July 28, 2005
Russia continues to hold a large amount of artefacts that they took from Germany during the Second World War. Germany also holds a number of Russian artefacts. In all the discussions between the two countries about the return of these items tat were looted relatively recently, there is never much discussion of how items such as Etruscan sculptures ended up in German Museums in the first place.
Germany hankers for its heritage
By Judy Dempsey International Herald Tribune
THURSDAY, JULY 21, 2005
POTSDAM, Germany When Chancellor Gerhard Schröder traveled to Moscow in May for the lavish celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, Germany’s museum directors and curators hoped against hope that Russia would start returning the art plundered by the Red Army after it took Berlin in the spring of 1945.
“Somehow we hoped that once the celebrations in Moscow had taken place, we could reach a deal over getting the art back and that a new era would begin,” said Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. “I suppose we had been investing in that.”
Lehmann, who has spent the past 13 years negotiating with the Russians, said the cultural property the Russian authorities and soldiers removed from Germany in 1945 included 200,000 works of art, two million books, and files that if placed end to end would stretch three kilometers, or almost two miles.
Among the art was the Treasure of Priamus – an important collection of Etruscan sculptures, vases, terra cotta and other items dating back to ancient Greece.
As if to show the Germans the state of the situation, that collection went on display for the first time as plundered art at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow just as the anniversary celebrations unfolded.
Both sides accuse each other of plundering art during their respective occupations during World War II. For Russians and Germans, whose mutual admiration – and abhorrence – stretches back centuries, the plundered art is deeply bound up with their emotions about World War II.
The Germans, in hoping to retrieve what is known here as the Beutekunst, or plundered art, are acting on a sentiment that, while they bear collective guilt for Nazi crimes, Germany, too, suffered. In this view, the Germans are entitled to recover the art.
For the Russians, the art symbolizes their suffering at the hands of the Nazis, and the triumph over Germany. That victory is still considered a great achievement of Soviet rule in Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, hails from Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, one of the cities that suffered most during the war.
“The issue of Beutekunst is very complex,” said Hartmut Dorgerloh, general director of the Foundation for Prussian Palaces and Gardens, which oversees renovations of structures that fell into disrepair in East Germany and whose art collections were taken to Moscow during Communist rule. Dorgerloh added that the issue “is linked to national self-confidence and identity. Putin will not let go.”
Dorgerloh, an art professor who speaks fluent Russian, is a member of the German team that is negotiating with the Russians.
For Germans, the Russians are clinging to what Germans regard as their Teutonic heritage – including about 5,800 ancient books from the famous Gotha library, two examples of the Bible printed in 1454 by Gutenberg, and important paintings by Rubens like “Mars Takes Leave of Venus” and “Tarquin and Lucretia,” which was painted around 1610.
Despite frequent requests, no German official or museum director has been allowed to visit the places where the art is stored, which means that they have no idea about the condition of the pieces, other than the few in Russian museums.
Schröder’s friendship with Putin gave the museum directors some grounds for hope. But like the anniversary celebrations, that relationship yielded nothing – and Schröder may be out of power after elections expected in September.
“Somehow the issue of Beutekunst was never on top of the German chancellor’s agenda,” said Dorgerloh, whose foundation oversees the renovations of castles that fell into disrepair in Communist East Germany while their art collections were taken to Moscow.
Among the Red Army troops who entered Berlin in 1945 were experts sent to establish “trophy commissions.” Their official mission was to look for Russian cultural property stolen by the Nazis when they had invaded the Soviet Union. But Red Army officers started removing the large art collections and treasures that had been stored in bunkers and railway depots during the war and transported them home.
One such painting was “Tarquin and Lucretia.” It had been bought by Frederick the Great, who hung it in the picture gallery in Sanssouci, his magnificent summer palace in Potsdam and the first purpose-built museum building in Germany.
During World War II, instead of placing the painting in storage, Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, gave it as a gift to a lover. Toward the end of the war, the painting was moved to a castle north of Berlin, which came under Soviet occupation. It vanished.
According to a book published this year by the Foundation for Prussian Palaces and Gardens, a Red Army officer identified as Boris Dorofejew took the painting and brought it to Moscow.
Dorofejew, the book claimed, took the picture out of its frame, folded it and later sold it for $800. It reappeared only in 2003 when a Russian businessman, Vladimir Logvinenko, said he had bought it from a dealer for several thousand dollars. Russia refused to return it. Now restored, it hangs in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.
The Germans say their case for the return of the art is supported by international law. According to Article 56 of the Laws and Customs of War on Land, from the Hague Convention of 1907, all property, including state property dedicated to “education, the arts and sciences,” should be treated as private property and cannot be plundered.
During the late 1950s, Soviet authorities returned some treasures to the museums in the eastern, Communist-ruled part of Berlin.
Germany has started to return to the Russian authorities paintings and other items plundered by German soldiers from 1941 to 1944. In 1997, the Germans started giving back one of the most prized possessions stolen by the Nazis, the Amber Room, an ornate chamber of mosaics and gold.
In 1990, Germany and the Soviet Union, then under President Mikhail Gorbachev, signed a landmark treaty stating that the parties “agree that lost or unlawfully transferred art treasures that are located in their territory will be returned to the owners or their successors.”
In 1992, after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the German and Russian governments made another agreement of cultural cooperation.
“And even though there was an agreement that property stolen from Jews or from those who resisted the Nazis should be given back, the Russians kept dragging their feet,” Lehmann said.
In 1997, an alliance of nationalists and Communists in the Duma, or Russian Parliament, passed legislation banning the return of art to Germany.
“The law passed by the Duma has to be respected,” said Svyatoslav Kutschko, a Russian diplomat based in Berlin. “There is the legal aspect of who owns the property and there is the humanitarian aspect, such as returning art to those who resisted the Nazis or to property owned by the churches. Things are being done on a case-by-case basis.”
He noted that medieval stained-glass windows were returned to the church in Frankfurt (Oder) in 2002. (The Duma rushed through a bill allowing the return as a gesture to coincide with a visit by Putin.)
By contrast, plundered art held in Ukraine, Armenia and other former Soviet republics has been returned to Germany.
“What we now worry about is that with the passing of time, some very valuable books and manuscripts could be damaged,” said Dorgerloh.
Kutschko, the Russian diplomat, dismissed such concerns. “The museum directors need not worry,” he said. “We do not want to lose the art. It would be very bad for us too. We are taking care of it.”
- Artefacts from German Museums now in Russia : June 3, 2005
- Should Russia return seized German artefacts? : March 15, 2007
- The Soviet return of looted artworks from Dresden : September 4, 2005
- Learning how to spot Nazi looted artefacts at the Shoah Legacy Institute : June 19, 2012
- Germany’s moral right to reclaim from Russia the treasures (that they looted from others) : June 19, 2013
- Russia & the Rostropovich Art Deal : September 19, 2007
- German art in Russia : July 2, 2005
- A restitution which should never have happened? : August 29, 2006