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Cultural heritage in the face of war – how to protect the testimony of the nation’s past?

Warsaw, which years ago raised from the ruins, today wants to help Ukraine destroyed by the war. The House of Reconstruction of Ukraine is one of the solutions initiated by the capital city of Warsaw, which is to support the reconstruction of bombed buildings, especially those of high historical and cultural value.

We still need more of these activities. According to the report of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education (CULT), co-authored by a Pole, Andrzej Jakubowski PhD, there must be a clear strategy for the post-war reconstruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage. [1] The Member States of the European Union have the greatest chance in history to – by helping Ukraine – develop ways of real protection of cultural heritage against the effects of armed conflicts.

Cultural heritage under attack

War usually means a lot of destruction, also in the area of cultural heritage of the country affected by the conflict. According to the CULT report, this term covers tangible cultural goods, such as monuments or places of great historical value, as well as intangible heritage, i.e. traditions and customs characteristic of a given country. All this can be destroyed in the course of war, not only as a collateral damage of the fighting, but also as an end in itself. Let us imagine how our attitude towards the state would be affected by the destruction of all historical objects as well as traditions and customs testified to by previous generations inhabiting our country in the past. And how would this loss of cultural property affect our descendants and all future ones? Certainly, such a community in a given country would be much more difficult to rebuild and reintegrate. Cultural heritage is an element of a nation’s cultural identity, which in turn strengthens its internal unity and attachment to its own state.[2]

Military operations in Ukraine also clearly target Ukrainian cultural heritage, posing a threat to its history and culture. This is not indifferent to EU countries, including Poland, which is particularly involved in the creation of mechanisms for protecting cultural goods against the effects of war.

A house that gives hope

In order for the reconstruction of Ukraine to start as soon as possible after the end of hostilities, it is important to plan it now. For this reason, The House of Reconstruction of Ukraine was created – an initiative under which actions are taken to protect the tangible and intangible heritage of Ukraine and to plan the reconstruction of destroyed cities.[3] Exchange of information between Polish and Ukrainian cities, collection of materials needed to protect monuments, preparation of applications for inclusion of Ukrainian cities on the UNESCO World Heritage List or creation of a plan for the reconstruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage with experts in various fields – these are just some of the activities undertaken by Polish and Ukrainian local governments in the “House”. 

The most important topic of the meetings is now the preparations for the reconstruction of Ukraine’s monuments after the war. Already at the beginning of March 2021, the collection of materials was started to enable the protection of part of the heritage that survived the war. The collected mineral wool, non-flammable fabrics, fastening tapes, OSB boards and fire extinguishers protected such monuments as the stained glass windows in the Lviv cathedral or the Adam Mickiewicz monument in Lviv. However, Poland’s role in protecting Ukraine’s cultural heritage does not end there. Discussions on the plan for the reconstruction of Ukrainian cities and the changes that await them in the future are still underway, and all conclusions are passed on to partners in Ukraine.

What else can we do to protect cultural heritage?

The House of Reconstruction of Ukraine initiated by Warsaw is not only a much-needed response to the challenges faced by our neighbors after the end of the war, but also an important step towards creating general instruments for protecting the cultural heritage of all European Union countries. Thanks to projects such as this, it will be possible to develop a strategy for the general protection of monuments and other historical objects also in our country, which in turn will secure entrepreneurs who indirectly promote Polish tradition and culture among visitors. The domestic market is also positively affected by the fact that Poland boasts a rich cultural heritage, which is interesting from the perspective of people choosing it as their travel destination. Protecting cultural assets may therefore contribute to the development of the domestic tourism market.

The European Union reaffirms the importance of protecting cultural heritage for the future of the Member States. According to the CULT report, its protection makes it possible to ensure peace, security and sustainable development of societies, which is why Member States should introduce appropriate instruments for protecting cultural goods before the outbreak of armed conflict. They include: drawing up an inventory, preparing plans for possible transfer of collections to safe places, planning emergency measures to protect against fire or damage to the structure of the monument, training the armed forces and law enforcement agencies in the protection of cultural heritage or legal regulation of the possibility of prosecuting crimes against cultural heritage. In addition, the recommendations of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education for the reconstruction of Ukraine’s heritage included raising awareness about cultural goods illegally exported abroad, which may then enter the market with counterfeit origin, and other recommendations aimed at introducing standards limiting illegal trade in cultural goods from conflict zones.

The impact of protection of cultural heritage on the effects of armed conflicts

Cultural property is a testimony of each nation’s past. Damage to cultural property is therefore a loss to the cultural heritage of all humanity, and its protection should therefore be the goal of the entire international community, and not just of the specific states concerned. Nations that are aware of this undertake to protect cultural property even in times of peace, thanks to which the protection of cultural heritage can be effective also in the face of a possible war. [4] Such protection also has effects after the end of the armed conflict – due to the fact that we know exactly what has been destroyed (because everything valuable was entered into the inventory before the war), we can increase responsibility for war crimes. Of particular importance in this regard is the CICED database of evidence for the most serious crimes of international importance, created on February 23, 2023, in response to Russian aggression, which enables responding to crimes against cultural heritage in a more effective and decisive manner.[5]

The protection of cultural heritage is the task of all of us, and the war in Ukraine today requires special attention to this fact. However, thanks to the initiatives undertaken in local communities of the Member States, such as the The House of Reconstruction of Ukraine or following the recommendations of CULT, we have a chance to rebuild what has been destroyed and fully understand that these are not simply buildings or monuments, but a testimony of the entire nation’s past.


Eryka Klimowska
A law student at the University of Warsaw, passionate about business, science and combining these two disciplines to effectively solve real problems on a large scale. Since childhood, I have participated in competitions both in the field of science and the humanities, which is why I do not like to describe myself as a "humanist" oraz "scientific" mind. I develop my interests as the president of a students business organization in Warsaw and a member of a Medical and Pharmaceutical Law Scientific Circle.
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Eryka Klimowska

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