In recent weeks the Islamic State has made clear that it is not only fighting a political and religious war, but also a war against History. Home to some of the oldest known civilisations in the world, the cultural heritage of Iraq is invaluable. Yet, the self-proclaimed caliphate is bent on erasing a past that is not compatible with its ideology.
On February 26, a video was released showing the destruction of Assyrian and Akkadian antiquities—which date back thousands of years— in a museum in Mosul. The following week it was reported that the Islamic State was also demolishing the remains of the 3,000-year-old Assyrian city of Nimrud. A few days later Hatra, another ancient city, was bulldozed. UNESCO has described these acts as war crimes, and rightly so.
It is of course easy to view the recent atrocities as secondary to the horrendous human suffering of ethnic and religious minorities under the expansion of the Islamic State. However, it should be acknowledged that what is at stake here is something far more important than a few broken statues. The ongoing ethnic and religious cleansing is not only aiming at getting rid of minorities, but to wipe out their history and their culture, and thus the very traces of their existence.
Throughout history, many other totalitarian movements have shared similar ambitions. We do not need to look far to find events resembling those in Iraq lately. The demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 has repeatedly been brought up by journalists as a point of comparison. The cultural revolution of Maoist China, and the Nazi plundering and destruction of art in occupied Europe, make equally good examples.
It is telling of the nature of totalitarian movements that the reaction against art and cultures that challenge their narrow-minded view of reality resembles the Procrustean bed. In Greek mythology Procrustes was a bandit who captured people, and either stretched them or cut off their legs in order to fit an iron bed. Rather than altering their own views in order to fit reality, totalitarian movements try to change reality accordingly.
George Orwell famously examined the nature of totalitarian movements in his novel 1984. He painted a dystopian image of a world ruled by a totalitarian regime, where every deviating opinion is a crime. In order to make it impossible for its citizen to even have a deviating view in the first place, the totalitarian state of 1984 constantly revises history. The most important lesson to be drawn from the novel is that whoever controls the past also controls the future; take away the past, and people will not even be aware of an alternative reality.
Though History may in itself seem final, Orwell showed why it is dangerous to regard it as thus. History belongs more to the present than it does to the past, for it is created and recreated every day by those who wish to assert their own absolute beliefs, whether religious or political. Yet, the ultimate goal of all totalitarian movements is the end of History, when there is and—because no evidence remains to prove it—never has been a conflicting understanding of reality or an opposing system of belief.
That is why it is not only an atrocity in itself whenever a totalitarian movement tries to eradicate a people and their culture in order for History to fit their monistic view of the world, but it is also a crime against the intrinsic values of a free and pluralistic world.