The Guardian 13 March 2007
Berlin lay in smouldering ruins. Hitler had been dead for four weeks. The Soviet Union was the undisputed master of eastern Europe. Working in great secrecy, some Red Army soldiers embarked on a delicate mission: to spirit back home unique cultural treasures belonging to the vanquished Germans.
In June 1945, three chests holding 1,538 gold and silver items were loaded on to a Moscow-bound plane. For more than half a century German experts had little clue as to whether the gold necklaces and eagle brooches dating from the 5th to 8th centuries still existed or had been lost in the second world war.
Today, however, the Merovingian-era pieces emerge spectacularly from their dingy hiding place. Moscow's Pushkin State Museum for Fine Arts is exhibiting the treasures, last seen in Berlin in 1939.
The exhibition has got the support of Germany's government, and is the first such act of Russian-German collaboration in the post-war era.
Yesterday Germany's culture minister, Bernd Neumann, hailed the exhibition as "sensational", saying it offered a blueprint as to how seemingly intractable cultural disputes could be resolved. Germany still wanted the items back, though, he added. He said 700 items of the 1,300 displayed were stolen from Germany; they had belonged to Berlin's ancient and early history museum. "We believe that, under agreements signed with Russia in the 1990s, these items should come back to us."
Russia's culture minister, Alexander Sokolov, sweeping aside the ownership question, praised the "pragmatic and sensible way" curators from Russia and Germany had worked together. "We are bringing back into the light things without which you can't explain the meaning of Europe," he said.
Germany dubs the treasures seized by the Red Army at the end of the second world war as Beutekunst, or trophy art. Russia has a more euphemistic term for it - "art stored in conditions of war".
Either way, there seems little chance the items will ever find their way back to Germany. In 1998, Russia's state duma passed a law asserting the country's right to hang on to anything seized by Stalin's Soviets from the Germans.
Yesterday, experts said that despite the dispute over ownership, the treasures - including exquisite scabbards decorated with minute gold beading, dainty multi-coloured glass necklaces, engraved spearheads, gold goblets, jewelled bird-shaped brooches, and an intriguing bronze buckle of a wolf terrifying a man - offered a rare portrait of early medieval Europe.
Overall the impression is of a culture that was sophisticated and self confident.
"These items come from a time when there was a unified cultural space from the Atlantic to the Urals," said the exhibition's Russian curator, Vladimir Tolstikov. "The dynasty laid the foundation for what came next, and ultimately for modern Europe."
The items show the influence of "barbarian" and Roman culture, he said. Founded by Clovis I, the Merovingian dynasty spread in the late fifth century from France and Belgium, though Germany to the borders of Italy. Migrants came also from the east, led by Attila the Hun. The outcome was a poly-ethnic empire, and the exhibition's name - The Merovingian Epoch: Europe without borders - reflects the mix. Moscow shows the items until May 13, then they go to St Petersburg's Hermitag. http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,2032319,00.html