The German-Russian Stalemate

With diplomatic efforts unable to resolve the trophy-art dilemma, museum officials in both countries are looking for a way to break the deadlock.

Window from the medieval Marienkirche in Frankfurt (Oder). The entire set of 117 panes was restored and returned by the Russians. At the same time, German funds paid for the reconstruction of a church in Novgorod.

Window from the medieval Marienkirche in Frankfurt (Oder). The entire set of 117 panes was restored and returned by the Russians. At the same time, German funds paid for the reconstruction of a church in Novgorod.


In 1990 the Soviet Union and the Federal Republic of Germany signed a Good-Neighborliness Treaty, pledging to return to each other “unlawfully removed art treasures.” That treaty might as well have been written on sand. Twenty-one years later, hundreds of thousands of artworks, books, and archives taken from Germany after World War II by Red Army trophy brigades are still hidden in Russian storerooms. Cultural officials from both countries say these objects are unlikely to return to Germany anytime soon.

The Soviets considered that they had the right to seize German property, from entire factories to museum collections, as compensation for the losses the Germans had inflicted on their country. After the establishment of the German Democratic Republic, the Soviets returned approximately 1.5 million objects to museums in their “sister” socialist state, but objects that came from the former West Germany are still in Russia.

“On the political level, nothing is happening,” says Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

The current governments of the two countries remain locked in their official positions. Russia still claims the trophy objects as legitimate compensation for Soviet wartime losses. In 1999 the Russian constitutional court validated a law that nationalized the objects, making them the property of the Russian state.

Germany, on the other hand, on the basis of existing treaties and international law, demands the restitution of all cultural property taken by the trophy brigades.

“Between the two governments,” says Wolfgang Eichwede of Bremen University, “stagnation, feuding, and lack of understanding prevail. Diplomacy on this issue is now in a deep freeze.”

As founding director of the university’s Research Center for Eastern Europe, which investigated Soviet cultural losses, Eichwede was instrumental in bringing about several private restitutions. During the ’90s, he says “the German government was responsible for the deadlock. Now it’s the Russians who are no longer interested. The Germans don’t see any chance to provoke in a constructive way Russian interest in this field.”

Interviewed recently in New York, Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, also said that a political solution to the trophy-art dilemma was not on the horizon. “Nobody will agree. Germany will not agree to give [the art] to Russia, and Russia will not agree to give it back to Germany.”

Someday, Piotrovsky says, “things will change, and it will be understood that some things must go back and some things can stay, so we have to prepare this day.” That will be for the scholars and culture professionals to do, not the politicians.

The Russian museums must bring the trophy art out of hiding, Piotrovsky says. “The only crime we have done was to keep it out of human knowledge. As it is shown, step by step will come a normal solution.” If all scholars have full access to the art, if they can study and catalogue it, there will develop “a good atmosphere, no tension in cultural relations with our German colleagues.”

A breakthrough, he and others say, was the 2007 exhibition “The Age of the Merovingians: Europe Without Borders” at the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. For the first time in this exhibition, objects that had been taken by Soviet trophy brigades were shown alongside those that remained in Germany. The Museum of Pre- and Early History in Berlin, which owned all of the objects before the war, sent 270 artifacts to join the 700 in the Pushkin Museum, and a four-person curatorial team, including one scholar from the Berlin museum, produced a catalogue, published in three languages, that documented the provenance of all the objects. The emphasis was on Russian-German cooperation, in marked contrast to the exhibition of Trojan gold at the Pushkin Museum in 1996, which was entirely a Russian undertaking.

The Merovingian exhibition drew crowds in Moscow and Saint Petersburg but, to the disappointment of the organizers, wasn’t shown in Berlin. The German government refused to guarantee that the objects would not be seized, and the Russian culture ministry consequently refused to let it leave Russia.

Piotrovsky described another collaborative project now in the works. “Russia and Germany: One Thousand Years Together,” tentatively scheduled to appear in both Moscow and Berlin in 2013, will include a wide range of objects, from portraits of the czars to paintings by Russian avant-gardists living in Germany.

Such cooperative endeavors among scholarly colleagues, Piotrovsky believes, are more important than “shifting the trophy objects from a Russian museum to a German museum.” He says a Berlin museum director told him, “‘I don’t need these archeological shards—to move them from your cellars to our cellars.’ There are things that are important—things about which there can be no negotiations—things important for German self- consciousness, German self-understanding.” The other things can remain in Russia.

Parzinger has a different perspective on this. “There are so many things we don’t know where they are or what condition they are in,” he says. “Some of these objects weren’t published since the 19th century. We have to do new research and exhibitions together with our Russian colleagues. I wouldn’t say it’s not important where the objects are.”

But he agrees with Piotrovsky that not everything has to be returned.”My dream would be to think which things are very important to our cultural heritage,” Parzinger says. “Those things should come back.” His list begins with the Bronze Age gold treasure of Eberswalde, the largest prehistoric gold treasure found in Germany, which has been in the Pushkin Museum since 1945.

“Other things are not so important,” he says. Keeping in mind the losses suffered by the Russians during the war, he suggests that objects not integral to German culture could simply be given to the Russians as a gift. In that case, they would legally belong to the Russians and could travel across boundaries without the Russians fearing that any government would attempt to seize them.

“I say these things not as a politician but as an individual,” Parzinger says. “Many of my colleagues think the same way. But this is just a dream for the time being.”

Eichwede says it’s important to have access to Russian storerooms for another reason. “Our Russian colleagues don’t know exactly which parts of German art collections belonged in former times to German Jews or Jews of other nations,” he says. The Soviet trophy brigades that confiscated German museum collections after the war didn’t know from whom the museums had acquired the objects, or how. They didn’t know if the objects had belonged to Jews who had be
en forced to sell and whose property had been taken over by institutions. “This was a very complicated procedure, and sometimes there were deals,” Eichwede said. “Even today, we don’t know exactly which of our museums used the catastrophic situation of the German Jews. It’s a real problem.”

The Russian law that nationalized the trophy objects did make certain exceptions. It allows the return of objects that belonged to Jews or to victims of Nazism, as well as objects that were looted by private soldiers acting on their own. But such restitutions have been extremely rare, and private initiatives have been important in bringing them about.

Some high-profile restitutions have been paid for. The return of 117 medieval stained-glass windowpanes from the Marienkirche in Frankfurt (Oder) in 2002 and 2008 was matched by the reconstruction of a church in Novgorod, funded by the German energy company Wintershall.

In 2000, a mosaic panel from the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, outside Saint Petersburg, turned up in Bremen, and after complicated negotiations was returned to Russia. At the same time, 101 drawings from the Bremen Kunsthalle that had been looted by a private Soviet soldier were handed back to the museum. The Amber Room itself, which was destroyed during the war, was reconstructed with funds from the German company Ruhrgas.

But another cache from the Bremen Kunsthalle is still in Russia, although a deal was made for its return. A collection of 362 drawings and two paintings looted by Red Army officer Viktor Baldin its hiding place in a castle near Berlin was prevented from leaving Russia when the announcement of their impending departure caused a firestorm in the Russian parliament and the media. Since then, Eichwede says, talks on a governmental level about restitution have been at a standstill.

Looking for a way around the official deadlock, around 85 German museums whose artworks may be held in Russian museums are now part of the German-Russian Museums’ Dialogue, launched in 2005. Its head, Britta Kaiser-Schuster, an official of the Cultural Foundation of the Federal Provinces, says that the “dialogue” hasn’t yet taken shape, “because we still miss the Russian side.” A conference to be held next year, possibly in Saint Petersburg, will encourage Russian involvement. Parzinger and Piotrovsky will be “speakers” for their countries, Kaiser-Schuster says. The dialogue, she emphasizes, is nongovernmental.

Will the two governments ever reach a permanent solution to the problem of the displaced artworks? “Who knows?” Piotrovsky answers. “We’re not in a hurry. For us, the most important thing is that we don’t have this tension if you take out the politicians.”

Sylvia Hochfield is editor-at-large of ARTnews.

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