Dealing with Cultural Assets Looted by the National Socialists

The National Socialists systematically took art and books from those they persecuted. The Foundation searches for just and fair solutions based on the Washington Principles for looted assets that ended up in its collections.

Art Looted by the National Socialists as an Ongoing Task for Public Collections

Between 1933 and 1945 the National Socialists dispossessed many people and companies, especially those with a Jewish background. In the process, they also systematically confiscated countless cultural assets. Private art collections and libraries were broken up and often sold below value. Moreover, many people were forced under National Socialist persecution to sell some or even all of the works of art in their possession.

Numerous illegally seized objects ended up in public institutions either directly or by roundabout ways. In recent years these institutions have been increasingly investigating the origins of works that came into their possession from 1933 onward. If the legal requirements are fulfilled, they return these works.

Since the early 1990s the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) has actively and responsibly addressed the issue of dealing with cultural assets seized in the context of persecution. The Foundation has worked on approximately 50 individual cases and has been able to reach a variety of just and fair solutions with legitimate claimants. It has restituted more than 350 works of art and more than 1000 books to their rightful owners.

Laws on Reparation and Indemnifications in the Postwar Period

After 1945 the Western Allies enacted legal regulations on restitution, that is, the return of cultural assets illegally seized during the National Socialist era. According to these laws, the former owners or their heirs could sue for the return of works or corresponding compensation. In the early 1960s, when the Foundation was beginning its work, it was widely believed in the Federal Republic of Germany that the indemnification of the victims of National Socialism had largely been completed. The subject of Nazi-confiscated art thus was not regarded as significant by public institutions in the Federal Republic of Germany until the reunification in 1990.

Increased Provenance Research and New Rules after 1990

In the GDR, there was no comparable indemnification. After the fall of communism, the Gesetz zur Regelung offener Vermögensfragen (Law on the Settlement of Open Property Issues) established a new basis for the reparation of National Socialist injustice. But it applied only to works on the territory of the former GDR. The deadline for filing claims for restitution ended in July 1993. However, the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz declared that it was willing to accept applications for restitution even after this deadline had expired.

German reunification offered the Foundation an opportunity to clarify open questions of ownership. That had not been possible before because many files were not accessible due to the arbitrary division of the Prussian collections between East and West Berlin. When the Staatliche Museen (National Museums in Berlin) and the eastern and western Staatsbibliothek (Berlin State Library) were merged, a variety of archival material became available. Reviewing it made it clear that the Foundation possessed objects that had demonstrably or at least presumably been seized from their previous owners. The issue of dealing with art looted by the National Socialists was thus raised relatively early by the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz.

The Goal of the Washington Principles: Just and Fair Solutions

In the 1990s, the international community of nations recognized that many of those persecuted by the National Socialists had not had an opportunity to assert their claims for the return of or compensation for seized assets. Against that backdrop, forty-four nations, including the Federal Republic of Germany, worked out the so-called Washington Principles in December 1998. In the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, they agreed to search for such works and to return them under certain conditions. The basic principle is a call to find just and fair solutions in handling requests for the return of works. The Washington Principles are not legally binding. But they do signal that the parties wanted to take responsibility for injustice that had occurred.

The federal government, the states, and the organizations representing German municipalities together have adapted the “Washington Principles” to respond to the circumstances of the Federal Republic of Germany, and issued a joint Erklärung zur Auffindung und Rückgabe NS-verfolgungsbedingt entzogenen Kulturgutes, insbesondere aus jüdischem Besitz (Statement of the German Federal Government, the Länder and the National Associations of Local Authorities regarding on the tracing and return of Nazi-Confiscated Art, especially with regard to Jewish property) and Guidelines. Therein, they also welcomed a resolution made half a year previously by the Foundation Board of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz. Its resolution of June 4, 1999, established the basic stance of the Foundation on issues of restitution.

The Foundation’s Position on Dealing with Art Looted by the National Socialists

The Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz returns cultural assets to their original owners or their heirs if they were seized because of persecution. Based on the Washington Principles, the Foundation established its own position to supplement existing laws: On June 4, 1999, the Foundation Board established the general line for dealing with cultural assets seized from Jewish owners. It empowered the president to seek mutually satisfactory solutions with the injured parties or their heirs. They include the possibility of returning seized works to their rightful owners. The Foundation Board gave its consent for such returns even though they were no longer legally required.

Since that time, the Foundation has worked on a number of specific cases. Requests for returns are usually the cause. As it makes progress with researching its holdings, however, the Foundation is also able to approach rightful owners actively. It then works with them to find a solution that is just and fair for both sides. In all these cases, the “Gemeinsame Erklärung” and the “Guidelines” set the benchmark for the Foundation’s actions. A wide variety of solutions can be found. The Foundation has returned several works. Others could remain in the collections thanks to agreements reached with the heirs or because they were bought back. One of C.D. Friedrich’s chief works, “Der Watzmann”, was restituted to its rightful owners but remained on display in the Alte Nationalgalerie thanks to the support of DekaBank which bought the work and gave it to the museum as a long-term loan.