strongly influenced by an episode from my own adolescence. In 1997 I left home to study in Exeter, a once-splendid cathedral city that had been devastated during the Luftwaffe’s so-called 'Baedeker Blitz' on English historical sites in the spring of 1942. Though the destroyed areas had long since been rebuilt by the time I arrived there, I found I was still distressfully conscious of what had been lost, reconstructing the vanished cityscape in my mind and comparing it – advantageously– with its drab post-war replacement. The events in question had occurred nearly four decades before my birth. Still, it seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that the loss was in some sense mine.
What to make of this response? It may appear problematic on several levels. Like any sorrow over irreversible loss, whether recent or distant, my feelings were literally futile. (As a riposte to this I might have cited David Hume's (1758) reply to a similar challenge: 'Your sorrow is fruitless, and will not change the course of destiny. Very true, and for that very reason I am sorry.') More distinctively, the distance in time between the events concerned and my response to them may seem to undermine the latter’s rational grounds – or, if rationality is not exactly what’s at issue here, its claim to authenticity and good faith. Those who experience losses may mourn them; but can grief for the more distant past reflect anything other than ersatz nostalgia and a refusal to acknowledge the world as it is?
Here we might try to separate two objections to my sorrow over pre-war Exeter. First there is a challenge from belatedness. Since my response commenced so very long after the demise of its purported object, it lacked (according to this challenge) the required experiential connection with that object. This objection may be expressed in terms of a failure – perhaps a self-deceptive failure – of intentionality: mine must have been a sorrow, not for the old city as it really was, but for an ideal or sentimental image of it.
Then there is a challenge from succession. Even if I had been around to witness the Exeter Blitz, by 1997 the world had moved on so far (the challenge goes) that sorrow was no longer an apt response. Succeeding events often make a difference to how it makes sense to think and feel about some past episode; as where victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat, or vice versa. In view of the city’s post-war rebuilding – the so-called ‘Exeter Phoenix’ – and its ensuing economic and cultural revival, my overriding sense of loss for its earlier devastation may seem to have been at best unrealistic, at worst mean-spirited, and in any case no longer appropriate to the thriving settlement in which I found myself.
Each of these challenges has some force. But neither, I think, is sufficient to dismiss my response entirely. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the buildings of pre-war Exeter formed an ensemble of substantial value, and that but for the events of 1942 this ensemble would still have been largely intact in my time, we can speak of my having been deprived of that value even if I did not experience the loss at first hand. It is true, as the challenge from belatedness points out, that by the same token I was not directly acquainted with the lost value itself, or with its bearers. But I did have access to a rich seam of visual information, especially photographic information, that gave me an accurate – albeit mediated and partial – impression of the qualities from which the value sprang. (This may imply that the validity of 'belated' sorrow is to some degree contingent on the state of technology; though there are other ways in which the significance of a lost monument can be communicated. We might think, in this connection, of the rich tradition of remembrance that sustains the mourners at Jerusalem's Western Wall.)
I might also point to the unusual conditions of persistence, or quasi-persistence, for objects in the historic built environment. Buildings, much more than portable artefacts, leave behind substantial traces of themselves when they are destroyed. These traces may be material (re-used fabric and foundations), or spatial (the boundaries of a plot or the alignment of a street), or purely memorial and phenomenological (the enduring modification of meaning and atmosphere that occurs at the site of a vanished monument). And then, as we have already seen, there is the persistence of the higher-order entity that is the city as a whole. In 1997, Exeter itself was still very much there to be experienced, even if most of its pre-1942 buildings were not; and my identification with the former partly explains my painful feelings about the loss of the latter.
Turning now to the challenge from succession, part of what is going on here is an argument about what makes certain cultural goods (here, a certain ensemble of historic buildings) irreplaceable, and under what conditions we must concede that they have in fact, and in some normatively relevant way, been replaced. The intimate metaphysical connection between buildings and places, and the ‘nesting’ of entities within the built environment, again gives shape to the debate. That new buildings have taken the place – spatially, but also functionally and even, for many people, psychologically – of the destroyed ones gives us reason, it is suggested, to loosen our emotional grip upon the latter. Not these, but their modern replacements, are what a concern with Exeter should now take as its architectural object. The old buildings are gone, but the city persists, and does so in the form of their post-war successors. The passage of time is seen to make a double difference here. What was built in the 1950s had by the 1990s (and even more so now) endured long enough to form part of the city's settled identity. And to some future generation these buildings will presumably appear as historically venerable as the pre-war city seems to us.
On the other hand, where something is valued in ways that are strongly tied to its historic origins and associations, adequate replacements will be hard to come by, and very slow to arrive. In any case, for my 18-year-old self (I’m inclined to be rather more charitable now) the comparison between the pre- and post-war fabric of Exeter revealed only the utter unworthiness of the latter to take the place of the former. Only a worthy successor can (if anything can) make sorrow for a valued predecessor superfluous. The bare fact of succession offers no solace; indeed in such a case as this it does the reverse, adding the insult of the new to the injury inflicted upon the old.
Simone Weil (1943) remarked that ‘at any moment… what I am [i.e. those things that are so intimately mine that I consider them as myself] might be abolished and replaced with anything whatsoever of the filthiest and most contemptible sort.' It does not follow that, in such a case, I and those who share my concerns should try to reconcile ourselves to the substitution. And the thought that we (or our successors) will one day do just that offers little consolation. It may well make the situation seem even more wretched. Should we not remain unconsoled?
Exeter and Carthage
There is much more to be said here, on both sides of the argument. I have not even touched upon the prospective standpoint: that of preceding generations, whose aspirations for the permanent survival of what they created and cherished are, in the cases we are considering, posthumously dashed. Nor have I addressed what may seem a pressing question in this context, namely how our attitude to wartime cultural losses – whether in the past, present or future – should be affected by the toll of human suffering and death that we know to be their inevitable corollary. Nor of course have I dealt with the larger question with which I began, namely whether and how such temporally remote responses to heritage destruction are supposed to influence our moral assessment of the destructive acts concerned. The appropriateness or otherwise of such responses surely makes a difference here; though it is not easy to say quite what kind of difference. At any rate, we have begun to see how deep these issues run, and how fundamental to our engagement with heritage (especially, but not exclusively, architectural heritage) are the concerns and conceptions on which they rest.
‘Few can guess', wrote Gustave Flaubert – as quoted by Walter Benjamin (1940) – ‘how sad one has to be in order to resuscitate Carthage.' Dwelling upon distant losses can indeed be a way to ignore the true character of the past, as well as the reality of the present and the potentiality of the future. On the other hand, the destructive violence present at all periods of human history gives us plenty to sorrow over. And while it makes sense that such sorrows should fade with time, there is nothing to say that this must happen quickly. I can live with the fall of Carthage; but I haven’t got over Exeter just yet.
Benjamin, Walter (1940). ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. In Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, tr. Henry Zohn (1968). New York: Schocken Books.
Hume, David (1758). ‘The Sceptic’. In Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. Edinburgh: Kincaid and Donaldson.
Parfit, Derek (1984). Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ruskin, John (1849). The Seven Lamps of Architecture. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
Weil, Simone (1943) ‘Human Personality’. In Selected Essays, 1934-1943, ed. and tr. Richard Rees (1962). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 John Ruskin, Study of Casa Loredan, Venice (1845), wikimedia commons
 JMW Turner, Dido Building Carthage (1815), Wikimedia Commons
About the author
David Garrard is a senior lecturer in historic conservation at Oxford Brookes University. His research includes, among other things, ethical, political, metaphysical and conceptual issues in the theory and practice of conservation and the ethics and aesthetics of architecture and the environment.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on the Heritage in War blog are those of the post author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of members of the Heritage in War project, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Open University or Stockholm University