Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Russia to return art and antiquities looted from eastern Germany in World War II by Josef Stalin’s Soviet Trophy Commission and said she’s optimistic a solution can be found.
Merkel spoke at the opening of an exhibition on the Bronze Age at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which includes 600 objects seized from Germany during or after World War II.
“We believe these exhibits should return to Germany and the owners or their legal heirs should have access to them,” Merkel told guests at the opening yesterday, according to a transcript of her speech. “It is an important step that they can be shown here,” she said. “For us, or at least for me, this is encouragement for further discussions, also on difficult topics.”
Germany has been pressuring Russia for the return of the missing art ever since German reunification in 1990. Russia has rebuffed those demands, and many Russians, including museum directors, view the booty as legitimate compensation for Soviet treasures looted or destroyed by Adolf Hitler’s troops. Under Russian law, German art taken by the Soviet Trophy Commission is Russian state property.
Merkel, who is running for re-election on Sept. 22, hasn’t pushed Russia on looted art in the past. Her spokesman announced earlier yesterday that her speech at the Hermitage opening was canceled amid disagreements with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the timing and wording of her address. Merkel and Putin told reporters later in the day those issues were resolved and their joint appearance would go ahead as planned.
The exhibition “Bronze Age -- Europe Without Borders,” shows at the Hermitage from June 21 to Sept. 8, and then moves on to Moscow. It is the result of cooperation between German and Russian museums and scholars.
After the war, museums in Soviet-occupied eastern Germany were left with almost nothing. About 2.5 million items were packed up and sent to the Soviet Union. In an act of friendship to communist East Germany in 1958, 300 train cars from Moscow and St. Petersburg brought back art treasures including the Pergamon Altar, now in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.
Yet 1 million artworks are still missing, including the Bronze-Age gold treasure of Eberswalde, which is exhibited at the Hermitage show for the first time since the war ended in 1945, alongside treasures from Werder, Sonnewalde, Weissagk and Dieskau, all in eastern Germany.
A replica of the Eberswalde gold, one of the most important prehistoric archaeological finds in Germany, is on display in the Neues Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island. A label next to it explains that the original is still in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
“If we look at where relations between the Soviet Union and Germany were in 1945 and where we stand now, then we have achieved so much,” Merkel said. “I am optimistic that we can solve these problems too.”