February 10, 2006

Sarospatak library to be returned to Hungary

Posted at 3:38 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The Sarospatak library, of 134 books ended up in Russia after the Second World War. Russia has recently made a decision to return these antique books to Hungary. This article compares this case to that of the Heidelberg fragment of the Parthenon Marbles which it was recently announced would be returned to Greece.

RIA Novosti (Russia)

Russia returns Sarospatak library to Hungary
09/ 02/ 2006

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Anatoly Korolyov.) — A report about the decision of the State Duma to hand over to Hungary antique books from the Sarospatak Library has coincided in time with the decision of the University of Heidelberg to return to Greece part of the Parthenon frieze by the great Phidias.

True, this is just a small fragment, hardly bigger than a book, and depicts part of a foot.

Also true, the decision of the University of Heidelberg was reported by its Vice Rector, Dr. Angelos Chaniotis, who is of Greek origin. Apparently, he strongly influenced this decision. However, the Greek Ministry of Culture made a statement that the noble decision of the University is a profoundly symbolic gesture, which would be followed at long last by deeds. Greece has been robbed of a huge number of artifacts.

There is an antique installation in the heart of Berlin, consisting of the Pergamon Altar, and incredible friezes from hundreds of marble figures, which make a fragment of the foot from Heidelberg look very modest.

But the saying goes, never look the gift horse in the mouth.

But let’s return to the Hungarian books.

The Sarospatak Library consists of 134 volumes. Before World War II it belonged to the Sarospatak Calvinist College of the Tisza Diocese of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Budapest. The Nazi book lovers were the first to lay their hands on the Library. Although Hungary was a German ally in World War II (but was occupied by the Nazis later on), the Library was confiscated and transported from Budapest to the Third Reich. It was there that it fell into the hands of the 49th Army, notably, Soviet Captain Pyotr Yegorov, the Commandant of Sarospatak. Eventually, the books landed in the U.S.S.R., where the trophy collection became part of the Nizhny Novgorod research library.

As distinct from the Soviet habit to couch everything in a thick veil of secrecy, new democratic Russia went for declassification across the board, which brought about a wave of criticism. During perestroika we even published a magazine, Trophei (Trophies), every issue of which listed everything the Soviet Union received as a result of the war.

We hoped that Europe would appreciate our noble gesture, but it did not. We are being showered with demands to return all kinds of things without any delay. Heinrich Schliemann’s legendary collection of Trojan gold is first on the list.

Russia has a clearly defined position: the cultural artifacts, which were brought to the Soviet Union during World War II and which remain in Russia’s possession, may be returned on four conditions: if they belonged to Holocaust victims, other Nazi victims, the states that did not wage war against the U.S.S.R, or to religious organizations.

Hungarian books fall into the fourth category. They may become a step toward dialogue between Russia and Hungary, at least in the cultural field. Hungary has promised to immortalize the name of Captain Yegorov who saved the books from destruction by fire.

A total of 134 volumes are much more impressive than just one noble gesture of the University of Heidelberg.

The situation in Europe is very tense. Germany demands that Russia return Schliemann’s gold and the Baldin collection of drawings from Kunsthalle Bremen; Greece demands the Pergamon Altar from Germany. A list of those who stole sculptures from the Parthenon is simply endless. Today fragments of this ancient Greek masterpiece are kept in the Louvre Museum, Vienna, Vatican, Copenhagen, Strasbourg, and museums of Cambridge, Wurzburg, and Palermo. But the British Museum has the biggest number of Parthenon sculptures.

Britain bought the precious leftovers from the Ottoman Empire (of which Greece was part), and insists that the deal was legal. Greece is emphatically denies this explanation, claiming that the purchase was made without the consent of the Greeks, who were suppressed by the Turkish occupants. This is a serious argument.

Egypt is increasingly positioning itself as a robbed country. This may seriously prejudice Europe against it. If Egypt’s claims are recognized, everything that was removed by the Romans will have to be returned, for instance the Egyptian obelisk in front of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. There are 13 such obelisks in Rome alone. Granite monuments in honor of the Sun God Ra decorate Paris and London.

We will have to dismantle a couple of sphinxes in St. Petersburg, which have been facing the Academy of Arts on the Neva Embankment for more than 200 years. This orgy of reciprocal claims should be stopped with an open discussion of the problem at the highest international level, for instance, in the United Nations.

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