Germany's Lost Treasures Are Russia's Trophy Art from WWII

Many Germans appear willing to accept a compromise on the return of artwork taken by the Soviets in 1945, but many Russians see the art as compensation for the loss of 26 million Russians in the war.

Half a century after the end of World War II, artwork taken from Germany by Soviet soldiers after defeating the Nazis has taken center stage in Russian-German relations.

And tensions between Russia and Germany over this trophy art show that, while Germans may be moderating their stance on the subject, many Russians - including most of the Russian parliament - are reluctant to relinquish control over the art.

Russia retains a large treasure of German art and archival material confiscated illegally from the Nazis at the end of the war: 200,000 artworks (including coins), 1.5 million books, and two shelf-miles of archives. And Russia agrees, in principle at least, that it is legally obligated to return these cultural assets. Russians recall that in the 1960s, the bulk of the booty, including thousands of coins and archaeological items, was returned to East Germany.

'Hostess gift' of artwork

On his recent visit to Baden-Baden for a tte--tte with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Russian President Boris Yeltsin brought along a rather unusual "hostess gift": part of the archive of Walter Rathenau, foreign minister in Germany between the two world wars.

It was a good-faith gesture toward Mr. Kohl, and an act of defiance of the parliament.

The rest of the archive is to be sent along shortly. "We haven't seen anything yet, but we're eagerly waiting," says Ernst Eichengr, spokesman for the German Federal Archive in Koblenz.

But meanwhile the Russian Duma, in a cantankerous and nationalistic mood over, among other things, the coming expansion of NATO, has moved to block the return of trophy art in general.

In the eyes of many Russians, the trophy art is small compensation for the 26 million Soviet lives lost in a war that Germany started.

The Duma, the lower house of parliament, has approved a bill that would subject cultural assets to enough red tape to effectively block repatriation to Germany. In essence, the Nationalist-Communist-controlled Duma wants to be sure that this art remains forever in Russian hands and forever in Russia territory.

Mr. Yeltsin's interest in the bill stems from his desire not to have his hands tied over this issue. He'd rather negotiate the fate of this trophy art - and to that end, he vetoed the bill.

But the Duma recently overrode his veto. To become law, the bill now needs a two-thirds majority in the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament. The vote is to be held in May, and Yeltsin has threatened to appeal to the constitutional court if the bill passes.

Though the German Foreign Ministry in Bonn is "hoping and expecting that the bill will fail, as a previous such bill did," according to a Foreign Ministry official, observers in Moscow suggest that those hopes are likely to be disappointed.

Differing perspectives

"There are two fundamental problems here," says Wolfgang Eichwede, director of the Eastern Europe Institute at the University of Bremen and an authority on trophy art. "One is that the Germans are arguing primarily on legal grounds, and the Russians are arguing primarily on the grounds of historical responsibility. The other is that the country that was attacked, and which finally won the war, is being asked to return cultural assets to the aggressor nation, which was ultimately defeated."

It is a case, Professor Eichwede suggests, of "What's wrong with this picture?" (Cultural assets confiscated illegally by the Germans were brought to "collection points" by the occupying American forces after the war for return to their rightful owners.)

Eichwede is nonetheless brimming with ideas for possible solutions: German aid for restoration of old churches and other significant buildings in Russia; German support for a new museum of contemporary art for Moscow; a German declaration of some of the trophy art to be on long-term, though not indefinite, loan.

"But the most important thing is that the solutions worked out for this problem be future-oriented, and they should work to tie the two peoples together," he adds.

He says he finds it "absurd" that with the cold war over and Germany reunified - with the serious questions of political power settled - the two countries are squabbling over what is essentially an issue of symbols, albeit powerful ones.

Germany, with its legalistic approach, missed "a window of opportunity" for the return of trophy art during the period 1992-1993, says Eichwede. At that time, a "grand gesture" of some sort on Bonn's part might have finessed the deal and let Russia return the art without loss of face. Now the Germans have moderated their position somewhat, "but the Russians are much more nationalistic."

Debt of gratitude to Russia

Germany has been, and remains, one of Russia's staunchest partners in the West, but the sourness over trophy art fits into a larger context of "a certain disappointment," as Eichwede puts it, on Germany's part that the relationship with the brave new Russia isn't going more smoothly.

Still, thoughtful Germans are aware how closely entwined their history is with Russia's, and specifically, of the Russian (or Soviet) role in allowing German reunification to go forward.

Peter Gauweiler, chairman of the archconservative Christian Social Union in Munich, recently urged Bonn to make a gift of the art to Russia "as a gesture of gratitude that the Russians, with former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika [restructuring] and Yeltsin's bloodless revolution, not only liberated themselves, but also gave Germany, at the end of this century, another chance, against all expectations."

For many Germans, public access to the art seems more important than possession per se. A Forsa poll conducted for the liberal weekly Die Woche found 63 percent of respondents favoring display of Russia's trophy art in a special museum under joint ownership; 20 percent favored exertion of political pressure to get the art back.

Jointly controlled museum?

Manfred Gllner, director of the Forsa Institute in Berlin, said he found it "quite remarkable that so many poll respondents came down in the sensible center on the issue, making up their own minds independently of what the political establishment had to say." Both younger and older poll respondents had similarly moderate views, he added.

On the other hand, even some who favor magnanimity over jot-and-tittle legalism hesitate to see Bonn renounce all claims to the Russians' trophies.

"That would be a retroactive justification for the systematic expropriation of cultural assets from a country under siege," commented Doris Lemmermeier of the Coordination Center of the States for the Return of Cultural Assets.

The Foreign Ministry certainly concurs here: Germany can't afford to set a precedent that could be used to justify the plunder of cultural treasures in Bosnia, for instance, an official comments.

And the idea of a jointly owned museum in Moscow is a nonstarter for many observers. "First of all, the art is art first, and not 'trophies,' " says Eichwede.

And however full of international good feeling the idea of a jointly owned trophy-art museum may sound to its advocates, to the German Foreign Ministry this would only confirm the Soviets' possession of pieces of Germany's cultural legacy. "A trophy-art museum is what Stalin wanted to build in Moscow," the Foreign Ministry official says.

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