Cultural Assets Relocated to Russia as a Result of the War

At the end of the Second World War, numerous cultural assets were transported to the USSR. A large number of them are still there. The Federal Republic of Germany and the cultural institutions affected are seeking their return.

Cultural Assets Relocated to the Soviet Union as a Result of the War

At the very end of the Second World War, German cultural assets were illegally transported to the Soviet Union. So-called Trophy Brigades of the Red Army extensively confiscated the holdings of museums, libraries, and archives in Germany. In the German public debate this is often described as “Beutekunst” (looted art). More than 2.6 million works of art, over 6 million books, and kilometers of archival materials were taken to the USSR. The museums, libraries, and archives that now belong to the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) were among those who suffered immense losses as a result.

The Soviet Union regarded the removal of German cultural assets as a recompense for its own losses during the war. German troops had deliberately destroyed or looted incredible numbers of works of art and books in areas occupied by the army. The Soviet Union was particularly hard hit by this unprecedented cultural looting by Germans and the resulting irretrievable losses.

Returns in a Divided Germany

After the war ended, the Western allies returned all of the art found in the western part of Germany that belonged to the Soviet Union. Later the German authorities returned objects to the Soviet Union and its successor states. By the early 1950s, half a million objects had been returned to the Soviet Union in this way. Subsequently, individual works that had been discovered were restituted to the Russian Federation. None of the cultural assets brought from the Soviet Union during the Second World War are known to remain in public collections in Germany.

The Soviet Union returned around 1.5 million works to the government of the GDR in a series of campaigns up to 1960. The official position is that after this time no German cultural assets of significance were held in Soviet custody anymore. As part of the largest restitution campaign in 1958–59, the frieze slabs of the Pergamon Altar and numerous famous paintings, including "Das Eisenwalzwerk" (The Iron Rolling Mill) by Adolph Menzel, were returned to Berlin.

Today it is known that there are other cultural assets from German collections in storage in Russia and its neighboring countries. Around a million works of art, more than four million books and manuscripts, and considerable archival materials are thought to be there.

Different Legal Viewpoints in Germany and Russia

Since reunification, the German federal government has been negotiating with Russia over the return of German cultural assets. It still regards the objects preserved in Russia as Germany property. This position is based on the Hague Convention of 1907, which established international law on dealing with cultural assets during wartime. It prohibits treating cultural assets as reparation for war-related damages. Germany bases its demand that the assets be returned on this law. The Federal Republic of Germany also refers to two treaties of 1990 and 1992. In these, the German and Soviet and, in the case of the latter, Russian government undertook to return cultural assets that had been displaced as a result of the war.

The Russian side is blocking the implementation of both treaties. In 1996 a Russian law declared all German cultural assets from public collections that had been transported to Russia after the Second World War to be Russian property. This was described on the Russian side as compensatory restitution. The Federal Republic of Germany considers this legislation to be in violation of international law and continues to seek a mutually acceptable solution to the problem.

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