Poland may demand $20 billion for Nazi destruction of art treasures

International Herald Tribune 28 August 2007
Judy Dempsey

BERLIN: Poland's nationalist-conservative government could claim as much as $20 billion in compensation from Germany for the destruction of its art treasures during the Nazi occupation, in what is becoming a growing dispute between the countries as Polish parliamentary elections approach, officials in Warsaw said Tuesday.

The latest dispute, one of many that have led to a sharp deterioration in relations between Warsaw and Berlin since the Polish government was elected nearly two years ago, linked the destruction of Polish art treasures by Nazi Germany to attempts by Germany to recover art it had transported to eastern territories in what is now Poland to safeguard it from the Allied bombing of German cities.

Since 1991, both governments have been negotiating terms under which items could be returned to Germany, with Poland insisting on its legal right to retain the treasures - which include music scores by Mozart and Bach, and the collections of the former Prussian State Library. The negotiations stalled two years ago.

German officials said Tuesday the issue would become more complicated and emotional, now that Poland has raised the question of compensation as part of a possible resolution.

"Compensation or reparations had never been discussed until now," said a German government official.

Poland has claimed legal ownership to the German art treasures, according to Wojciech Kowalski, the Polish government's special envoy assigned to resolve the issue. "During the Allied carpet bombings of several German cities in 1943, the German curators of cultural heritage decided to take the collections from the towns, museums and churches and take them outside the range of the carpet bombing," Kowalski said Tuesday.

"The treasures were moved to Poland, which was then German territory," Kowalski, a law professor at Warsaw University, said. "They hid the treasures in cloisters and palaces in the provinces. These territories became part of Poland. We found the treasures and saved them. Since it was abandoned property and formerly German property, the property was nationalized by the Polish state."

A German government official said Tuesday that the works of art "were the property of the German museums and should be returned." Poland's government, led by Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, however, has countered that because Germany destroyed many Polish art treasures during the Nazi occupation, it could be entitled to compensation from Germany.

Anna Fotyga, Poland's foreign minister went further. "We estimate our losses at over $20 billion," she told the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

The issue has been simmering for weeks after the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said that Germany should recover the treasures without paying. It suggested that the items in Poland were "beutekunst," meaning looted or stolen art.

This infuriated the Polish government, since beutekunst is a term commonly applied to art stolen by the Red Army when it entered Berlin in 1945 and taken to the former Soviet Union.

"The art we have is not beutekunst," Kowalski said. "We did not steal nor loot this property. It is not German property. It is Polish property."

While the German government has tried to play down the dispute, it is becoming an emotional issue in Poland where Kaczynski appears to be using relations with Germany and the controversy over art as an election issue. Kaczynski said Tuesday that Oct. 21 would be the best date for elections, two years ahead of schedule.

"Our impression is that the art controversy and the repeated criticism of Germany by the Kaczynski government is about electioneering," said Peter-Oliver Loew, a Polish expert at the German-Polish Institute in Darmstadt, Germany.

Last week Kaczynski accused Donald Tusk, leader of Civic Platform, the largest of the opposition parties, of having a "fascination" with Germany. He accused Civic Platform of being so close to the European People's Party, the European Union's center-right political party, which includes Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in Germany, that it accepted German dominance.

Kaczynski said such a close relationship with Germany would undermine Poland's tough foreign policy toward its western neighbor. Kaczynski believes that Poland, having suffered so much at the hands of the Germans during World War II, should be given equal status with Germany in the European Union. In practice, this would mean having the same number of votes or else being capable of blocking Germany and other countries over certain decisions.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024