September 4, 2005

The Soviet return of looted artworks from Dresden

Posted at 5:48 pm in Similar cases

This week is the fiftieth anniversary of the return of many artworks to Dresden by the Soviet Union. These pieces had all been looted in the final stages of the war, but 10 years later, Nikita Khrushchev saw potential political benefits in the act of returning these works.
I would not go far as this article does though in describing the act as a “generous gesture”, bearing in mind that they had stolen these pieces that they were returning only a decade earlier.

Anniversary of the return of masterpieces to Dresden Gallery
02/ 09/ 2005

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Anatoly Korolyov.) –Fifty years ago this week the Soviet Union returned the paintings the Red Army had taken as trophies after the victory over Nazi Germany to the Dresden Gallery.

In that distant year of 1955 no one could force the Soviet Union to do anything against its will.

I use the word “will” deliberately, because the person who demonstrated it and returned the masterpieces to Dresden was later accused of excessive displays of his own will, of spontaneous and ill-considered decisions. I mean the then Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. He has been criticized for all but unleashing a nuclear war at the time of the Caribbean crisis, of giving the Russian Crimea to Ukraine, of planting corn in cold regions, of denouncing Stalin’s personality cult and beginning to create his own. But never has he been criticized for returning the Dresden paintings.

Of course, the move clearly had a political rationale to it.

Khrushchev hoped that it would earn political dividends for socialist countries and wanted to show that for the socialist camp friendship was more important than financial considerations. But can anyone fling off a sable coat into outsider hands with such typical Russian panache? And although the noble deed was partially a political move, saying that it was not noble at all would mean to distort the spirit of the story.

So far Europe has not seen a similar historic gesture. No one has returned the Pergamon Altar or Parthenon friezes to Greece or the Ramesses treasures to Egypt.

European museums avidly watch over every stolen stone or piece of parchment.

The director of an American museum could not leave the United States for six years, because France demanded his arrest via the Interpol for buying a single paining smuggled from France. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, when ordered by court to return gems stolen by an American soldier at the end of World War II to the Bavarian State Museum, did so on condition that its name would never be connected with their return. The gems at issue are a few tiny images on stone that could fit into the palm of a hand.

The generous Russian gesture has remained unrivalled.

The Dresden masterpieces were exhibited in the Moscow Pushkin Fine Arts Museum in 1955 and crowds of amazed people, who came to see and say farewell to Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, Giorgione’s Venus and Titian’s Denario de Cesar made this humanitarian act seem a blessed expression of the nation’s will.

We returned 1,240 works of art to Dresden!

The total number of pieces of art sent to East Germany amounted to 1,850,000, plus 71,000 books and 3 million archives.

This grand gesture was made at a time when the memories of the terrible bombing of Dresden by the English were still fresh. On the night of February 13/14, 1945, when Germany was virtually defeated and there was no urgent need for such a cruel attack, the city was attacked by 1,400 bombers. A total of 3,749 bombs, of which 75% were fire bombs, were dropped over Dresden. The second strike followed three hours later and the third eight hours later. Dresden was razed to the ground and 135,000 people were killed.

The Zwinger museum, where the collection was stored, was damaged, and 197 paintings were destroyed by fire.

Yet the new Russia can match the Soviet Union in its noble moves.

Having got rid of the party yoke, in a rush of naive elation, we abandoned the previous secrecy policy. We began publishing the Trofei (Trophies) magazine, which showed a great number of works of art that had been brought to the country after the war. We allowed everyone who was interested to use our archives. Which, for example, allowed the Poles to publish a volume-long list of cultural valuables taken away by Soviet troops and angrily denounce the barbarism of Russians.

Yet this book came into being thanks to Russia’s open policy, which provided Poles with access to archives.

We thought such noble deeds would be appreciated.

We were wrong.

The recent anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany escalated the tension between the two countries’ museums once again. Several public and state organizations have been set up in Germany to make claims to Russia. An extremely long list of works of art lost by Germany has been complied. The Germans maintain that Russia has at least 250,000 items that can be classified as displaced valuables.

Recently, Russia has finally begun to change its defensive position and is preparing for an offensive. It has at long last prepared several volumes of the comprehensive catalog of cultural valuables lost during World War II. It numbers about 1.5 million items, yet is far from exhaustive.

Now we need to publish it.

Obviously, the German and Russian lists of losses promise an eternal war of claims with no end in sight.

It is equally obvious that we should have put an end to this long ago.

The 50th anniversary of the Dresden paintings’ return gives some reasons to believe that the relations between the countries and their museums have entered a new era. The Pushkin Fine Arts Museum and the General Directorate of the Dresden State Art Collections have signed an agreement on cooperation.

This means that they will continue working together on such projects as, say, joint publication of correspondence between the then head of the Dresden museum Georg Treu and professor Ivan Tsvetayev, a Russian collector who founded the museum in Moscow.

Finally, the ice has begun to melt.

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