The tricky process of returning Nazi-looted art

The Nazis stole thousands of artworks from Jewish families during World War 2 and the restitution of these pieces has been a slow process involving legal battles, complex searches and some stunning finds.

The tricky process of returning Nazi-looted art
A sculpture by the French artist Auguste Rodin was part of a recovered art collection hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt. PHOTO: PATRIK STOLLARZ / AFP

Ahead of a court ruling on the return of a painting by impressionist master Camille Pissarro this week, here is some background.

Plunder and rescue
The art plundered by the Nazi regime was intended to be resold, given to senior officials or displayed in the Fuehrermuseum (Leader's Museum) that Adolf Hitler planned for his hometown of Linz but was never built.
Just before the end of the war, the United States dispatched to Europe teams of experts — museum directors, curators and educators — to find, protect and rescue cultural treasures.
Known as the Monuments Men, they were honoured in a 2014 George Clooney film of the same name.
These work and restitution programmes enabled the return of most of the looted works to their owners soon after the end of the war. But out of 650,000 stolen pieces, about 100,000 had not been returned by 2009, according to figures released at the Holocaust Era Assets Conference in the Czech Republic that year.
Secret records
Works seized by the Nazis in France were stored at the Jeu de Paume site in Paris, originally tennis courts, ahead of their shipment to Germany. Thanks to the secret notes of Rose Valland, an art historian there, about
45,000 were recovered and three-quarters of these returned, according to a report to the French Senate in 2013.
Of the remaining “orphaned” pieces, some were sold and more than 2,000 were accorded the special status of “MNR”, standing for  “Musees Nationaux Recuperation” (Recuperation – National Museums) meaning they are provisionally entrusted to museums.
The works were exhibited from 1950 to 1954, but then, “for 40 years, nothing happened”, said the 2000 Matteoli report on the looting of French Jews. The report noted “the total abandon of all searches for the owners of these works”.
 New impetus
Inertia settled over the restitution drive in the context of the Cold War and the complexities of various cases.
The process was revived in the 1990s after the declassification of thousands of archives and the publication on the internet of databases such as The Art Loss Register.
In December 1998, 44 countries signed the Washington Declaration that committed them to stepping up efforts to return stolen pieces to their prewar owners or heirs.
This led to the creation of special commissions and new laws, including the US Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 that lengthened the time limit for lodging a restitution claim.
The Klimt affair
In one of the biggest cases involving art stolen by the Nazis, five masterpieces by Gustav Klimt were caught up in a bitter legal battle between a descendant of the Jewish family from which they were taken and Austria's Belvedere Museum. They included two stunning portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, completed with gold leaf.
The Vienna museum argued that Bloch-Bauer herself had left it the works. But American heiress Maria Altmann disputed the claim, saying the pieces belonged to her uncle, Adele's husband.
Altmann won her battle in 2006 and the pieces were returned. The story was adapted by British filmmaker Simon Curtis into “Woman in Gold” (2015).
Austria estimates it has returned about 10,000 works from public collections after passing a restitution law in 1998.
 A spectacular find
In 2011 a raid on a rubbish-strewn flat in Munich as part of a tax investigation uncovered hundreds of priceless paintings, including works by Picasso and Matisse, that had been stolen by the Nazis.
The flat belonged to Cornelius Gurlitt, an octogenarian whose father was one of four art dealers charged by the Nazis with selling the art.
An additional 239 works were found at a house he owned in Salzburg, Austria.
Gurlitt passed away in 2014 and left his collection to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland. But many of the pieces have been subject to legal challenges across Germany.
By AFP's Robin Gremmel



German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.