Vattel: Le Droit des Gens (1758)

This text provides one of the first reflections on the principles that would later lead to an international position against the destruction of heritage in wartime. At the same time, it still clearly outlines the right of a conquering party to take »booty« from an enemy without necessarily specifying whether this would exclude cultural assets. In this regard it differs distinctly from later texts, most notably the Hague Convention of 1899/1907. Despite indicating the need to preserve buildings of artistic merit, this text contains many aspects that can be regarded as having justified a treatment of European nation-states that differed from that of non-European groups whose statehood Europeans did not necessarily acknowledge. During the nineteenth century, such positions led to differences in treatment and consideration of peoples and their cultural assets in Europe versus societies subjected to colonisation.

commented by Elsje van Kessel

Original text    Translation    Brief biography    Commentary    Sources and literature

Le Droit des Gens

after: Emer de Vattel, Le droit des gens, ou Principes de la loi naturelle, appliquées à la conduite et aux affaires des Nations et des Souverains, London 1758 (extracts from: Volume 2, livre III, chap. IX, S. 133–139).

CHAPITRE IX. Du Droit de la Guerre a l’égard des choses qui appartiennent à l’Ennemi.

[…]

§ 161. Du droit de s’en emparer. On est en droit de priver l’Ennemi de ses biens, de tout ce qui peut aug- [134] menter ses forces & le mettre en état de faire la guerre. Chacun travaille à cette fin de la manière qui lui convient le mieux. On s’empare, quand on le peut, des biens de l’Ennemi, on se les approprie; & par là, outre qu’on diminue les forces de son adversaire , on augmente les siennes propres, & l’on se procure, au moins en partie, un dédommagement, un équivalent , soit du sujet même de la Guerre , soit des dépenses & des pertes qu’elle cause; on se fait justice soi-même. […]

[135] § 164. Du Butin. Comme on appelle Conquêtes, les Villes & les terres prises sur l’ennemi ; toutes les choses mobiles qu’on lui enlève, forment le Butin. Naturellement ce butin n’appartient pas moins que les Conquêtes, au Souverain qui fait la guerre. Car lui seul a des prétentions à la charge de l’Ennemi, qui l’autorisent à s’emparer de ses biens & à se les approprier. Ses soldats, & même les Auxiliaires, ne sont que des instruments dans sa main , pour faire valoir son droit. Il les entretient & les soudoye ; tout ce qu’ils font, ils le font en son nom & pour lui. Il n’y adone aucune difficulté, même par rapport aux Auxiliaires : S’ils ne font pas Associés dans la Guerre, elle ne se fait point pour eux; ils n’ont pas plus de droit au butin qu’aux Conquêtes. Mais le Souverain peut faire aux Troupes telle part qu’il lui plaît du butin. Aujourd’hui on leur abandonne chez la plûpart des Nations, tout celui qu’elles peuvent faire, en certaines occasions, où le Général permet le pillage; la dépouille des ennemis restés sur le champ de bataille, le pillage d’un Camp forcé, [136] quelquefois celui d’une Ville qui se laisse prendre d’assaut. Le soldat acquiert encore dans plusieurs Services, tout ce qu’il peut enlever aux Troupes ennemies quand il va en parti, ou en détachement, à l’exception de l’Artillerie, des Munitions de Guerre, des Magasins & Convois de provisions de bouche & de fourages, que l’on applique aux besoins & à l’usage de l’Armée. Et dès que la Coûtume est reçue dans une Armée, ce serait une injure que d’exclure les Auxiliaires du droit qu’elle donne aux Troupes. Chez les Romains, le soldat était obligé de rapporter à la masse tout le butin qu’il avait fait : Le Général faisait vendre ce butin ; il en distribuait quelque partie aux soldats, à chacun selon son rang, & portait le reste au Trésor public.

[…]

[138] § 167. Des ravages et des incendies. Cependant on va plus loin encore en certaines occasions: On ravage entièrement un pays, on saccage les villes & les villages, on y porte le fer & le feu. Terribles extrémités, quand on y est forcé! Excès barbares & monstrueux, quand on s’y abandonne sans nécéssité! Deux raisons cependant peuvent les autoriser; 1°. La nécéssité de châtier une Nation injuste & féroce, de réprimer sa brutalité & de se garentir de ses brigandages. Qui doutera que le Roi d’Espagne & les Puissances d’Italie ne fussent très-fondés à détruire jusques aux fondemens, ces Villes maritimes de l’Afrique, ces repaires de Pirates, qui troublent sans-cesse leur Commerce & désolent leurs sujets? Mais qui se portera à ces extrémités, en vue de punir seulement le Souverain? Celui-ci ne sentira la peine qu’indirectement. Qu’il est cruel de la faire parvenir jusqu’à lui par la désolation d’un peuple innocent! Le même Prince, dont on loua la fermeté & le juste ressentiment, dans le bombardement d’Alger, fut accusé d’orgueil & d’inhumanité, après celui de Gènes. […]

[139] § 168. Quelles choses on doit épargner. Pour quelque sujet que l’on ravage un pays, on doit épargner les Edifices qui font honneur à l’humanité , & qui ne contribuent point à rendre l’Ennemi plus puissant ; les Temples, les Tombeaux, les Bâtimens publics, tous les Ouvrages respectables par leur beauté. Que gagne-t-on à les détruire ? C’est se déclarer l’ennemi du Genre-humain, que de le priver de gaieté de Cœur, de ces Monuments des Arts, de ces Modèles du Goût […].

The Law of Nations

after: Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations, or, Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, with Three Early Essays on the Origin and Nature of Natural Law and on Luxury, edited and with an introduction by Béla Kapossy and Richard Whatmore, Indianapolis 2008, pp. 567–572.

CHAPTER IX: Of the Right of War, with regard to Things belonging to the Enemy.

[…]

§ 161 The right of seizing on them. We have a right to deprive our enemy of his possessions, of every thing which may augment his strength and enable him to make war. This every one endeavours to accomplish in the manner most suitable to him. Whenever we have an opportunity, we seize on the enemy’s property, and convert it to our own use: and thus, besides diminishing the enemy’s power, we augment our own, and obtain at least a partial indemnification or equivalent, either for what constitutes the subject of the war, or for the expenses and losses incurred in its prosecution: — in a word, we do ourselves justice.

[…]

§ 164 Booty. As the towns and lands taken from the enemy are called conquests, all movable property taken from him comes under the denomination of booty. This booty naturally belongs to the sovereign making war, no less than the conquests; for he alone has such claims against the hostile nation, as warrant him to seize on her property and convert it to his own use. His soldiers, and even his auxiliaries, are only instruments which he employs in asserting his right. He maintains and pays them. Whatever they do is in his name, and for him. Thus there is no difficulty, even with regard to the auxiliaries. If they are not associates in the war, it is not carried on for their benefit; and they have no more right to the booty than to the conquests. But the sovereign may grant the troops what share of the booty he pleases. At present most nations allow them whatever they can make on certain occasions when the general allows of plundering, — such as the spoil of enemies fallen in the field of battle, the pillage of a camp which has been forced, and sometimes that of a town taken by assault. In several services, the soldier has also the property of what he can take from the enemy’s troops when he is out on a party or in a detachment, excepting artillery, military stores, magazines and convoys of provision and forage, which are applied to the wants and use of the army. This custom being once admitted in an army, it would be injustice to exclude the auxiliaries from the right allowed to the national troops. Among the Romans, the soldier was obliged to bring in to the public stock all the booty he had taken. This the general caused to be sold; and after distributing a part of the produce among the soldiers, according to rank, he consigned the residue to the public treasury.

[…]

§ 167 Ravaging and Burning. On certain occasions, however, matters are carried still farther: a country is totally ravaged, towns and villages are sacked, and delivered up a prey to fire and sword. Dreadful extremities, even when we are forced into them! Savage and monstrous excesses, when committed without necessity! There are two reasons, however, which may authorise them, — 1. the necessity of chastising an unjust and barbarous nation, of checking her brutality, and preserving ourselves from her depredations. Who can doubt that the king of Spain and the powers of Italy have a very good right utterly to destroy those maritime towns of Africa, those nests of pirates, that are continually molesting their commerce and ruining their subjects? But what nation will proceed to such extremities, merely for the sake of punishing the hostile sovereign? It is but indirectly that he will feel the punishment: and how great the cruelty, to ruin an innocent people in order to reach him! The same prince whose firmness and just resentment was commended in the bombardment of Algiers, was, after that of Genoa, accused of pride and inhumanity. […]

§ 168 What things are to be spared. For whatever cause a country is ravaged, we ought to spare those edifices which do honour to human society, and do not contribute to increase the enemy’s strength,—such as temples, tombs, public buildings, and all works of remarkable beauty. What advantage is obtained by destroying them? It is declaring one’s self an enemy to mankind, thus wantonly to deprive them of these monuments of art and models of taste.

Brief biography

Emer de Vattel (1714–67) was born as the son of a priest in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, which at the time belonged to Prussia. After studies in theology and philosophy, he travelled to Berlin in 1742, hoping to join the diplomatic service at the court of King Frederick II. As his efforts in Berlin proved to be unsuccessful, he moved to Dresden one year after, and later finally received his hoped-for diplomatic posting: in 1747 he was appointed minister resident for the elector of Saxony in Bern. Vattel wrote numerous essays about literature and aesthetics, but remains best known for Le Droit des Gens, which he published in 1758. Going through multiple editions in various European languages, his magnum opus was to have great influence on the development of international law (Bühler 2009; Hüning 2011).

Commentary – To »do honour to human society«

Unlike other texts in this collection, Emer de Vattel’s groundbreaking remarks about the need to spare certain buildings and objects from destruction in war do not respond to one specific case of translocation. Le Droit des Gens, of which this excerpt constitutes only a small fraction, is a monumental intervention in the law of nations. Its publication in 1758 coincided with the early years of the Seven Years’ War, a European conflict fought on a global scale, and has in fact been described as one of the war’s »most influential intellectual products« (Pitts 2018, pp. 68–9). In addition to its global dimensions, the Seven Years’ War became distinctly local to Vattel when the Prussian king Frederick II (who also ruled the principality of Neuchâtel) invaded Saxony in August 1756, which marked the beginning of the war on the European continent (Pitts 2018, p. 69). Thus, while Le Droit des Gens does not address concrete instances of dislocated or destroyed cultural property, its theoretical ideas can nevertheless be connected to an armed conflict in which its author was implicated.

The excerpt from Le Droit des Gens in question hails from book III (On War), chapter IX (Of the Right of War, with Regard to Things Belonging to the Enemy), which deals exclusively with the taking and destruction of enemy possessions in war. Vattel posits that a state waging war against an enemy has the right to take enemy possessions for two reasons: one, to retrieve the state’s own possessions held by the enemy, including reparation for damages; two, to weaken the enemy by depriving him of means to resist (§§160–61). As such, he relies heavily on the work of several earlier legal thinkers, including, notably, Hugo Grotius’ influential De Jure Belli ac Pacis (DJBAP, 1625).

In §164, Vattel discusses booty, or moveable property taken from the enemy. Booty is contrasted with immovable property, which is subject to conquest. Following Grotius, Vattel posits that booty may be taken in war; these spoils, regardless of the individuals who seize them, become the property of the sovereign. When it comes to the distribution of the spoils, Vattel cites the ancient Romans for their practice of distributing part of the booty to the soldiers and the bulk of it to the treasury (see also Grotius 2005, p. 1337 and further).

Throughout the chapter, Vattel emphasises the need for moderation and prudence: seizing and destroying enemy possessions should only ever be done in a way commensurate with the injustices committed by the enemy, and so that an equitable and lasting peace can be achieved. In his focus on moderation and the related concepts of clemency and humanity, Vattel cites Cicero, and in doing so mirrors Grotius, to whom these moral philosophical principles were similarly important. Vattel’s examples in this chapter are almost exclusively European, with the exception, perhaps tellingly, of the bombardment of African Mediterranean towns: the utter destruction of a town, otherwise deemed excessive, he seems to tolerate in the case of »those maritime towns of Africa, those nests of pirates« (§167). Hence, while he does not explicitly limit the applicability of his comments to any particular part of the world, European instances of property translocation seem to be foremost on his mind. At the same time, Vattel’s observation that Louis XIV’s bombardments of Algiers and Genua were judged very differently, shows a certain ambivalence: he is, perhaps, admitting that his fellow Europeans were applying double standards.

In the key paragraph §168 Vattel takes a decisive step forward in thinking about the protection of cultural heritage (Miles 2008, pp. 300–02). With his call to spare certain buildings and objects »which do honour to human society« from destruction in wartime, he seems to have been the first modern thinker to identify a special category of property deserving of protection. Grotius, to cite him once more, had recognised a special category of objects – sacred objects – but had argued against treating these differently from other types of property (DJBAP, book III, chapter V). Vattel is fairly specific about the kind of objects needing to be spared: these include »temples, tombs, public buildings, and all works of remarkable beauty«; in other words, »monuments of art and models of taste«. In the conclusion to the chapter he reinforces the point, arguing once more against »the wanton destruction of public monuments, temples, tombes, statues, paintings, &c.«. While building types like temples, tombs, and public monuments have a universal ring to them, other qualifiers Vattel uses, such as paintings, sculptures, and »models of taste«, adhere to categories in a specifically European discourse of art. Vattel’s chosen examples shed further light on this issue: he deplores the destruction of classical Rome by the Goths and commends King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden for deciding against the ravaging of the electoral palace in Munich when the latter invaded Bavaria in 1632. Again, he seems to be thinking primarily of European heritage, both ancient and modern.

Another novel element in Vattel are the reasons given for the need to protect certain kinds of property. Public monuments and the other listed types of objects should be spared because they do not aid the enemy’s strength and as a consequence one gains nothing from destroying them. He also gives positive reasons to leave them untouched: they bring honour to humankind, merriment of heart (»gaieté du Coeur«, a phrase left out of the English-language edition) and their demolition would turn the destroyer into an enemy of the whole of humanity. Here, Vattel makes a truly universal claim: that public monuments, temples, works of art, indeed what we now call »cultural property« are of benefit to all human beings regardless of their nationality. For their universal importance, they should be protected.

This is not to say that the Swiss jurist deems destruction of objects of this category unlawful (§§168 and 173). According to Vattel, a sovereign has the right to ravage towns, monuments, works of art etc., should this amount to a military necessity or simply occur as an accident. The essence is that violence towards such property should be commensurate with the aims of war and not be excessive. Vattel’s call for the protection of »cultural property« is an appeal to the warring sovereign’s conscience; it is not a call to turn it into law.

As such, Le Droit des Gens was both an ending and a new beginning. As a culmination of the project of the law of nations (ius gentium), it stands in a tradition reaching back to such thinkers as Grotius (1583–1645), Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–94), and Christian von Wolff (1676–1756). Each in their own way, these legal scholars advocated a natural law of nations, or, in other words, a body of law governing the relations between nations grounded in nature and, for this reason, applicable to all mankind. Increasingly, however, this ideal of a universal law uniting all states in order to ultimately guarantee the rights of world citizens, was replaced by a positive law that protected the rights of states above all else (Sanahuja 2017). Vattel’s work in particular is seen as pivotal in the development of the new discipline of international law in the nineteenth century, the system that regulates interrelationships between sovereign states. With this in mind, the very title of his book, The Law of Nations, Or, Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, points to its ambivalent character. Some commentators go so far as to describe Vattel’s magnum opus as a »handbook of diplomatic casuistry«, meant to contribute to »an art of judgment of a ›situational ethics‹« for the use of diplomats who served their own state while contributing to the maintainance of the international order (Hunter 2014, pp. 584–85). As argued here, this tension between a natural, cosmopolitan law of nations and a positive, state-focused international law, which characterises the law of nations tradition of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is also apparent in those passages in Le Droit des Gens dealing with special kinds of property.

Furthermore, several recent interpreters have pointed to the relation of this tradition of thought with empire and colonialism. In Grotius’ DJBAP a natural law justification for the occupation of wasteland was introduced, which directly served the interests of the imperial powers of the West (Sanahuja 2017, 128–9; see also Van Ittersum 2006). Similarly, as Jennifer Pitts argues in relation to Vattel’s Le Droit des Gens: »Vattel assumed a legal universality that was nonetheless largely situated in the specificities of European norms and practice.« (Pitts 2018, 90) Through his use of examples, Vattel »others« Muslims and Asians, not for their different religions but for their allegedly excessive use of violence. Conversely, the violence used by Europeans in their imperial and commercial exploits overseas is largely ignored. While his theory has a world-wide scope, the interests of European states seem to have priority. In this way, Le droit des gens made itself available to those looking for ideological backing of European colonialism.

In conclusion, Vattel’s importance lies in his definition of a special kind of property, what we now call »cultural property«, that needs to be protected in wartime. While he phrases these ground-breaking thoughts in universal terms, they are nevertheless firmly grounded in the idea of the nation-state, and as such typical of the paradoxical nature of Le Droit des Gens as a whole. The public buildings, monuments, temples, paintings and sculptures that, according to Vattel, should be exempt from destruction in war are, in the first place, those belonging to European nation-states; there is less evidence that he was particularly concerned about destruction of objects that, in his view, would not clearly have belonged to a nation-state at all. Furthermore, Vattel’s call for the safeguarding of »cultural property« was foremost ethical in nature. Only in the nineteenth century would legal practice follow suit.

With thanks to Steve Murdoch.

Elsje van Kessel is Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews.

Sources and literature

Jane Anderson and Haidy Geismar (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Cultural Property, New York 2017.

Theodor Bühler, »Vattel, Emer de«, in: Stanley N. Katz (ed.), The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History, vol. 6, New York 2009, p. 73.

Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, edited and with an introduction by Richard Tuck, 3 vols, Indianapolis 2005.

Dieter Hüning, »Vattel, Emer de (1714–67)«, in: Heiner F. Klemme and Manfred Kuehn (eds), The Dictionary of German Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, New York 2011.

Ian Hunter, »The Law of Nature and Nations«, in: Aaron Garrett (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Eighteenth Century Philosophy, New York 2014, pp. 559–592.

Martine Julia van Ittersum, Profit and Principle: Hugo Grotius, Natural Rights Theories and the Rise of Dutch Power in the East Indies, 15951615, Leiden and Boston 2006.

John Henry Merryman, Thinking about the Elgin Marbles: Critical Essays on Cultural Property, Art and Law, Alphen aan den Rijn 2009.

Margaret M. Miles, Art as Plunder. The Ancient Origins of Debate about Cultural Property, Cambridge 2008.

Anthony Pagden, The Burdens of Empire. 1539 to the Present, Cambridge 2015.

Jennifer Pitts, Boundaries of the International. Law and Empire, Cambridge, Mass. 2018.

Lorena Cebolla Sanahuja, »On the Sorry Comforters of the Law of Nations. Toward a ›Moralizing‹ of Cosmopolitanism«, in: idem, Toward Kantian Cosmopolitanism, Cham 2017, pp. 127–155.

Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations, or, Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, with Three Early Essays on the Origin and Nature of Natural Law and on Luxury, edited and with an introduction by Béla Kapossy and Richard Whatmore, Indianapolis 2008.

Cite this article as:
Vattel: Le Droit des Gens (1758), commented by Elsje van Kessel, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike, https://translanth.hypotheses.org/ueber/vattel, published 22.04.2020.

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