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German-Russian war booty disputes continue

More than 60 years after the end of World War II, disputes over war booty rage on as Germany seeks, with mixed success, the return of treasures looted by the victorious Red Army.

German-Russian war booty disputes continue
File photo of a returned window at the Marienkirche. Photo: DPA

Late last month, Russia handed over six medieval stained glass church windows – the last of a set of 117 panes from the Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in Frankfurt an der Oder, on today’s Polish border, carted off to Moscow in 1945.

At a ceremony to mark the occasion, German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said the restitution was a sign of improving relations between the wartime foes.

This proves that “with goodwill on both sides, and despite all the problems, progress is possible even if achieved only one small step at a time,” he said.

Russian Ambassador to Germany Vladimir Kotenev, who attended the ceremony, noted that Nazi Germany had been guilty of wanton looting during the war and stressed that the process of restoring property to its rightful owners must be mutual.

“I would like to stress the word ‘mutual’ because there are still harsh critics and the issue of looted art is often treated in the media as one in which it is the Russians who owe a debt,” he said. “It is often carelessly – or intentionally – forgotten that during the raids of the Wehrmacht many Russian museums were systematically plundered.”

The Gothic windows, removed from the church during the war by the Germans to protect them from bombing, were among train loads of art treasures hauled back to Russia, along with prisoners, industrial and consumer goods.

After protracted negotiations, 111 of the medieval panes were returned in 2002, restored and reinstalled at the church.

The last six, representing scenes from the Old Testament, were believed destroyed until 2005 when they were discovered at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. It took another three years to win agreement for their return to Germany.

Disputes over art treasures seized during and after the war have marred German-Russian relations for years.

In the 1950s, after the death of Stalin, the Kremlin authorized the return to Germany of 1.5 million works of art, including the celebrated Pergamon Altar, built in the second century BCE and now one of Berlin’s top tourist attractions. But further negotiations have proven difficult.

In 1997 the Russian parliament passed a law declaring artwork seized from Germany to be rightful spoils of war to compensate for the sacking of its own collections.

This has allowed the Pushkin Museum, for example, to hold on to the so-called ‘Priam Treasure’, bronze and gold artifacts dating back to Homeric times, which were dug up in the 1870s by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann at the site of the ancient city of Troy.

Many of these treasures, including that of Priam, were held secretly for years after the war in Russian museum stock rooms and only recently brought out to be put on public display.

In 2007, for example, the Pushkin Museum staged a major exhibition of 700 Merovingian artifacts that had disappeared from Berlin in 1945 and that were believed destroyed.

Germany has encountered similar problems in seeking the return of art treasures from other former Soviet republics.

Last summer, a couple of German tourists visiting a museum in Simferopol, southern Ukraine, stumbled across 87 paintings which had belonged to a museum in Aachen before the war.

German authorities, who thought they had been destroyed, have now started negotiating their return.

But German foreign ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner recently acknowledged that this was a “sensitive” subject given the fact that “Ukraine lost a lot of its cultural heritage when under German occupation.”

Disputes over war booty are not just limited to the former Eastern Bloc.

Last year the respected news magazine Der Spiegel reported that the French army had also seized a number of paintings from a museum in Wuppertal, in western Germany, at the end of the war.

Several of them, including one Renoir and two Delacroix, are now exposed at the Louvre in Paris, but Germany has preferred to say nothing lest it offend its neighbour and ally, according to the magazine.

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Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays – and will it ever change?

Germany's strict ban on shops opening on Sundays can be a shock to foreigners. We looked at the culture around it, and spoke to one of the country's largest trade unions to find out if things are ever likely to change.

Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays - and will it ever change?

It’s Sunday. You’ve invited people for dinner, but you’ve forgotten the most important ingredient. Tough luck – you’ll either have to do without or wait until Monday because your local shops are shut. 

Most of us are familiar with this inconvenience, and perhaps you’ve even found yourself screaming: “Why?” in frustration in front of a locked-up supermarket. 

But it’s something us adopted Germans have had to get used to. We decided to take a look at the reasons behind Germany’s ban on Sunday shopping – and to find out if it might change in future. 

Where does the rule come from?

The Sonntagsruhe or ‘Sunday rest’ principle is an integral part of German culture, so much so that it is enshrined in the German constitution (Grundgesetz).

Article 140 of the law, which has remained unchanged since 1919, says: “Sundays and state-recognised public holidays remain protected by law as days of rest from work and spiritual upliftment.” 

But the practice of not working on Sunday has been around for much longer. The idea that the seventh day of the week is a day of rest dates back to the old testament and was declared a general day of rest across the Roman Empire as early as 321, by Roman Emperor Constantine.

In the centuries since, however, most of Europe has gradually relaxed the strict ban on commercial activities on Sundays. 

But in Germany, the rules remain restrictive. It’s unlikely to change anytime soon partly because of religious reasons, and also in relation to the interests of workers.

Germany’s biggest trade union Verdi spelled out their view. “It’s not ‘modern’ to work seven days a week,” they told The Local. “That’s the Middle Ages.” 

What exactly does the law mean?

On the face of it, the German law forbids all forms of work on Sundays and public holidays, though numerous exceptions are laid out in the Working Time Act. 

As well as emergency and rescue services, hospitals, nursing and care facilities, exceptions include cultural and sporting activities, and the hospitality sector. 

Another notable exemption to the rule is bakeries, which are allowed to open for three hours on Sundays – which is why you may often find a long queue at your local baker if you want to get your freshly baked Brötchen on Sunday morning. 

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery.

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mohssen Assanimoghaddam

Illustrating how seriously the rule can be taken in Germany, there have even been cases of bakeries being sued for selling bread for too long on Sundays.

Shops, however, aren’t exempt from the rule and, the only way they can legally open on a Sunday is on a so-called verkaufsoffener Sonntag – Sunday trading day.

In most federal states, shops are allowed to open on between four and eight Sundays per year, and the States can decide when these should be. The chosen days must, however, be linked to a relevant occasion – such as a local festival, a market, a trade fair, or a similar event. 

Sunday openings also have to be recognisable as an exception to the general rule and Sunday openings that have already been approved can often be later overturned by the courts.

How strictly is the rule enforced?

Retailers who break the rules and open for business on Sunday can face fines ranging between €500 and €2,500.

The strictness of enforcement can vary widely between different regions.

In Berlin, for example, you can still find lots of Spätis (late night shops) open on Sundays. Although this is technically illegal, the authorities in the capital seem to take more of a relaxed approach to enforcement than in other states. 

A "Späti" late-night shop in Berlin.

A “Späti” late-night shop in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Florian Schuh

In the traditionally Catholic state of Bavaria, for example, the law is much more strictly guarded and enforced.

READ ALSO: Why Germany has strict shop opening hours

Is the law likely to change?

A survey by Spiegel in 2017 showed that 61 percent of Germans wanted to be able to shop on a Sunday, and this desire is shared by the trade industry.

The German Trade Association, for example, which represents around 400,000 independent companies, has strongly criticised Germany’s refusal to budge on the issue of Sunday openings on several occasions and argued that Sunday opening is also popular with staff, with many shop assistants appreciating the work in a more relaxed atmosphere.

In its latest statement on the issue, the association stated that, especially after following the economic impact of the pandemic, many retailers would benefit greatly from being able to open on Sundays. 

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“It is remarkable that in no other EU country Sunday opening is as restricted as in Germany,” the association said. “Even in strongly Catholic EU countries such as Italy and Poland, shoppers can generally shop on Sundays. The same applies to France, although they place great value on culture and socialising.”

However, even if there is a widespread desire in some quarters to allow Sunday trading, an amendment to the constitution would require the consent of two-thirds of the German parliament. Also, there remains strong opposition to changing the rule from many workers’ groups and trade unions.

Trade union Verdi, which regularly files complaints against states and organisations which seek to deviate from Sunday trading restrictions, said that Sunday rest is still very important for workers.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb | Arne Dedert

A spokesperson said: “We have just one day a week when employers can’t stop us from going to football together, meeting friends, attending cultural events, or spending free time with the whole family.

“And we want to keep it that way. There are six days a week when we can go shopping, take the car to the garage, do our banking, or get the package delivered from the online retailer. On Sunday, there has to be peace and quiet.”

The Verdi spokesperson added that it’s important to think about “work-life balance, and not about being available 24/7 for a company”.

We also asked the union if the law looks set to change in the near future.

The spokesperson said: “Sunday, which is a non-working day for most people, has so far been protected by the majority of political parties in Germany.

“Verdi, with its almost two million members, continues to work to ensure that working on Sunday does not become an everyday occurrence.”

So it appears that the culture shock for many non-Germans of shops being closed on Sundays won’t change anytime soon. 

READ ALSO: From nudity to sandwiches – the biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Germany

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