The „Berlin Appeal“, handed out on this year‘s „Shaping Access! More Responsibility for the Cultural Heritage“ conference – the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin being its venue – begins with these words: Our society has long-since been marked by the consensus that knowledge and culture be preserved. And the „Hamburg Note“, also handed out there, reminds of the pending threat of a precarious distortion in our conception of history, if legal conditions were not improved upon soon to allow for the digital usage of cultural heritage. For the sake of completeness, it should be added: Our liberal democracies not only assert said consensus which the Berlin Appeal rests on, but at the same time view it to be endangered and, beyond that, they are poised to defend it! And while the conference mainly treated questions and problems pertaining to copyright law, „cultural heritage“ has long-since become the subject of international law.
This much became apparent in September of 2015, when Ahmad al Mahdi was committed to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Al Mahdi, a former teacher, who had already confessed in court, had, as leader of the so-called „moral police“ of Timbuktu, engaged in the destruction and devastation of ten buildings overall in Mali. Not only did he, as the prosecution put forth, play a central part in the planning and preparation of the destruction of cultural heritage, but participated actively by using pickaxes, shovels, mallets and axes to maul and destroy the walls of several thousand years old mausoleums and a mosque. In the opening of the case against al Mahdi before the Court in The Hague, the destruction of cultural heritage was treated for the first time as a war crime, that is, similar to past cases before the ICC about „attempted genocide“ and comparable charges. As Fatou Besnouda, chief prosecutor with the ICC, emphasized, the case was not just „about stones and walls“, but about „buildings that are both historically and religiously meaningful and defining of the identity of a people. It is about crimes aimed at annihilating the roots of a people and, along with them, its social structures and customs.“ That is clear language, and it marks a cesura that „our society“ is not likely to step behind again.
Thus assuming no more than „a consensus“ established in connection with cultural heritage and its worthiness of protection in our society, is to put it very cautiously. The case of al Mahdi, a war criminal, rather seems to be indicative of the conjecture, that where „peoples“ and „nations“ had been the ideologemes the respective war parties referred to up to the first half of the 20th century, categories like „identity“ and „cultural background“ might now substitute for them. If this is the case, it would be foolish to think that anyone dealing with cultural heritage in one way or another were doing so on normatively neutral ground; not even professionally. On the contrary, every institution, each small or big player dedicated to the digitalization of cultural heritage and competing for public funds is moving on highly charged and agressively contested political terrain. Maintaining neutrality then might prove far more difficult than to get funding. It should not be forgotten: If today war is declared through artillery, pickaxe, shovel, mallet and axe, i.e. in the form of destroying cultural heritage, our modern institutions react as efficiently as they can: by way of lawsuits suitable for the new forms of global warfare. And the discussions in Berlin most of the time revolve around financing policies and copyright issues while elsewhere the dimension of international law has already taken center stage.
It‘s not necessary, however, to look over to The Hague to become aware of the political explosiveness. Whether it be the far-right „identitarian movement“, that already sports the concept – „identity“ – as an emblem, or a religious fanaticism and extremism rampantly on the rise aross the globe: it is becoming apparent that the inner-societal radicalization, too, which is nowhere to be ignored anymore and is unlikely to resolve itself, coincides with the construction of „cultural identities“; thereby implying also a readiness that is well underway to defend these identities even militantly against given state regulations. The distortion of the conception of history is no longer an abstract threat, as the Hamburg Note cautiously states, but rather it is due to such constructions of history and identity that the political structure is being actively distorted already, and in their name the given democratic order is put under pressure today. To put it clearly: „Culture“, „identity“, and „history“ have grown today, as seldom before, into highly charged and massively effective conceptions. Questions of „cultural heritage“ and the historical construction of identities are seeping into every political sector – even encroaching upon everyday life. In the talks yet to be had between politics, institutions and professionals in the field of „cultural heritage“, it is recommendable that the political impact of these discussions be put on the agenda rather sooner than later.
Without a doubt the Berlin Appeal is right in positing there was an „urgent need to act in archiving, as digital content and information would otherwise be [unretrievably] lost“; or that „specifically targeted focal points in training and research at universities and colleges“ were needed, and that long-term digital archiving would have to „find entrance into the curricula of others disciplines as well.“ But all these demands, justified as they are, seem to hover twenty centimeters above a crisis of democracy revealing itself in historical, commemorative and knowledge policy discourses alike. „Sustainability in the digital world requires a broad public discussion and strong political perception“ – that‘s also true, of course. But what about discussions and political perception within those communities that have declared to be professionally responsible for the digitalization of cultural heritage? „Digital long-term archiving ensures and reinforces the promise of democracy and transparency of the digital cultural heritage“, certainly; but the discussion about long-term conservation has itself become part of a contested democratic discourse so that it can no longer externalize this function. As a priority, it needs to be argued about how the promise of democracy and transparency is to be kept and defended by the agents in the field of digital cultural heritage. This issue must be pushed – and soon.