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War and the city: a history

Analysis / History / Humanitarian Action / Urban warfare 6 mins read

War and the city: a history

The failed surprise attack on the city of Geneva, Switzerland, known as l'Escalade, on 12 December 1602 by troops sent by Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy. Painting by Karl Jauslin.

As long as there have been cities, wars have been staged within them. While the term ‘urban warfare’ conjures more recent images of hollowed buildings and human suffering from Mosul and Mekelle, its history dates back several millennia. In this post, part of our blog series on urban warfare, ICRC’s historian Daniel Palmieri takes us through the archives of war and the city.

It is said that the first ‘real’ city was born in the Middle East several millennia ago; its name was Çatal Hüyük and it was founded, eight to nine thousand years ago, in present-day Turkey.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it is in the same region where we can find the first written accounts of warfare against cities. While some of the stories are mythological, such as the capture of Troy after a ten-year war celebrated by Homer in the Iliad, there are historical accounts of war against cities dating back to the 15th century BCE; we know in detail the siege and capture of the city of Megiddo by the Egyptian army fighting against a large rebellious coalition of Canaanite vassal states led by the king of Kadesh.

A moving target

The ancient relationship between war and the city has taken on many forms, many of which are echoed in the urban battles of today. Sometimes, cities went to bloody war against each other, as in ancient Greece, but more often wars of invasion were waged against cities not for their destruction, but for their conquest. Once established, the city rapidly became an object to covet, a centre of power and wealth. To conquer cities, attackers had to develop new military technologies, and a specific art and technique of siege against cities or strongholds was created: poliorcetics. The very first treatise on this new method of fighting comes from Greece in the 4th century BCE.

Faced with a threat, the city prepared for siege and fortified itself through a large system of walls which developed and improved up until the 18th century under the impulse of military architects and engineers, including the famous Marquis of Vauban (1633-1707 CE). The city became a military safehouse where people could find temporary refuge in case of war.

With the development of powerful and long-range artillery, however, the increasing uselessness of fortifications led to a reverse movement in the 19th century, during which towns started to free themselves from their defensive straitjacket. This was the case for Geneva, for example, which from 1849 began dismantling the fortifications that had surrounded the city centre since the 14th century.

Cities thus started to regain a purely civilian dimension, developing in parallel to an influx of rural populations or emigrants attracted by the industrial or craft potential now concentrated in urban centres. This trend began in the 19th century, escalated in the 20th century and continues today.

However, as places of political and economic significance, and as centres of communication and densely populated areas, cities remain targets of war; it is only the means of annihilating them which have changed over the millennia. While in 146 BCE, Romans destroyed Carthage by fire, Guernica, Coventry or Dresden suffered from a new means of combat centuries later – bombing by military planes – and Hiroshima and Nagasaki felt the devastating effects that nuclear weapons unleashed upon them.

The war within

Alongside this war against cities we can also examine the war within them, characterized by the big urban battles of the Second World War such as Nanjing, Stalingrad or Berlin – whose capture or recapture was carried out almost house by house – but also by the violence in Nicaragua, the former Yugoslavia, the Caucasus, and those still taking place in the Middle East.

As a source of both threat and attraction, the city hinders the belligerents not only in terms of strategic advance but in their mental universe, since the city is often a place where ‘otherness’ manifests itself most strongly and freely. This can explain, in part, the drive some belligerents have towards the city, once captured, to loot, destroy, and raze it to the ground to eradicate all material, cultural or religious traces of the presence of the enemy, of the ‘other’. As for its inhabitants, when they are not killed or taken into captivity they are chased away or forced to flee, thus participating in the total annihilation of the city, and sometimes even its memory. The Old Testament (Book of Judges) recalls that King Abimelech, upon taking the city of Shechem and killing its inhabitants, razed it to the ground and poured salt on it to eliminate any possibility of revival.

Despite the attacks, the city resists, refusing to surrender, surviving military sieges and urban battles. A famous photograph of London’s Holland Park Library from 1940 captures readers browsing books even though the building around them was largely destroyed by a German bombing. In her Diary of Leningrad, Lena Mukhina (1924-1991) recounts daily life through a 900-day blockade of her besieged city. Some of us can also recall the election of Inela Nogić as ‘Miss Sarajevo Under Siege’ in 1993, when the city was in its darkest hour.

Behind these gleaming moments of resistance, however, war in the city is more intimately linked with death. The images of corpses littering the streets of starving Leningrad or the civilian losses during the siege of Nuremberg in 1632, which saw half of its population perish, remind us that the ‘normality’ of the city can only flourish in times of peace, and the survival of a city engulfed by war depends above all on the resilience of those who live there.

This war against and in cities is one of the major contemporary challenges for humanitarian action. The concentration of populations, essential services, electrical or communication networks, health infrastructures, and cultural or heritage objects in cities means that they are at the heart of many concerns related to the respect for international humanitarian law. Building on lessons of the past but also anticipating future developments, humanitarian action must adapt to the changing and complex nature of urban warfare, taking into account not only individuals but also communities and the supply, health care and social systems in the city which directly affect them.

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