Loot and Plunder: The Ignored Cultural Rape of Germany

It is fitting to begin with a tale of rape. With Tarquin the Proud’s tyrannical reign as the last Roman monarch, Romans were eager to explore a new form of government: the republic. The ‘Rape of Lucretia’ was a popular tale which detailed the downfall of Tarquinius: Roman soldiers away at war decided to return and surprise their wives. Only Lucretia, wife to Collatinus, had been loyal and chaste while her husband was gone, but Tarquin’s son, Sextus, returned and raped her. She told her husband what had happened, then took her own life.

The incident sparked a revolt led by Lucius Junius Brutus and Collatinus, resulting in Tarquin’s expulsion from Rome. Tarquin and Lucretia, above by Peter Paul Rubens, was painted between 1609 and 1612. One of the Ruben’s finest early works, Friedrich the Great bought it in 1765 for his collection and it hung in his palace at Sans Souci.

The Rape of Lucretia vanished in the Soviet Union after being stolen by the Red Army in 1945. It was cut from its frame, folded and rolled up, stored improperly and badly damaged. It ended up in a communist officer’s home and was later sold for pennies. Enter the Russian Mafia. In 2003, a Russian named Vladimir Logvinenko tried to sell it to a German gallery, but he was reported to Russian authorities who then acquired the painting. Now restored, it hangs in the Pushkin State Museum. Following their custom, they refuse to return it to its rightful owner: Germany.

German military leaders charged with war crimes at Nürnberg were charged with “destruction et pillage d’oeuvres d’art” based specifically on the violation of Article 56 of the Hague Convention of 1907 regarding war booty. Ironically, the Hague convention got its inspiration from disputes which arose from the Napoleonic Wars regarding Napoleon’s notorious plundering. Article 56 was seen as expressing the prohibition of any unilateral seizure of cultural property and putting an explicit limit to the prior practice of unlimited looting. Sadly, the biggest theft of all, the most massive art heist of all times, the looting and plundering of German treasures has drawn scant, if any, media attention.

While there was no general authorization of the Allied Control Council to carry off German cultural property as a means of reparation or compensation, the Soviets openly ignored international law and regarded the vast amount of treasure and artwork pilfered from Germany as ‘compensation.’ Carrying off cultural property was only to be legally permitted for the purpose of “guarding against wartime dangers,” but this was the disingenuous excuse used by the Soviet Union for its massive looting operations. As early as 1942, the Soviet Union, art lovers that they were, had begun a deliberate plan of collecting art from Germany. In 1945, as the Red Army advanced into Germany, special “trophy brigades” went out to collect the slated works in German museums and ship them back to Moscow. From 1945 to 1949, more than two and a half million works of art were carried off from Germany, mostly to the metropolises of the Soviet Union where many of them are in secret storage even today.

A Russians list of 40,000 missing items they blame Germany for taking include the famous Amber Room of the Catherine Palace, but the list is vague and unspecific. The Germans, on the other hand, have greatly detailed accounts and carefully documented evidence of their lost treasures and they also insist that all the Russian art had already been returned. In reality, by the time of the Cold War, British and Americans had already returned most of the artworks under their jurisdiction to their respective countries of origin, including Russia: Over 500,000 objects were repatriated to the Soviet Union (a fact seldom mentioned by the Russians)! The German position has usually been that international law and the Hague Convention of 1907 on the rules of land warfare require that the works be returned unconditionally.

7,314 paintings belonging to the German bureau that administered the former Hohenzollern estates in Prussia were catalogued in 1939. Today, over 3,000 are still missing. This doesn’t even touch upon the sculpture, porcelain, musical instruments, clocks, silver, furniture, prints and drawings and millions of rare books plundered by Allies and the Red Army alike. Using foresight during the Allied bombing of Germany, museum personal bravely attempted to safeguard the masterpieces in their charge by shifting collections from various depots in salt mines, churches, cellars and estates to save the objects from destruction. As Berlin was falling, art treasures from the old Prussian castles were hidden in safe places in the countryside. Almost all of the 3,000 missing paintings not destroyed by bombing were taken by the Russians. From the time they conquered Potsdam in April 1945, where many collections had ended up, until 1946, everything that could be moved was taken to Moscow.

The Russians are unrepentant and arrogant about their thievery and seem to go down this brazen path with the tacit approval of civilized nations. The Pushkin Museum’s 1995 show in Moscow ludicrously called “Twice Saved,” unveiled 63 paintings ranging from the late 14th to the late 19th century from German and Hungarian private and museum collections. A month later, St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum opened “Hidden Treasures Revealed,” an exhibition of 74 mostly Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings by artists such as Degas, Renoir, Gauguin and van Gogh, stolen almost entirely from private German collections.

Probably the most famous image of destroyed Berlin is this heroic photo of Russians raising their flag over the smoldering, bombed out city in 1945. It was seen all over the world. The Red Army soldier on the bottom right in the original image, which was recently exhibited in Berlin, is wearing two looted German watches. Photographer Yevgeny Khaldei, who captured the image on May 2, 1945, noticed the watches and edited them out. He also manipulated the flag to make it billow dramatically and then added smoke to the devastated Berlin skyline. An enduring memory for survivors from the days of the Red Army’s conquest of Berlin was the troops’ demand for watches. Part of the frenzied looting was accompanied by the cry: “Wine, women, watches.” They took all three.

Russians liked gold as well. After Berlin fell, Major Feodor Novikov of the Red Army ordered the vaults of the Reichbank opened. 90 gold bars worth 1.3 million dollars and gold coins worth 2.1 million dollars and 400 million dollars worth of negotiable bonds were present. Novikov ordered the vaults locked and demanded the keys. The entire contents of the vault disappeared. The gold was never seen again, but the bonds turn up even today all over the world.       Other Pieces of Gold

In ‘Twice Saved,’ among the works from German museums and from German and Hungarian private collections were paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hendrick Ter Bruggen, El Greco, Tintoretto, George Romney, Veronese, Bartholomaeus Bruyn the Elder, Vigee-Lebrun, Goya, Corot, Daumier, Manet, Degas and Renoir, representing approximately one sixth of the disputed paintings remaining in its collection. The prewar provenances of only 37 works were listed and more than half were from German museums, including 11 from the Schlossmuseum in Gotha and two from the Dresden Gallery that the Pushkin acquired from Soviet thieves in 1973 and 1984.

Over a dozen paintings came from private collections; the remainder were described as “collection unknown.” Goya’s Portrait of a Woman is a painting clearly visible in pre-war photographs taken at the home of the well-known German collector Otto Gerstenberg, whose daughter inherited the works after his death in 1935. It was among the works that were stored at Berlin’s Nationalgalerie for safekeeping in 1943 and stolen by the Soviet Union. Additional family art in the Pushkin show included works of Renoir, Daumier, and Renoir. Among other notable paintings from private parties were collections of Otto Krebs and German industrialist Bernhard Koehler, including Tintorettos, Corots and El Grecos.

In another Pushkin exhibition which opened on April 29, 2006 and was entitled “Archeology of War: Return from Nonbeing,” pieces featured from the ancient world were largely based on Russia’s collection of looted German art from World War II. The German based Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation was not invited to be involved in the project and was refused access to Russian’s depots of German art treasures.

Some 350 of the antiques displayed in this one show originally came from Berlin collections stolen by the Soviet “trophy brigades” who raped, pillaged and pilfered their way through the ruins of Germany. The Pushkin Museum shamelessly insists, incorrectly and in violation of international law, that all looted art belongs to Russia because it should not go to “those who started the war.” Prime targets of the looters were the treasures of the German kings, including those of Friedrich the Great, who maintained strict rules against any plundering by his army and inflicted severe punishment for any soldier found looting. The great paintings he collected, his writings and music and even portraits of him and his family were snatched and taken to Russia. The musical monarch: Stolen Flutes

Joseph Stalin’s minions emptied nearly all museums, collections, archives, and sheltering depots in his zone of occupation and for over four decades his successors hid many of these objects from the world, treasures representing the entire German history. In 1955, Soviet officials publicly staged a return of some major works, including Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, stolen from the Dresden Picture Gallery, distracting from the fact that they still had thousands more works. A 1990 treaty concluded with the Soviet Union stipulated the return of cultural property that had been moved due to the war. However, Russia reneged and decided that German cultural property was “legally transferred.”

Berlin was fair game for thieves and vandals. In 1941, the Red Army stole Schliemann’s golden Troy collection from its safe keeping space in a concrete bunker at the destroyed Berlin Zoo and it was not until 1993 that they even acknowledged that the treasure was in Russia. In the towns and villages of East Germany, stained glass window were ripped out of churches and sent to the Soviet Union, bronze monuments were dissolved for their face value and documents dating from centuries past were destroyed or scattered.

450,000 freight-train wagon loads were received in Moscow in 1945 alone, along with ancient printing presses, antique musical instruments, pianos and wine. There were also air cargo planes for transporting loot such as the Troy gold from Berlin and a Gutenberg Bible from Leipzig’s Book Museum. The “trophy brigades” also stole, among the manuscripts, incunabula, Oriental manuscripts and films and folklore recordings from German collections and German medieval Hanseatic archives from Bremen, Hamburg, and Lübeck which were then scattered haphazardly throughout the USSR.

Thousands of rare drawings from the Kunsthalle Bremen were put in a castle for safe keeping only to vanish under Soviet occupation until some resurfaced on the New York art market in the 1990’s, taking a lawsuit to get them returned. From the same castle, Victor Baldin, then a Soviet Army officer, “rescued” two paintings and 362 drawings which are presently being held by Russian officials.

The cultural property that Russian authorities and soldiers removed from Germany in 1945 included not only works of German art, but two million books and files that if placed end to end would stretch three kilometers, or almost two miles.

The Soviet looting was so sloppy that rare old master paintings were used as table tops and age old nude paintings were sliced from their frames and plastered on Red Army trucks just for chuckles. Unheated trains carried uncushioned cargoes of precious Rembrandts and DaVincis through freezing weather to Moscow. Other masterpieces were ripped off their stretchers so their frames could be burned for fuel by campfires of drunk soldiers. By the time the treasures made it to Russia, they were left out in the cold and rain in vacant courtyards and alleys until thrown away or stored in attics or basements in awful conditions. Antique furniture was chopped up and burned, rare china smashed, glass broken and ancient metalwork disfigured or melted down.

The Rüstkammer, or armory, of the Wartburg castle used to contain a priceless collection of over 800 pieces from the magnificent period of armour from King Henry II of France, to the items of Friedrich the Wise, Pope Julius II and Bernhard von Weimar. The Soviet Occupation Army stole the collection in 1946 and it has since “disappeared” in the Soviet Union. Only five small pieces were given back by the USSR in the 1960s.

Others played a role in plundering Germany. In 1805, a Baron von Hüpsch left his “Kunst und Naturalienkabinett” (Cabinet of Art and Curiosities) to Hessian Landgraf Ludwig X. Among the Hüpsch collection in Darmstadt were valuable 12th-century ivory sculptures, apostle reliefs and the symbols of the four evangelists. On September 11th, 1944, the museum was destroyed by bombs but the most precious collections of the museum had already been evacuated to Bavaria and stored at castle Rauhenzell near Immenstadt.

On April 30th, 1945 the 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division of the French troops occupied Immenstadt and its officers moved into the castle Rauhenzell and the medieval ivory pieces disappeared. In 1983, the Louvre had already bought two of the pieces, and in 1993, the Louvre was offered two more. It turned out that one of these pieces matched the group the Louvre had already bought in the 1083. Germany and France did another trade for a partial return of the German treasures. In September 1993, five more pieces of the same lot which vanished from castle Rauhenzell came up for auction in Paris. The “Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt” reported this to the French police and tried to withdraw the artworks from the auction, but French law allows the possession of stolen goods if the owner can prove he bought it unknowingly. Nevertheless, the auction house was put under pressure and the private owner was eventually thwarted. Finally, five pieces were returned to Germany in 1994.

Among German state treasure stolen by the Red Army was the Treasure of Priamus, an important collection of Etruscan sculptures, vases, terra cotta and other items dating back to ancient Greece. In 1992, after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the German and Russian governments made another agreement of cultural cooperation, but after Germany cooperated fully, the Russians again reneged on most of the agreement. In 1997, an alliance of nationalists and Communists in the Duma, or Russian Parliament, passed legislation indefinitely banning the return of Germany’s art to Germany!

In Austria, works of art used or loaned for use by the Third Reich almost all went missing at the hands of the Allies after war’s end: paintings by Breughel, Michelangelo, 73 engravings by Ghisi, c.1650, gobelin upholsteries of tables and chairs and very valuable antique Austrian furniture vanished. The “Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien” (Museum of Art History Vienna) is still missing several valuable 17th century tapestries which were lost at the end of war without a trace as were 9 tapestries which were loaned to the country house of Hermann Göring. Six of these were hunting scenes woven around the middle of the 17th century after sketches by Peter Paul Rubens and three others dated back to the middle of the 18th century. Two were later found in the National Museum of Warsaw/Poland and returned to Germany.

Paintings by Angelika Kaufmann and others that were aquired by Emperor Joseph II are among losses suffered by the Austrian Museum for Applied Arts and by the Austrian Gallery in the Belvedere. Properties of the Austrian National Library have been discovered in the Hermitage of St. Petersburg, but Russian bureaucracy has prevented their return. Castles, mansions, universities, convents and churches were targeted by looters all over Austria. 30 boxes with manuscripts and books belonging to the University Library of Graz were stolen by troops from ex-Yugoslavia, and at the Castle Grafenegg/Lower Austria, Soviet soldiers transported all of its artwork and furniture by the wagon load, leaving behind an empty castle. All in all, however, Austria’s Germanic cultural losses were smaller than those of Germany.

A great void has also been left in the cultural literary heritage of Germany since the lion’s share of pilfered German collections were once complete collections. Sometimes thieves only selected the pieces of highest value, breaking up historical series and sets. The great libraries in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where many plundered books and manuscripts ended up, simply integrated them into the existing stock with no attempts to keep collections intact. In 1990, it was revealed that millions of antiquarian German books ranging from aeronautic designs to files on military operations during the Napoleonic wars had been left to rot under pigeon droppings in an abandoned church outside of Moscow. Displaced archival fragments of cultural heritage, so meticulously organized through the ages in Germany, were scattered so widely they will never all be found and identified even if they survived the abysmal storage conditions.

On December 3rd, 1996, the Ukraine returned three precious albums to Germany: albums of lithographs and engravings which had been missing since 1945, including one volume with 57 lithographs after renowned Saxon artist Franz Gareis (1775-1803), a second album with 69 colour etchings of the 18th and 19th century and 95 engravings by Johann Blaeu which dated to 1700 depicting scenes of festivities, ceremonies and the residences of the Dukes of Savoy. In return, the Ukraine received generous donations of art from Germany.

Today, one German museum’s department of prints and drawings still lacks about 640 anthologies, albums and illustrated albums as well as books containing thousands of engravings, wood cuts and lithographs. Also missing are approximately 10,400 prints from the Renaissance to the 20th century, 3,300 drawings in albums and sketching books, the whole art historical library and valuable archival material. Most of all, due to the war, the museum further lost 1,500 mainly unique drawings of exceptional quality by artists such as Dürer, Cranach, Rubens, Kollwitz and Menzel.

Germans regard other items as an integral part of their country’s heritage, including about 5,800 ancient books from the famous Gotha library, two Gutenberg Bibles printed in 1454 and several important paintings. By 1580, this Library was a reference library containing books on theology, history, medicine, surgery, law, mathematics, philosophy, mining, architecture, astronomy, warfare, tournaments and festivals, numismatics, mineralogy, biology and agriculture. The collection also included engravings, maps and illustrations of court life. Needless to say, those treasures fortunate enough to survive the firebombing were greatly plundered and stolen by the Soviets.

TO: Plunder Continued


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