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Russia Is in the Right in Spat with Germany over "Looted" Art

Spb_06-2012_Palace_Embankment_various_14A bemusing altercation occurred between the offices of the Russian and German heads of state yesterday when Putin and Merkel first canceled, then rescheduled speeches at the opening of an art exhibition at St Petersburg’s historic Hermitage museum. It emerged that Merkel intended to use her speech to claim that some of the art in the exhibition was looted by the Soviets from Germany during World War II.  The exhibit contains 1,700 artefacts and works of art, including 600 that are listed by Germany as stolen, like the “Treasure of Eberswalde,” a large hoard of gold pieces from the 9th or 10th century BC.

In the end, a “direct talk” between the two leaders settled the argument—for now. But in the question of art looted during WWII, Russia is in the right.

After Germany’s unjustifiable invasion of Soviet territory and its appalling conduct there during WWII, it has zero claim against Russia for stolen art works. Zero.

The behavior of Soviet troops in conquered Germany afterwards was both regrettable and reprehensible, but 100 percent of the blame for that war and for the destruction and suffering it brought on so many people belongs in Berlin.

If the loss of the art works reminds the German people today of the costs of war, that is a good thing and not a bad one. Let the Hermitage display them and let Germans who want to see them go to St. Petersburg.

[The Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors, part of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg; image courtesy Wikimedia]

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  • Gadfly

    “100% blame for that war” – are you sure? This blog typically refrains from facile commentary. Please glance at the works of Edwin Black, Antony Sutton, and Ralph Raico. It would be interesting to read your take.

  • Vadim Pashkov

    “100% blame for that war”

    I did not expect this sort of shocking ignorance about events preceding June 22 1941 from prof Mead. I would not hesitate to say that Stalin was more than any other person responsible
    for WWII .

    • Corlyss

      I wouldn’t go as far as you, but it seems to me that putting 100% of the blame on Germany ignores the post-WW1 vengeance visited on Germany by the Allies, the failure of the US to take up its responsibilities as a world power in the aftermath of WW1, the misbegotten and feckless postwar disarmament regime that left all allies incapable of standing up to a rearming Germany and the “feed the monster in hopes it won’t eat me” appeasement mentality the disarmament gave birth to. One has only to read Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace to know smart people were more than capable of discerning what the likely result of reparations would be, even if Hitler per se was not. The Allies predatory actions was not their finest hour. I’m sure I’ve left out many contributory causes, but I think the few I’ve cited are sufficient to raise questions about WRM’s verdict [or that of whoever wrote the squib].

  • Andrew Allison

    “To the victor go the spoils!” The German position is particularly hypocritical given the wholesale looting of its own Jewish population as well as of occupied countries.

  • USNK2

    If The Hermitage can keep art looted from Nazi Germany, and there is no proof of who the Nazis looted it from, then, I say Russia needs to give Karelia back to Finland, and end THAT illegal occupation.
    WW2 messed up a lot of people and countries.

  • charlesrwilliams

    Two genocidal totalitarian regimes make peace, divvying up Poland and the Baltic states and throwing the world into war. The Soviets were not innocent parties in that war and nothing the Soviets experienced justified what was done to German civilians much less what was done to the captive nations at the end of the war.

    There is no way to unwind what was done by previous generations of Germans and Russians with respect to art treasures looted during the war. We should leave it at that and both Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin should just deal with the present reality as a sad consequence of that terrible war by remaining silent and preserving these treasures for the citizens of every nation.

  • Ottens

    Like Vadim and others, I’m rather shocked by the anti-German tone here. Of course, Germany invaded the Soviet Union but how that is in any way a justification for the Soviet looting of German art isn’t mead clear here. And it should, given the arrogant tone of the article. As if the German people need “reminding” of the cost of war! You should know better, Professor Mead.

  • foobarista

    One wonders if a Superbowl ring may make its way into the collection at some point.

  • Matt B

    I agree with the thesis that it absurd, if not offensive, to talk about correcting the “wrong” of stolen art when it is put in the context of WWII, particularly the Eastern front. We in the West hardly appreciate the savagery of that conflict.

  • ljgude

    Given that Hitler explicitly declared Slavs inferior and ordered that they be used up as slave labor and not be allowed to reproduce and their lands to the Volga be turned over to German settlers I have always believed that the Red Army acted with considerable restraint. Because of the extremity of Hitler’s outright extermination of the Jews people tend to forget the only slightly less savage orders to treat Slavs nearly as badly. While we know that Stalin deliberately exterminated the Polish officer corps and intelligentsia to destroy that nation, it doesn’t appear that he did the same in Eastern Germany in ’45. If I were Putin I would be sorely tempted to say to Merkel – ‘Come and take them.’

    • charlesrwilliams

      Well, now replace Slavs with Ukrainians and you have Stalin’s genocidal famine intended to reduce the rural population and free up surplus for industrialization.

      And then there were the forced relocations of Germans from areas transferred to Poland, from Sudetenland and from Yugoslavia. Many died.

      While we are at it, the terror of the late 30’s was directed largely against ethnic Poles and other nationalities in the western border regions. And the body count was in the hundreds of thousands.

      None of this is to deny the holocaust or the deliberate starvation of millions of Soviet prisoners of war.

      • ljgude

        Your bringing up the Ukrainians reminds me of my father’s always saying with great heat that Stalin had indeed slaughtered the Kulacks in the Ukraine. I never understood my father’s strong emotion until I discovered that Walter Duranty had whitewashed Stalin’s murder of the Kulacks in the NY Times. I, in turn, learned to distrust the NY Times when I discovered that the NY Times falsely portrayed Castro as a social democrat, not a flat out communist. As far as I know Stalin ended up killing more people in the end, but in the context of WW2 I can even understand the Hitler Stalin pact as defensive on Stalin’s part while it was part of Hitler’s offensive plan to attack Russian from the beginning. In other words we know that Hitler planned to attack Russia all along and that he even announced it in Mein Kampf. On the other hand it would be hard to conclude that the cautious, paranoid Stalin would have attacked Germany.

  • Federale

    The Soviet Union was an illegality and a tyranny. It cannot legally claim any stolen property that it stole, especially since the Soviet Union and Germany conspired to start WWII by invading Poland.

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