November 16, 2004

WWII led to looting of ancient artifacts

The Nazis’ occupation of Greece resulted in death, devastation, and the theft and destruction of countless cultural relics of the classical past

High-ranking officers of the German occupying forces stand on the Acropolis in May 1941. Despite promises to respect ancient Greek sites, the Acropolis in general, and the Parthenon in particular, were used as urinals.

By Yiannis Elafros - Kathimerini

The period of German, Italian and Bulgarian occupation in World War II left terrible scars, not only on the population — with hundreds of thousands dead, the deprivation, oppression and destruction — but also on Greece’s archaeological and cultural heritage. Trenches sliced through archaeological sites, museums and collections were destroyed or looted, while huge numbers of churches and monasteries were bombed or burnt by the occupation forces.

The Greek lands, which bear such obvious traces of history, were ground beneath the Nazis’ iron heel. From the Acropolis to Babylon, it is the fate of monuments to suffer during wars and occupations.

In a report published in 1946 by the Directorate of Antiquities and Historical Monuments, the Greek state attempted to record all the losses that took place during those dark years. Of the cultural artifacts stolen, few were returned after the war. Likewise, not all war reparations were paid.


The Nazis invading Greece brought with them a passion for antiquity and an ideological viewpoint that placed the roots of the Aryan race in ancient Greece. The Wehrmacht had even supplied German soldiers with leaflets on the archaeological heritage of Greece and the importance, from their own standpoint, of archaeological sites, stressing that they must be left untouched.

But even in an army with the fanaticism and discipline of the Nazis, theory was distinctly remote from practice. Even high-ranking officers of the Wehrmacht did not hesitate to take something as a souvenir, should such an opportunity present itself.

There were also organized thefts, and even wholesale looting of antiquities, as in Elefsina. “When you have power over life and death, then it seems a simple matter to take a stone or make off with a statuette,” historian Hagen Fleischer told Kathimerini.

Parthenon libations

Not even the Acropolis, where the Germans did not hesitate to put German anti-aircraft guns, escaped. After protests by the Greek archaeological service, they withdrew their own guns but pushed the Italians to position their mortars and anti-aircraft searchlights there instead. Cement structures were even erected on the Sacred Rock by the German allies.

These were all taken down in February 1942, but, as the 1946 report said, “for the occupation forces, all the Acropolis monuments were urinals, with preference given to the Parthenon.”

Liberation did not end the depredations suffered by the Acropolis. In December 1944, British troops encamped on the Acropolis used it as a base for firing at the Communist-led resistance forces.

When the overall barbarity of the Nazi occupation is taken into account, people suffered much worse than the monuments. The German administration tried to keep up appearances, especially where the monuments of classical antiquity were concerned. There was a manifest attempt by the Nazis at an ideological exploitation of the ancient Greek heritage. A typical example was a personal order by Himmler for the commencement of intensive excavations at Ancient Sparta. It was hoped they would find Doric and pre-Hellenic monuments that obviously would be used to confirm Nazi theories of the Aryan race.

Formally, the Germans had handed over control of archaeological sites and excavations to the Greek archaeological service. But they wielded the real power, overriding whatever objections these straw men raised.

But a number of workers at museums and the archaeological services fought to save Greece’s antiquities. One of the most impressive stories in this struggle was the burial of all the Archaeological Museum of Athens’s most valuable material, a process that began with the commencement of the Greco-Italian war. A titanic undertaking that lasted six whole months, it was completed before the Germans entered Athens. The museum’s property was returned to it, unscathed, after the war.

Some areas, such as Crete, suffered worse than others. The island had the misfortune to have a governor who was also an amateur archaeologist. General Julius Ringel even organized digs at Knossos from which he lifted various valuable items. In 1942, he was transferred to the Eastern Front, where he would have probably have found little use for them.

Where the Germans were utterly ruthless was during the so-called “cleansing operations” — raids on the Greek countryside which resulted in huge devastation and massacres in a number of villages (Kalavryta, Distomo and others). These raids were more frequent in the last years of the occupation, in a response to increasing pressure by ELAS resistance fighters.

During this period, a large number of monasteries and churches were destroyed (Meteora, Aghia Lavra, Hosios Meletios, etc.), many of them dating to the Byzantine era and all containing important artifacts.

Apart from the Greek report, there is the official British report (“Works of Art in Greece, the Greek Islands and the Dodecanese: Losses and Survivals in the War,” London, HMSO, 1946), which said that, given the extent of the fighting and resistance, the damage done to the archaeological sites and monuments of classical antiquity was relatively slight. The same was not true of churches, which were frequently burned by Italian and German forces. The Bulgarians come in for special mention for the havoc they wreaked on the archaeological sites and museums of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, which suffered heavily.


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