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Stolen by Stalin

A new chapter is about to begin in the story of art looting during World War II. Up until now, attention has centered on the Nazis’ systematic, pitiless theft of art treasures from occupied countries and from Jews destined for extermination camps. The return of this art to its rightful owners is no simple matter, especially where entire families have vanished; not until last year, for example, did the Belvedere in Vienna return to Maria Altmann the five Gustav Klimt paintings that had been extorted from her uncle in 1938. (The most ravishing of these, the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, subsequently was sold to Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics tycoon, for $135 million.) The critical success of the 2006 documentary The Rape of Europa, which looked both at art theft and recovery efforts, shows that public interest remains strong.

Less well-known is that, at the close of the war, Germany’s art treasures were plundered just as ruthlessly and (perhaps) just as systematically. On the part of the western allies, this consisted of individual thievery, such as the American army lieutenant who stole $200 million worth of art treasures from the cathedral of Quedlinburg. On the part of the Soviet Union, however, art plunder was conducted as a matter of state policy, and viewed as the legitimate spoils of war. Some 180,000 items were lost, chiefly to the Soviet Union, and now Germany has at last begun to ask, quietly and discreetly, for the return of that art.

The key player is the SPK, or Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz). The SPK is the steward for the art and culture for the former state of Prussia, from which the lion’s share of the missing art was taken. Since official requests for the return of the art have been fruitless, the SPK has sought to appeal to the Russian public directly. It is publishing six catalogues of the missing art, hoping to call attention to the missing work, and perhaps to prompt owners of individual items to come forward. The first catalogue is devoted to sculpture and lists 1,611 items—which, if recovered, “would represent one of the most important sculptural collections of Europe.”

It is understandable that it has taken so long for Germany to assert its claim to its lost art. Until 1990, there was no unified German state to make a claim, nor was the German Democratic Republic in a position to make demands of the Soviet Union. Moreover, there was a widespread feeling that these cultural losses were justifiable reparations for the unimaginable barbarity of the war Germany had launched. To demand the missing art would have been out of keeping with the self-abnegating sensibility of postwar Germany.

But recently, a different historical perspective has emerged. The unofficial taboo against dwelling on the sufferings of the German people during the war gradually lifted, and on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, the German media gave extraordinary coverage to the suffering of the German refugees from the east. Such an elegiac sensibility is not all that different from that in the United States, where World War II is now receding from living memory into history. In Germany, however, this new cultural assertiveness seems a sign that the upcoming generation will not be restrained by the war guilt that has played a major role in European affairs for the past half century.

It is particularly ironic that stolen Prussian art should again incite brooding over German nationhood. Much of this same art was already looted once before, under Napoleon, who shipped it westward rather than eastward. Although Napoleon seized merely the private collection of the Prussian king, that art was transformed, by the ensuing swell of German patriotism, into national cultural patrimony. Berlin’s Altes Museum was built to house the collection, which became the basis of one of the world’s first public art museums. One can admire the scrupulous and poignant inventory of lost art treasures that the SPK has now compiled, even while recognizing that some of its distant political ramifications are unsettling, or even incendiary.



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