BKGE | Projekte | Kunsthistoriker der Mittelmächte im Ersten Weltkrieg | Projekt DPWS

‚Kunstschutz‘ im Ersten Weltkrieg und die Historiographie von Kunst und Kultur in Ostmitteleuropa in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Akteure – Netzwerke –Konzepte

‘Art Protection’ during World War I and Historiographies of Art and Culture in East-Central Europe during the First Half of the 20th Century. Actors-Networks-Concepts


The project, funded by the German-Polish Science Foundation, Frankfurt/Oder (Project-Nr. 2020-11) from 2021 to 2024, investigates, from a comparative perspective, the strategies of science-based propaganda and the use of visual media during the so-called art protection campaigns (Germ. 'Kunstschutz') of the First World War in East-Central and Southeastern Europe. Our regional focus is partly on Central and Northeastern Europe with the territories of Poland and those of the Baltic States; where the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary had been fighting against the Russian Tzarist Empire, as well as on the theatres of war in Southeastern Europe and the Near East with the actors Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, the Austria-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires.

World War I was the first military conflict to involve, on a large scale, scholars from a range of different disciplines – alongside art historians and archaeologists were anthropologists, geographers, ethnographers and archivists. Under the motto "Art Protection in War" (Germ. Kunstschutz im Kriege), Germany and Austria-Hungary, documented the destruction of artistic monuments, initiated protective measures for endangered sites and started planning for their reconstruction, but above all they conducted research campaigns in all theatres of war – from autumn 1914 onwards.
The creation of the Kunstschutz was originally intended to counteract the denunciation of German "barbarism" resulting from the destruction of art monuments in Belgium and France. Moreover, for the first time in history, the focus was on the protection of the cultural heritage of a wartime enemy or the occupied territories, a situation that should be explicitly emphasized in the context of subsequent armed conflicts.

The framing of one's own engagement and its contrast with the "work of destruction" of the enemy through texts and images served as an instrument of war propaganda, which all warring parties – the allied Central Power Bulgaria as well as Russia, that was fighting on the Entente side – understood how to use. At the same time, the related research campaigns became the starting point for a process of exchange and appropriation in art and cultural studies.

The investigation of trans-regional and transnational strategies, and practices of dealing with cultural heritage and its progressive exploitation in the pursuit of identity-forming and/or geopolitical goals, are at the centre of our project.

It investigates the entanglements between national scientific cultures under the specific conditions of war and explores their medium- and long-term effects. Thereby, personal networks and conceptual continuities emerge that shaped the historiography of art and culture, as well as discourses related to reconstruction even beyond the Second World War.

Unlike the military, political or everyday history of the First World War, there has been hardly any research in this cultural-political and historiographical-historical field in the context of East-Central Europe. This is especially the case with regard to the transnational entanglements and methodological exchanges that, paradoxically, at the same time shaped the lines of argumentation of the national(istic) scholarly cultures of the following decades.
Art protection campaigns spanned much of Europe, and their strategies and practices were similar. However, previous research mostly considered only individual countries or regions. A first overview of the actors, fields of action, interactions, and results from Belgium to Southeastern Europe is offered in the 2017 proceedings of the conference organized by Robert Born and Beate Störtkuhl "Apologists of Destruction or 'Art Protectors'? Art Historians of the Central Powers in the First World War" [Apologeten der Vernichtung oder „Kunstschützer"? Kunsthistoriker der Mittelmächte im Ersten Weltkrieg ].

It contains extensive information on the contents of archives and nature of research, and formed the starting point for the present project.
The comparative approach opens up far-reaching perspectives on how the imperial powers dealt with the cultural heritage of foreign nations. Of central interest is the extent to which national attempts at demarcation are ultimately tied back to transnational discourses in a pan-European scholarly space.
The project focuses on basic research: the indexing and evaluation of the extensive holdings of written and pictorial sources on this topic, especially in archives in Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Estonia, Romania, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Germany, which are yet to be extensively examined. Praxeological aspects are pivotal, including correlations between verbal proclamations and the de facto activities of the 'art protectors'. Special attention will be paid to the media practices of the photo campaigns, which apparently played a central role in scientific-technical, personal, and institutional exchanges across borders.

Archival travel is an essential component of the project with the objective of expanding the database of materials. In terms of research data management, archival findings will be processed at least cursorily; interim results will be presented at follow-up workshops as well as on the project website and/or via other media. A large-scale final conference will serve as a platform for discussion of the project results; the research and conference results will be published as a print volume and online in open access.

CVs of the project members

Illustration: Suceava. General view of the city, December 1916 (Materials of the Bukovina expedition. Photo Department Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Peterburg, [IHMC RAS], Print O.475/71)

Third Project Workshop, Vienna, 08.-09.05.2023

This workshop was held in cooperation and in the venue of the Scientific Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) in Vienna.

The focus of the meeting was on the presentation of research results of the project members and their discussion with external experts.


Second Project Workshop, Warszawa, June 1 – 3, 2022

A dominating topic of the Warsaw workshop was the serious impact that the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine had on our project: Collections in Russia and Ukraine are no longer accessible from abroad, so some of our individual projects had to be reconfigured.
Institutional cooperation with the Institute for the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg is no longer possible. Therefore, the third project workshop scheduled for 2023 in St. Petersburg will be held in Vienna.
Furthermore, there were discussions in Warsaw about the concept of the concluding conference. Since parallels between the activities in and around the First World War and the current appropriation of enemy cultural property for geopolitical objectives cannot be overseen, the actuality of 'art protection in times of war' will also be addressed at the final conference of the project.

Kick-off Workshop April 16, 2021

In our first workshop, which was conducted online because of the COVID situation, the individual research areas and work programs were outlined. The objective of the meeting was to strengthen the internal networking of the team members and to promote the discussion of the research concepts with external experts.





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