Throughout history, intentional destruction of cultural heritage has been a recurring problem. It has been a result of a variety of factors, including political, ethnic, and religious conditions. It has also been a consequence of conflict. In the twentieth century, mass atrocities and ethnic cleansings were associated with intentional destruction of cultural heritage. It has also been associated with economic factors.
In the nineteenth century, European colonial conquests in South America and Africa were accompanied by physical and cultural genocide. The destruction of the Aztec and Inca empires in present-day Mexico and South America are a good example. In Timbuktu, the Ansar Dine, a Muslim revolutionary group, destroyed most of the mausoleums. They also destroyed many Sufi shrines. In 2016, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, an Ansar Dine leader, was found guilty of cultural destruction as a war crime.
In the twentieth century, a new phase in French cultural policy was developed, based on the recognition that works of art can be considered to be cultural heritage. This was in part a result of the book burnings of 1933. In the early Stalin years in the Soviet Union, art became a commodity that was bought and sold. During this period, artifacts were frequently purchased from foreign sources. These acquisitions often involved unprovenanced objects. In turn, these works ended up in European museums.
Iconoclastic movements are often fueled by religious, political, and economic factors. Religious iconoclasm is motivated by a hatred of images of other religions. Economic iconoclasm, on the other hand, is motivated by pillaging cultural sites. These pillagings can give rise to shadow economies.
Economic iconoclasm is often motivated by the desire for political power. It aims to demolish symbols of a vanquished system. In antiquity, redistribution of power was a key component of the cultural strife. During the ancient wars, this was typically accompanied by the destruction of people and artifacts.
Iconoclasm was a legally enshrined political program in 1791. It was elevated to a political program by radical ideologies, such as those of National Socialism and Bolshevism. The iconoclasm of the revolutionaries was no longer religiously motivated. However, the underlying secular cultural ideology was still present. The revolutionaries sought to destroy symbols of a vanquished system, primarily sacral architecture of the enemy ethnic group.
The destruction of cultural heritage in the twentieth century was accompanied by atrocities against Indigenous populations. It was also associated with the destruction of Catholic churches. These churches included the largest Catholic churches in the region. In addition, the destruction of cultural artifacts was often related to disputes between emerging Christianity and resident pagan cults.
The destruction of cultural heritage became a part of a broader issue of socially and politically motivated persecution. It has been associated with ethnic conflict and illicit trafficking. It has also been associated with mass atrocities, such as the Holocaust. In the Middle East, it is often a side effect of armed conflict. In this context, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative is working to map cultural sites at risk and develop plans for displaced scholars.