Saturday, July 14, 2012

Spiegel on Russia's War Trophy Art

Martin Doerry and Matthias Schlepp recently conducted an interview with Irina Alexandrovna, director of the Pushkin Museum  in Moscow. A translation by Christopher Sultan was published by Spiegel International online. Next to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the century-old museum is considered to hold the most important collection of foreign art in Russia. Its collection includes 670,000 paintings, sculptures and archaeological artefacts. The interview with the 90-year-old Irina Antonova  begins by touching upon a variety of subjects, mainly reflecting the west's fascination and prejudices against demonized "communists". It however dwells on the issue of  art taken from Germany in 1945 and retained in Russian Museums:
a historical burden continue[s] to tarnish German-Russian relations -- despite the fact that the Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War was part of the past.To this day, looted German art -- known as "trophy art" in Moscow -- lies in the vaults of Russian museums. Promises to reach mutually acceptable solutions to the problem have never been kept.The different terms that the two countries use for the art treasures in question are revealing. Berlin views the works of art carried off by the Red Army after the end of World War II, on Stalin's orders, as stolen and is demanding their return. Moscow sees them as moral compensation for the atrocities that Germans committed during the war. Russia's "Extraordinary State Commission to Examine and Investigate German-Fascist Crimes Committed by the Invaders and their Accomplices on Soviet Territory" had listed 427 Soviet museums and 4,000 libraries that fell victim to the Germans. According to the commission, more than 110 million books and publications were destroyed. In February 1997, the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, which was controlled by a majority of communists and nationalists at the time, declared the disputed artworks from Germany to be the permanent property of Russia.
[...] According to the Russian Ministry of Culture, less than 10 percent of the art brought from Germany is still in Russia. Between 1955 and 1960, the Soviet Union returned 1.5 million museum artifacts to communist-ruled East Germany, including 1,240 works from the Old Masters Gallery in Dresden, 16,000 graphic works and more than 100,000 coins. The famous Pergamon Altar was also returned to Germany at the time, as was the "Green Vault," the treasure chamber of the Elector of Saxony. Since 1996, the permanent collection at Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts has included "Priam's Treasure," which the German businessman and amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered in Troy in 1873 and brought home to Germany. The museum's vaults also contain the gold of the Merovingians and the so-called Treasure of Eberswalde.
Antonova: [...]  the generation of Germans alive today isn't responsible for Hitler and the invasion of the Soviet Union. But, to be entirely clear, the issue of trophy art is primarily one of an ethical nature. It has to do with moral and not so much financial compensation for Russia. One cannot simply invade a country, destroy its museums and try to stamp out the roots of its culture, as the Germans did. This is a historic lesson for the entire world. After the end of the war, I went to Leningrad and the Peterhof Palace. Everything had been reduced to ruins.
SPIEGEL: International law and the Hague Convention of 1907 prohibit the theft of art.
Antonova: The Hague Convention is outdated because the nature of wars has changed. Nowadays, mankind needs a different mechanism, at an international level, to protect the world's cultural heritage. For a new convention, it would be sufficient to agree on one sentence: A country is liable, with its own cultural treasures, for the damage it inflicts on the cultural heritage of another nation. Then no one will drop bombs on the Louvre, the Prado in Madrid or the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I have proposed going to The Hague with this initiative. If they allow me to speak, I'll be happy to make an appearance there.
SPIEGEL: Article 16 of the 1990 German-Russian Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany obligates both sides to return looted art. Why has this yet to happen?
Antonova: As far as I can remember, the treaty doesn't contain such an obligation. Everything it says relates to works of art that were removed illegally rather than in conjunction with war.

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